A good debate has been running in the comments to Cory’s post, but I’ve started a new post to encourage more readers to join the coversation. Are there really “good” and “bad” songs, or is everything personal preference? Is there a difference between “good” music, and “liking” music? Read what Mr. Furious, Cory Alan, Franz Clobberfist, and JT have written, and join in.

IF WE ASSERT THAT BEETHOVEN AND CREED are of different aesthetic value, then we must seek grounds on which to base our judgement. Most people think and act as if this assertion were; Cory writes, “I know you would probably agree with me that a band like The Beatles is objectively better than a band like Creed, regardless of how many people like either band however much.” It is in that light that I read Cory’s original post, and his comments on: originality, honesty, catchiness, and a certain self-serving quality. Conducting our examination with a clear example (like Beethoven / Creed, though the Beatles / Creed is certainly clear enough for most purposes) helps create understanding so we can talk over the finer points (Bright Eyes / Radiohead) with clarity.

This position states that an objective reality exists (i.e. is a form of “realism”), and it is within this objective realm that an aesthetic object (like a song) has its ultimate aesthetic value. It is more or less “good” in reality. Cory is a realist: “But truth and objectivity are completely independent from our PERCEPTIONS of truth and objectivity… a song’s quality is independent from whether one likes it or not.” But along comes Franz (or Kant) to rightly remind us that under no conditions can a person know or experience this objective reality – knowledge and experience is ALWAYS colored by subjectivity.

So should we give up trying to say anything meaningful about objective reality? Franz and the relativists say “Yes” – whether that reality exists or not is an open question for relativists (i.e. Beethoven = Creed people) but regardless, relativists think that no meaningful statements can be made about it. Realists (i.e. Beethoven > Creed) answer “No” – and cross the gap between subjective experience and objective reality by a variety of means including logic, conventions of language, and judging statements by standards like coherence or utilitarian value. The details cross the line of feasibility for this forum. Yet there is much at stake in this debate, more for how to live one’s life than for evaluating music. If a person accepts that some meaningful statements about an objective reality can be made, the immediate question here is finding some that deal with musical value.

Franz has anticipated this point: “Aren’t judgement calls subjective?” Yes, and no. I’ve admitted that there is a subjective aspect to any form of judgement – but that does not mean that the subjective part is the ONLY part of an evaluation. For example; Beethoven, Creed, and originality. The 9th Symphony contains more uniqueness than “With Arms Wide Open” – more intricacy in its’ harmonization, more complexity in its’ melodies, more variation in tone, rhythm, and expression. This is not my experience of the music; look at both pieces on paper, and you can see and read the difference. In terms of originality, Beethoven is good music, and Creed is not as good as Beethoven.

Notice that the act or state of “liking” this music hasn’t come into play yet. It’s an interesting question about the relationship between music’s quality and a person’s experience of it, and more so whether there is any kind of obligation to like good music and not like bad music. I won’t try to answer that today. It is this situation Cory referred to; an argument between people who have confused a discussion of good/bad music (as it exists objectively) and what sort of music they like (subjective experience). JT understands; “N’Sync has some songs that are some of my worst guilty pleasures. But that doesn’t mean it’s good, much less great.”

Very, very few people truly act like relativists (though many talk like them, saying things like “that’s just your personal like / dislike!”). From a relativist perspective, I can’t imagine why you would want to say, or hear, any statements about music at all. Even reading a review in which the author writes about their personal experiences, there is definitely a normative quality to the review. The author is suggesting a certain way of hearing the music, a “correct” way that gently excludes or de-values other ways of hearing it. In doing so, the writer asserts some normative value judgement, which necessarily appeals to an objective existence of some form. I’m convinced of the realist position. The real inquiry here is into the terms by which correct aesthetic evaluations are made; a subject which cannot be exhausted or concluded, but will generate fruitful discussion for as long as art exists.

4 thoughts on “MIZZLE CONT'D – AESTHETICS BLOODSPORT (with pillows)”

  1. Mr. Furious- I have to know- are songs rated on a big objective scale, or are songs objectively better than other songs, but only relatively better? Sorry for the bummer. At least I didn’t bring up the metaphysics of metaphysics. But seriously: objective scale, or objective value related to other songs?

    Cory Alan

  2. Short answer, I don’t know. I’m not convinced knowing the answer to that question is even possible.

    Certainly (as I’ve argued) we can make SOME differentiation between the objective aesthetic value of works of art (songs, in this case). But a big objective scale? This is where the “critical” of “critical realism” comes in – we assert that there IS an objective reality, but what we can say about it is necessarily limited by human subjectivity. IF there is a big objective scale, I’m not sure how much of it we could figure out. The method I’ve outlined is pretty good at making comparisons between specific works, but may not translate well into such a large-scale aesthetic.

    The question that illustrates this clearly for me is cross-cultural comparisons. How can I judge the comparative value of Beethoven with the best Ghanaian drum music I’ve heard? I’m not sure anyone’s frame of reference (mine, at least) is big enough to make much of a call there. Beethoven/Creed works, because they’re both Western in context; both value melody, harmony, originality, etc. But Ghanaian music exists in a context of tradition, rhythm, dance, and community – comparing it to Beethoven may not have any meaning.

    I wrote this fast from Dunn Bros. Coffee in Excelsior, so forgive any mistakes or lack of clear explanation.

    Thanks for not raising the metaphysics of metaphysics. :-) Though as I’ve learned a little about metaphysics, it’s kind of cool to think about as long as you can retreat into something else (rock music, whatever) any second you so desire.

  3. I’m reminded of the scene from Dead Poets Society where they first get in the classroom, and they’re reading about how to rate poetry on a scale from 1 -100 in two areas, and the greater surface area of the graph, the greater the poem.

    “Oh, I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to him.”

    They then proceed to tear those pages out of the book and throw them away.

    Sure, we can argue about how much one artist or song is better than another, and we could argue about it for a very long time.

    But you can’t forget that the thing that makes music so great (and any other work of artisty, be it written in words, music, paint, or other) is the experience.

    That’s what great music is all about, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about this for a number of days, and I’ve come to a conclusion: the experience is the most important part of music, be it the participation of the performer or the listener.

    Is it music that you experience, rather than just listen to? Then it’s great. The end.

  4. Great example JT. As the movie shows, it can get silly (or alternatively, reductionistic) to value aesthetics in terms of math. We cannot reduce art to science; it is more.

    We could (and have) argued about art; but we do it because art MATTERS to us. We CARE about art, what we think of a work, what others think, how it relates to other works, what its’ VALUE is. This is one reason why I believe that 98% of us are realists at heart.

    Experience is what makes music meaningful for us. But it is different from aesthetic value. We’ve all had great experiences with terrible songs (see Goldfinger’s cover of “Feel Like Makin’ Love”). And sometimes valuable music doesn’t give us a meaningful experience – lack of understanding/education/context may be the culprit in this case.

    I echo your emphasis on the experience of music as the ground of subjective meaning, though I would not say “That’s what great music is all about, isn’t it?” until I understood what musical property you’re referring to by “great.” I would argue that great aesthetic value is not based on experience – great meaning may very well be.

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