Ayn Rand stated that pure music (as against lyrics or other conceptual content), is impossible to judge objectively as good or bad (due to our current lack of knowledge of the mechanism by which music affects our consciousness) ...
But do you agree, as I do, that the purely musical aspect (again, apart from any lyrical or other conceptual content), though perhaps impossible to judge objectively, is critical to it's pro- or anti-value nature?
And if so, and if it's historically premature to claim an objective evaluation of the purely musical, how best to judge and act on your own judgments, for your own sake, in this regard?
Since music hits the subconscious head-on, it is difficult to objectively identify: "This piece has a pro-value sense of life" or "this piece is anti-value". Music affects us by evoking certain images or thoughts in us. In The Romantic Manifesto, Rand discusses how music is unique in that most forms of art present you with cognitive material and thereby evoke certain emotions, music presents you with emotional material, thereby evoking certain cognitive material in one's mind. One test of the music's value, at least to you, is what kinds of cognitive material it evokes for you. Different people have different reactions to pieces of music. I find some Mozart pieces thoroughly exciting or uplifting; Rand hated Mozart. I guess the appropriate question is not only "how does this piece of music make you feel," because that would be an awfully subjective standard, but "why does it make you feel that way." It's not an iron-clad test (I'm not sure one is possible), but if you can identify why a piece of music makes you feel a certain way, and the reason you identify is pro-value, I'd say that is a decent indicator of the music's value.
On a technical note, while stylistic value is sometimes very difficult to pin down, technical value is not. There is definitely well-written music as well as poorly written music. Human hearing and musical experience follows certain laws just like every other facet of reality. Good music obeys those laws. It might stretch them as far as they will go, but it always stays within nature's rules of music. If you don't believe me, read what post-modern composers have said about their own work. They write with the express purpose of producing ugly music. First and foremost, even if it evokes sad or painful cognitive material, music should be beautiful to be good. Music written to offend the ear is bad. Period.
answered Sep 23 '10 at 17:16
One clue to understanding music is to recall what sort of information we get through hearing. Other than speech, our hearing is an avenue for detecting the movements and actions of things, generally of things at a distance. It marks changes, the approach or retreat of entities, their remote activities, etc.
Because we have two ears, widely separated, the fusion of sensory data of the same sound, which arrives at the L and R ear at different times, and with variations in its energy due to many influences, represents a significant amount of processing by the brain. Putting sound data together is a large part of hearing.
Time is the psychological dimension, and time is the basis of music. Rhythm is the simplest music--and thought to be the oldest kind--and rhythm is a constant that begins in the womb and continues its subtle presence throughout life.
All of these things give music a particular dimension that we might call its being "anticipatory." A beat isn't a beat except in relation to the prior ones and the upcoming ones. In melody, in tonal identity, the musical character of the instant's data depends crucially on its relation to what has gone before, such as what key it is being played in, whether it is a step in a sequence or a part of a chord, etc.
These things are fundamental to music, and to how music can express profound meaning. If music is designed to work against these physiological underpinnings, it will be objectively sub-standard.
This is some of what is relevant to an objective assessment of virtue in music. Being as abstract as it is, consisting almost entirely of formal qualities, music is capable of thematic relations of an impressive scope. Themes and variations are one such example. Fugues, which invert the pattern of notes, and "rounds" that impose the same melody on itself, but with a time delay, are good examples of this cognitive dimension in music.
In cases such as above, the cognitive process of recognizing the complex relationships among the tones--their melodic integrity, their contrapuntal (*see def. in note) integrity, role in a cadence, etc. always with a rhythmic relation, etc., gives the mind material that is "intelligible" in intriguing and satisfying ways.
*Note: "contrapuntal" refers to the structural element of counterpoint in music. Counterpoint is a second melodic line that plays simultaneously with the principal melody. It is constructed so as to complement the primary melody, and/or to create and resolve tensions in the music. Also: a "cadence" is a concluding strain in music. Simple melodies, such as in songs, typically have a half-cadence, and a full cadence. If you listen to a song, "feel" for a temporary "resting-place" in half-way through, and a feeling of "coming home" or "getting back to ground" at the very end. Cadences and helf-cadences are strongly related to the fifth and primary tone of the scale in which the melody is played. 0 To address specifically what is objectively "bad" in music: Repetitiveness in the lyrical (non-rhythmic) aspects of music is uninteresting and plain boring. It doesn't require much attention, it is "obvious," it doesn't allow much range for our powers of anticipation, and doesn't reward those powers. It is indistinct, as it will inevitably bear a strong resemblence in just that formal respect to every other repetitive song (taking a song for our example.)
The most basic structural aspects of a melody, its tonality, and its progression to a cadence (hopefully through a half-cadence) are all impossible in a song that is so repetitive that it simply doesn't exhibit the complexity of these basic features. It is too simple to have structure, basically, and thus too simple to engage and gratify the mind. (Most such songs appeal through vocally delivered emotion, accompanied by the shock-value of its language.)
At a higher level of analysis, poor music lacks the logical structure to support its thematic elements. Wagner is a good example of this. His grand/grandiose musical statements of triumph do not arise from musically expressed grounds. They create the same intellectual dissatisfaction that assertions without reasons do.
These are just a couple of ways that music can objectively be identified as bad. If these characteristics are the chief ones of a piece of music, an objective judgment can be made, but if they are only some of its characteristics, they must be put into perspective with those others.
In response to the final question, in bold: Introspect what in your psychology a given piece of music connects with. Does it express your anger at the world? Does it remind you of the viability of romantic love? Does it fit your mood when everything is going wrong? Further, see if you can tell HOW the music affects that part of your psyche. Does it increase your anger? Does it give you courage to fight back? Does it vindicate you or calm your anxieties or help you escape into a dream world? Then, of course, you consider soberly whether that is a good effect or not, looking long-range and dispassionately at yourself as best you can.
Music can be used to drown out the world, to strengthen one's rationalizations, to justify one's guilt, or to numb your mind altogether. It can also serve to re-inspire you, to freshen your sense of life, to celebrate life and self, to soldier on with resolution, to put grief in perspective, etc. You can evaluate a piece of music at least in part in terms of what effect the music's effect has on your mind and equanimity.