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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000458.txt from 2001/07

From: "emily worthington" <>
Subj: Re: [kl] music and musicianship
Date: Mon, 16 Jul 2001 16:42:39 -0400

WARNING: Long, absract post! ;-)

I'm finding this thread very interesting. The concept of quality in music
has been lurking in the back of my mind for several months, ever since I was
challenged on the subject in two seperate university interviews (when the
lecturers saw I was taking philosophy A level and asked about the connection
with music. It wasn't a question that I was prepared for so some interesting
bluffing and invention occurred, followed by some hairy debate!)Here are
some assorted ponderings.

What seems to underly the debate here is a fundamental difference of opinion
as to what 'quality' in music actually is. (incidentally a very good
semi-fiction book 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance' by Robert M
Pirsig deals with this and a range of other quality- and arts-related
philosophical debates, it is a good read if you have the time to chew it

The first problem is whether one believes in an objective standard of 'good
music', that some music has 'quality' which cannot be denied. This would
make the statement 'x is bad music' similar to saying '2+2@-----. It seems
apparent from the arguments which have occurred over the last few days that
this is probably not the case - and even if there were an objective
standard, identifying it and having it accepted universally (both of which
are essential for it to be of any use) would surely be impossible. (Again I
cite the debate that has occurred here as evidence of this. Just imagine if
someone claimed that their opinion was absolutely and incontravertably the
objective truth, and how the rest of the list would react).

So if there is no objective standard, how can we judge music? Surely we
cannot say that the performances of first-lesson beginner and a great
virtuoso, or a boy band's manufactured pop song and a Mahler symphony are
all equal in quality? Wouldn't render the hard work of the virtuoso, and the
intellectual effort of Mahler, pointless? (I know I'm treading a fine line
with that boy-band comment, but bear with me). There must be another way.

Music itself, IMO, is something of a chance occurrence. That is to say, why
do we consider a Beethoven melody to be this abstract thing we call 'music',
whilst nails on a blackboard are merely 'sound'? It is a boundary which is
constantly being pushed, similarly in other arts (Anyone familiar with the
controversy which annually surrounds the Turner Prize will know exactly what
i mean). Any definition of music in terms of sounds or effects will surely
fall short of embracing 'Four minutes Thirty-Three'. If one cannot even
distinguish music from silence, how can one justify any claim that some
music is superior to other music?

Yet there clearly are distinctions. Perhaps one could consider the concept
of function. What is the function of music? A good knife is one that cuts
well, be it a Sabatier or a piece of sharpened flint. One could say that (to
a dancer, at least) a
good piece of dance music is one which facilitates enjoyable dancing. So a
good piece of music is one that fulfills the function of music to the
individual in question. (Please
accept my apologies for this plagarism of Aristotle's Ethics. It was one of
my set texts. The old boy has his uses after all!)

One function of music must be to do with emotional response. Many of you
have reported various types of music you enjoy, that which you tolerate,
that which leaves you cold or which you couldn't live without. For me, the
music I rate as great is that which provokes a certain emotional response -
for instance a Beethoven symphony, or a Brahms Piano trio, within which I
discover new depths every time I hear or play them. A level below
that comes that which I enjoy, but which I find lacks depth for me - the
kind of music that I tire of listening to repeatedly. The Beatles go in this
band. At the bottom of the
pileI would put music which leavs me cold - among which (since we are
discussing the Beatles) is the program of a concert broadcast in memory of
Paul McCarteney's wife. If I remember correctly, it was a program of
'classical' music (orchestral, string quartets etc) written by him. I found
it completely flat and uninvolving, as i do all his solo work. It lacks the
x-factor which makes me like the Beatles. However to someone who reacts
differently to music, for whatever reason (socio-cultural pre-dispositions,
ie nurture, associations with past experiences and familiarity with certain
styles of music are common factors) this list could easily be reversed. All
of this can also be applied to musicianship and interpretation. For
instance, though I respect Emma Johnson's technical accomplishment, I don't
rate her performances as they fail to engage me in the way that other
performers do. Others may feel differently.

Respect is another branch of the debate. We tend to respect hard work and
effort. innovation and sacrifice in others even if the result doen't appeal
to us emotionally. This is particularly true if others do find the result
appealing. Parallels could be drawm here with religion I think...

But perhaps another day? I've run out of steam, and started to disagree with
myself. This is a hugely complicated subject which I have tried, and failed
to get to grips with so I think I'll leave it to stew and hope I haven't
offended or bored too many people. What I am trying to say, I think, is that
in order to pass judgements on who is or isn't a musician, you have to know
what a musician (or artist, as someone suggested) is, and what their
function is, what you expect of them. There are many levels one could judge
the Beatles on and none of them are wrong. Differences of opinion are what
make life interesting!

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