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Ayn Rand wrote the following, on music:

"Until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music"

Could it be said that a piece of music may have been written by a composer who's basic philosophy, and perhaps even sense of life, was irrational, but that the music itself, when heard by someone with a rational sense of life, could be uplifting?

For example, I deeply enjoy the works of both Anton Bruckner and Maurice Ravel. It's hard to think of two more polar opposites, in terms of basic premises. Bruckner was very religious, while Ravel seems to more of a naturalist, portraying life as it is, rather than as it might/ought to be.

Yet in certain works of both composers (namely, Bruckner's 7th Symphony and Ravel's Bolero), I personally find great enjoyment despite intellectually being at odds with both composers, because for me personally, I feel the music as uplifting and life-affirming.

It seems that, at times, these composers may have lapsed on their basic principles, and created the most beautiful works that seem incapable of doing anything but praising life and man.

Does this mean that the appraisal of music is subjective, depending on how the individual interprets it?

Or is it that music can potentially be appraised objectively, but that such appraisal isn't yet possible, due to our limited knowledge of how the human mind interprets music?

asked Nov 12 '11 at 00:50

Jonathan%20Conway's gravatar image

Jonathan Conway

You're really asking two completely different questions. The main question you're actually asking is whether a person can have a bad philosophy, yet produce a good work of music (and the same question applies equally to any form of art, from painting to poetry). This is quite distinct from the ostensible question, which is whether appraising music is subjective.

To the first question, the answer is emphatically "yes." The primary purpose of art is to concretize the artist's sense of life, which is different from his or her explicit philosophy. One can have a magnificent sense of life, even if one's explicit philosophy contradicts that sense of life. Life is short, and it's possible to carry a contradictory, inconsistent, conflicted package of ideas and emotions for many years.

Your ostensible question, whether it is possible to appraise music objectively, is somewhat more complicated.

I think that music is objective, in the sense that it conveys a certain emotion, and no other. The evidence for this is that any given piece of music provokes the same (or very similar) emotional responses in widely disparate listeners. Let a thousand people listen to a piece by Metallica, and see if any of them finds it to be a soothing love song. You won't have a lot of takers. There is remarkable consistency in responses to music, at the basic emotional-response level.

Of course, whether you appreciate a given piece of music is a different issue. I have friends who love Metallica. I don't. The motions it evokes do not jibe with my sense of life. So, while I wouldn't say that appreciating music is subjective, I would say it's highly personal: it depends entirely on your own sense of life.

A further complication is that music can involve even more accidental personal connections, such as what stage of life you were in when you heard a particular piece of music, where you were, what was happening to you, etc. There are certain songs that for me are intimately twined with the charmed days of pre-adolescence, when my conceptual awareness was first awakening, and those songs are irreplaceably precious to me. If you could prove a hundred times over that one of those songs is objectively ill-crafted, it wouldn't change a thing for me, because the emotional associations are too powerful. I think there are limits to this — it's hard for me to imagine that Metallica would ever have held the same place in my mind — but within a range of songs that appeal to my sense of life, there are certain ones that, per accidens, happen to have done so more strongly than others.

answered Nov 12 '11 at 08:35

Robert%20Garmong's gravatar image

Robert Garmong ♦

It is also true that people have secondary responses to music. For instance, on hearing a sweet song, they might think "This music is happy, but I don't like it. Such music is childish or superficial," indicating that they think that happiness is only for children or other non-deep thinkers.

(Nov 12 '11 at 10:50) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

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Asked: Nov 12 '11 at 00:50

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Last updated: Nov 12 '11 at 10:50