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Musical Aesthetics

It’s been two years since I updated my blogging on music, but alas it’s finally time to get up to speed! I promised I’d get around to it in my inaugural post here last year, where I listed my best and favorite blogs from my previous blogspot (which I still maintain, frozen in time), all except my blogging on music, which I said I’d get to later. Well, here it is. The latest in musical science, philosophy, and likes. I’ll brief the “boring” stuff (philosophy and science) and then get into my latest musical playlist and how it confirms my previously-blogged theory that we live in a “postmusical age” (a phrase that doesn’t mean what you think). Ready? Here we go…

Philosophy of Music

To get to the science, we first need a wrap up on the philosophy: I discuss the metaphysics and epistemology of aesthetics as part of my naturalist worldview in Sense and Goodness without God (Part VI: Natural Beauty, pp. 349-66). I used the neuroscience of visual beauty response as my primary example, but I note that similar principles apply across the aesthetic spectrum, including the domain of music. Aesthetics is a subject often neglected by philosophers, even philosophers keen on building worldviews. (Which is why I was so happy that I got to talk a lot about it in my favorite interview about my naturalist philosophy for the presently-dormant Polyschismatic Reprobates Hour [that link is an mp3 download].)

Understanding the best attributes of art and beauty and their causes and effects adds an important dimension to human experience, happiness, communication and understanding. Our aesthetic response is partly evolved, partly cultural, and partly idiosyncratic. But it always has its basis in the biology of the brain. And it has fundamental adaptive functions evolved into us over vast spans of time. And part of that started with our sophisticated use of sound to communicate. (Hence of all animals likely to be found in the average home, only humans and birds independently evolved the ability to perceive and respond to rhythm–basically, your pets don’t hear music, they just hear noise…unless your pet is a bird; or a gimp locked in a trunk or something…consensually, we hope).

My three principles of higher art (the functions we add on to art’s biological foundations to make art greater than something it would otherwise be) are art’s fulfillment of the roles of communication, education, and display of skill (VI.3.3, pp. 363-66). And my favorite demonstration of how music can fulfill those roles are the interviews with composer Greg Edmonson on the artistic decisions he made in scoring the series Firefly (IMO, one of the most brilliant film scores ever made, and it wasn’t even for a film) [he is briefly interviewed in the making-of-Firefly special feature on disk four of the series DVD set, and again in Done the Impossible], and its theoretical analysis by Jennifer Golz (“Listening to Firefly”) in Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (ed. by Jane Espenson, 2005), pp. 209-15–combined, of course, with a hearing of the score itself.

Science of Music

But for Sense and Goodness without God I chose visual aesthetics as my paradigm example because at the time that was the one field in which the scientific study of aesthetic perception was the most advanced. And good philosophy always builds on and coheres with the well-established findings of the sciences. But since my book came out in 2005, the science of aesthetics exploded with all manner of new studies, which have essentially confirmed the general philosophy that I laid out in my book (to catch up, read Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution [2010] and Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like [2010]).

These new scientific studies include the aesthetics of literature (Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel [2006] and Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative [2008]), the aesthetics of smell (Rachel Herz, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell [2007]) the aesthetics of humor (from before I published, there was Robert Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation [2000], but now there is Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams Jr., Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind [2011]) and play (Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul [2009]), and of course the aesthetics of music.

Top works on that subject now include:

All of these fields are very young and new, so not all their claims and theories are necessarily well-established or true, but you can see tremendous progress already toward increasingly verified conclusions in all these domains. The overall finding is that music is both a byproduct of our various neurological tools of communication, and a tool in itself adapted to communicate emotion and coordinate action, and may have co-adapted to facilitate social cohesion and sexual selection.

As to that last possibility, whether biologically or not, it has certainly been culturally adapted to those functions; but an example of evidence that it has biologically evolved to promote social cohesion is the fact that rhythm perception in the brain is deeply integrated with motor control: beats are hard-wired to be infectious, which cannot easily be explained as a byproduct of language use, but looks more like serving the function of community harmonization (playing music together; dancing to music). Evidence of its role in sexual selection include links between sexual arousal and musical and harmonic performance (the ability to sing, play, and dance well), and the fact that a passion for music tends to arise and peak in intensity around and shortly after puberty. These features could have other explanations, but they certainly do have some explanation. They are not accidental.

What science can also help us explain is why we like what we like, why we universally respond in certain ways to certain kinds of music, how musical pleasure is generated, and how we can make use of these facts to enrich our experience and better our lives. Science is making great strides toward these ends already. But that’s the biological and objective side of the matter. Now to the cultural and subjective…

What Is the Postmusical Age?

My blogging on music began with The Postmusical Age. Apart from explaining how eclectic and undefinable my musical interests were, the basic thesis of it was this:

I’ve been telling people about a realization I’ve had: we now live in a Postmusical Age. I don’t mean music is dead. Quite the contrary. It has finally arrived. Every decade of the 20th century has had its distinctive “sound.” The teens and twenties had their jives and folk ditties, and the 30s and 40s evolved into big band (I still love Glenn Miller) and pre-rock pop like The Ink Spots (which I love even more). And then the 50s spawned rock and roll, Elvis became the King, and there definitely was some good stuff going around then (though I have a hard time finding the grittier roadhouse stuff I like rather than the radio bopper crap, but that’s another story–any help with great 50s music would be appreciated!).

Still, the first half of the 20th century generally isn’t my area of expertise. Stock sounds become much clearer to me after that. The 60s had such a distinctive sound you need merely name the decade and everyone can hear its music. The 70s, again, with its Disco and protean metal and punk–though diversity was rising, you can still peg almost any song to that decade when you hear it. The 80s, once again, with its New Wave, and though a diversity of alternative sounds was rising even more, you can still peg almost any tune to that decade. But in the 90s, things started falling apart. You had Grunge, and so-called “Alternative Rock” (which I still call “Alternative to Talent”…sorry, but the 90s was the worst decade ever for music). Along with this came a general confusion and creative malaise. No one was really sure what the 90s should sound like. But they cobbled together a kind of banal sound, which you can still peg to that decade, as bland and pretentious as it was.

And then the 21st century began. And sound was no more. There is no distinctive sound now. None. Zero. There is no identifiably 00’s music. Why? Because every sound is now explored, and often brilliantly. People are doing what they want rather than what the decade expects. Real creativity, true freedom from the constraints of cultural and corporate expectation, truly rules the music scene now. And I don’t mean the pop crap that radios play and corporations still peddle. I’m not talking about bulk sales. By “rule” I don’t mean “at the bank.” I mean the good stuff that’s being made and sold, often under the boring crowd’s radar, stuff that’s being heard the world round, regardless of whether it makes millions or is even noticed by the bland masses. New technology has made this possible, at every stage of the game, from composition, recording, and mixing, to distribution and consumption. Now anyone with talent can join the fray–and not only make great music, but sell it, and actually expect people, anywhere, to buy it and listen to it. All on the relative cheap.

I then gave a tour of my latest music list to illustrate the point: retro-50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s music is being produced next to creative hybrids of them next to experimenting with completely new sounds. Just listen to Nouvelle Vague, Goldfrapp, Belle & Sebastian, Queens of the Stone Age, Lily Allen, and Arcade Fire and try to figure out what their decade’s “sound” is. There isn’t one. It’s all divergent. Yet all brilliant. I don’t think this will change. There will never again be a “sound” distinguishing a decade. Art has been liberated.

After making my point with a whole tour of examples, I then updated that list year after year. If you want the whole tour (which is essentially a tour of my favorite music all up to 2010; this post will get you up to 2012, but I still listen to all of it) here is a complete link-list in chronological order (I’ve rigged each link so it will open a new window or tab and not take you away from here; if that feature works with your browser):

But now on to the latest…

The Latest Best and Greatest

Many of the artists I mentioned or praised in previous posts have come back with more good work since. Too much to survey. So I’ll just mention the new stuff, and how it reflects my Postmusical Thesis. Except I have to mention the latest by Garbage (Not Your Kind of People), Arcade Fire (The Suburbs), Moby (Destroyed), Schiller (Breathless), and Ringside (Lost Days). Because those are such masterpieces you really can’t afford not to have heard them. And they are, altogether, a living example of our postmusical age.

That said, now to the new. Everything I’ll list below is on my playlist and among my favorites (collected since 2010).

I’ve been discovering a lot of new, cool music over the years not only from reading the music reviews in The Week but also from watching So You Think You Can Dance, in which professional dancers and choreographers produce often brilliant works of performance and dance art in competition–a show that alone often captures and exemplifies my three higher virtues of art; if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this, this, this, and this. That last piece in particular is an example of what I mean here: it introduced me to DeVotchKa, a postmusical group if ever there was one.

Of course by now everyone has noticed Swedish pop star Lykke Li (you haven’t? get a listen…that’s a postmusical girl). And I hardly need tell you about Adele or Florence and the Machine, or Gotye or The Black Keys (I don’t like everything they all do, but I love a lot of it, and altogether they also demonstrate the postmusical). But have you heard Kasabian? It’s rare that any group produces one album almost the whole of which is great (usually even for good artists you cherry pick the brilliant stuff and leave the often outnumbering failures behind). Kasabian has produced four. Try it. Listen to what the Beatles would sound like if they were still playing today (and had evolved as they always did, absorbing the influences of the last forty years). This is now my favorite band (second perhaps only to The Black Angels). They combine 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s sounds and add in the original and new, to produce a classic postmusical product.

And hey, want to hear a postmusical hybrid of oldtimey big band having sex with modern pop and sixties soul and giving birth to another British white girl who does Motown better than Motown did? Just like Duffy, Joss Stone, and Amy Winehouse, yet Paloma Faith sounds like none of them–welcome to the postmusical age! Just listen to her tracks “Upside Down” and “Broken Doll” to get an idea of what she’s about, and then realize how different this is from anything else going on today, how much it really doesn’t fit any identifiable “sound” of this or the last decade, how much it incorporates retro elements, yet would not have fit into any past decade whose sounds it borrows. Then contrast Paloma with Phantogram (Eyelid Movies) and you’ll see what postmusical means.

Then there are film scores, which I have always said are the “classical music” of our era. They are written by the Mozarts and Beethovens of our age. Because movies are really the modern operas. The film score to Inception (by Hans Zimmer) is an example of the recent best, but surprisingly so is the film score to the 80s post-apocalyptic “wigga” film parody The FP (score by George Holdcroft).

My wife and I watched The FP one night because it was in the On Demand queue and looked and sounded like one of the worst movies ever made. After the first five minutes it was already so appalling we really couldn’t tell if it was mind-blowingly offensive or a deliberate parody–we had to pause and grab the iPad and find out. It’s a parody. And as such, awesome. I won’t describe it further. Unfortunately no one can be “told” what The FP is. You have to see it for yourself (click to watch the film trailer…warning, offensive language and nudity). When my wife heard I’d bought the entire film score she thought for a moment I was lame…until she listened to it…and admitted it was, okay, like, totally awesome. Imagine the best 80s film score possible for a Warriors-Repo Man-Assault on Precinct 13 genre flick, and that’s the film score to The FP. It’s something when a parody becomes even better than what it parodies. And lo, this did.

But it’s not the greatest achievement these last few years. One of the most brilliant film scores produced in a very long time is the score to Tron: Legacy (by Daft Punk). Say what you will about the movie, the music is a 100% must-have. But this is just as true of Trent Reznor’s score to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (for which Reznor paired with Atticus Ross). That last I especially love, not only because it’s so brilliant yet so unlike anything ever done before, but because I had always wondered why he had never done this, ever since I heard “A Warm Place” on The Downward Spiral (for those who don’t know, Reznor essentially is Nine Inch Nails), one of the most beautiful compositions ever produced by a heavy metal band, bizarrely out of place on that album, but to this day my favorite NIN track. Well, my wondering was answered when Reznor finally did indeed produce a film score. And it’s as good as I expected it to be.

That wraps up my latest. Now you know what I’m listening to. And how wildly diverse it is. And how postmusical.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Richard,

    If I understand you correctly, you say we live in a ‘post-musical’ age because there is no longer any distinctive sound that can be identified with the first decades of this century?

    Richard Martin

    • says

      Yes. That is, no distinctive sound in the way there were distinctive sounds for every decade of the 20th century. (Except in the meta-sense: the distinctive sound of our decade is that there is no distinctive sound of our decade. But even that will soon not be true, as I expect any decade in the 21st century will “sound” the same in that respect.)

  2. josefjohann says

    I think Semir Zeki’s budding project on Neuroaesthetics is an interesting general purpose field. He’s even got a blog and a website with what I think is a very nice manifesto on Neuroaesthetics.

    He has attracted criticism from others about “the limits of neuroscience” (here in a nyt op-ed). What’s fascinating to me is, we appear to be at a point where neuroscience can effectly deal with the laymen contention that all of aesthetics is irreducibly subjective and outside the scope of science. For some this is a very controversial issue, and I think it is very important to push for advancement in public understanding on the issue.

    I would go so far as to say that anti-scientific beliefs about the nature of aesthetics and their relation to the objective world are among the most prevalent anti-scientific beliefs held by people today.

    • says

      I agree that “anti-scientific beliefs about the nature of aesthetics and their relation to the objective world are among the most prevalent anti-scientific beliefs held by people today.” Sadly such anti-scientific beliefs are rife within the scientific community as well, and Zeki is a champion of them. Zeki’s whole project proceeds from philosophically naive premises to unjustifiable conclusions via mildly interesting excursions into the neuroscience of very basic aesthetic phenomena – and this is characteristic of some of the foremost figures in the field of “neuroesthetics” (Ramachandran has done some poor work, as has Martindale). Levitin, although in general an excellent researcher, also succumbs to some methodologically questionable decisions in his work, with some of his experiments wildly over claiming.

      Evolutionary “explanations” of art are often equally problematic, and I’d include Dutton’s (in my view shallow and generally uninteresting) book in this category. I’m glad to see you put in a caveat regarding these studies, noting that “All of these fields are very young and new, so not all their claims and theories are necessarily well-established or true.” This is a critical reminder.

      What’s needed for neuroesthetics to be a valuable enterprise, in my view, is a solid grounding in a defensible and rigorous philosophical aesthetics, so that experiments can be designed which do not beg questions or focus on aspects of the aesthetic experience which are not so important. At least we could develop a common language which would enable researchers to dialogue meaningfully with each other on these topics.

      I’ve written at length on the challenges of this field below, and will have a chapter in a new OUP book on the topic next year:

      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2011.01103.x/abstract

    • josefjohann says

      James, have you made this argument (or similar arguments) in any publicly accessible space on the internet?

  3. josefjohann says

    Also, I want to say I strongly agree with your July 07 The Postmusical Age post that Pandora is overrated. Once you are deep enough into your search for new music, Pandora actually drags you back toward the common taste more than it introduces new material to you.

    However I’ve found Last.fm similar artists to be somewhat helpful. For your given favorite artist, there will be several mildly satisfying similar artists at the top of the results. And if you are willing to look through all 25 pages of similar artists, you will find at least one fantastic artist. It’s a lot of work but worth it in my opinion.

    The last suggestion I would make is to pay attention to what music influenced your favorite artists, which they often share in interviews. I heard an interview with a member from Jaga Jazzist, who claimed Joanna Newsom as an influence. This is how I discovered my most favorite artist ever. It is also apparently Luke Muelhauser’s favorite artist ever, for whatever that’s worth.

  4. gothicemperor says

    Reznor also cooperated for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s lead singer Karen O. The Yeah yeah yeahs are probably one of my favourite groups in the post-punk rock ‘genre’ (it’s a very wide ‘genre’, though). Speaking of post-punk, it’s also very post-musical, taking inspiration and musical styles from every decade since the 50’s.

    Mind you, that does mean that almost all music today is ‘retro’ in a way. Has there come an end of musical history, to paraphrase Fukuyama? I don’t know, I just listen.

    • says

      That most music today is somehow retro (using the sounds of previous decades) does not mean it is wholly so. There are sounds and techniques being used today that have no 20th century precedent. But you are right, musical history from here on out will just be a track list with artist bios. The ability to identify a decade by its sound is probably a thing of the past.

      I’m also a fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, and I agree with your assessment. (I listed them in one of my previous blogs on music as an example of the postmusical phenomenon featured on my own playlists.)

    • Siod says

      But you also briefed us on your philosophy and science of aesthetics; I was wondering how they deal with profoundly weird examples of music that people love (Trout Mask Replica being a perfect example). And Scaruffi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piero_Scaruffi) rates The Black Angels as average while he rates Faust’s I(profoundly weird) as one of best albums ever.

      If you need a more modern example, how about noise rock, or something like the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4v3gz5zU6k

    • says

      Siod:

      I was wondering how they deal with profoundly weird examples of music that people love

      It all depends on what criteria they are using to force rank different music. The more idiosyncratic the criteria, the less objective the measure you end up with. (And those seem to be using very idiosyncratic criteria.)

      More objective measures derive from universals of music aesthetic response in the human brain (first) and the most widely shared commonalities of a particular culture, subculture, or listener-type (second).

      The latter refers to the way music ranks with respect to certain modifications of the brain basics within various cultures and subcultures. Thus a really good critic can force rank music according to how much pleasure it will produce in a country music fan and then force rank that same music according to how much pleasure it will produce in a punk rock fan; the two rankings will not be the same, and neither will be any more “correct” than they other, they will only be “correct” or “incorrect” with respect to what they claim, which is the pleasure factor that that music will typically produce within the given subculture. The same can be done not with respect to subcultures but with respect to cross-cultural memes. For example, some people across many different subcultures still share common preferences (either due to biological differences or differences in their background or personality), and one can force rank music by “type” of music listener in that fashion as well.

      But the most objective measures will remain, and because of this people in a given subculture or listener-type can be taught to appreciate the artistic value of works outside their usual appreciation zone (and can even learn that their favorite music sucks and start to go off it). Once you learn, for example, how complex or ingenious a particular composition is, how skilled the artists have to be to play it, how well it communicates the meaning and emotion it was aiming at by playing on universal sound response in the brain, and how much better it activates pleasure centers of the brain than alternatives, you can start to love a particular artist whom you might never have appreciated or liked before (and start to dislike an artist whom you now realizes scores low, or lower, on all these objective measures).

    • Siod says

      Thanks for your reply.

      So, basically, your explanation entails that our aesthetic response is partly evolved, partly cultural, and partly idiosyncratic, but any factor can dominate another. So, I assume then that the objective part comes in with whatever is a cultural universal (i.e., not bound to culture or idiosyncrasy but fundamentally human). Assuming I’m not misunderstanding you, do we know of any cultural universals re aesthetic response, and if so would they agree with more aged cultures?

      (I ask if cultural universals re aesthetic response would agree with the standards of more aged cultures, because idiosyncrasies of the elite seem to have a way of diffusing into culture itself. For example, the discordant sounds of traditional Chinese music wouldn’t play well with Western ears. I.e., the appreciation for blue notes is cultural. Couldn’t it also be the case then that something like Trout Mask Replica could overtake the ranking of The Black Angels culturally rather idiosyncratically? And if that’s the case, then shouldn’t we be defining what is objectively good music in terms of ideal observer theory? Because if what is objectively good music (culturally universal) is something we no longer appreciate due to cultural progression, then is your objective criteria for what is good meaningful? Wouldn’t we then just create a new word for aesthetic response like “xifirl response” for what we actually understand as sounding good?)

      I hope that all made sense, and I suspect we’re in agreement with a lot of that. I think we’re we might fundamentally diverge is in what you call the “universal sound response in the brain.” Given the literally complete malleability of what we can love as music (e.g. Derek Bailey), I wonder if such a universal sound response would be meaningful even if real. I suspect there’s a more general function of the brain that allows appreciation of anything. Something like the mere exposure effect.

    • says


      So, basically, your explanation entails that our aesthetic response is partly evolved, partly cultural, and partly idiosyncratic, but any factor can dominate another.

      Not dominate. Combine with or direct.

      The only universals are the neurological ones. Culture and personal factors will then channel how and when those universal neurological factors are stimulated. Culture is really just an extension of the idiosyncratic (people sharing common experiences), so in reality there are only two things: nature and environment. It’s just that we recognize a difference between shared environments (like culture) and unshared niches within those environments (like what actually happens to each of us as we grow up), because they can cause different effects.

      For example, music, like smell, is a strong nostalgia stimulator, and thus can generate pleasure through that channel. Yet the underlying biology does not change (what smells good or bad is a biological universal, with some bell-curve variation; likewise musical stimuli). It could only be overridden by extreme stimulus experience: if the pleasure caused by nostalgia effects far enough outweighs the displeasure caused by the olfactory cortex, you won’t have eliminated the latter but you will still prefer the smell because of the former (horse enthusiasts who acquire an affection for manure, for example: ramp up the strength of the smell and biological displeasure begins to overtake nostalgic pleasure, but ramp it down and nostalgic pleasure overtakes biological displeasure).

      Similarly, the connections between certain musical sounds and emotive response (e.g. screeching violins cause fear) is biologically universal, but whether this is appreciated or disliked will depend on the context and how it’s used (e.g. sometimes people enjoy being scared, or enjoy strong emotional experiences of any kind, as long as they are partaken in safe conditions, which is the role cognition plays in aesthetics, a common example being BDSM vs. actual rape: cognitive context can entirely transform the aesthetic value of [superficially] physically identical circumstances).

      I should also note that by biological “universals” I mean only species-specific universals (and only at our present stage of evolution); they are not cosmic universals. Aliens might have a radically different musical neuroaesthetic, unfathomable or even intolerable to us. But it would be valid for them (their music would cause pleasure to them, in ways we could theoretically predict, once we knew enough about their neurological response systems).

      Although there could be a possible near-universal, if there are inevitable factors of convergent evolution in this domain, e.g. rhythm detection is as obviously the easiest path to action-coordination in social species as jointed limbs are to tool use, and so it might be a near-cosmic-universal. Rhythm appreciation independently evolved in birds and primates, for example, so it might be statistically common throughout the universe, but not necessarily cosmically universal (just as actual jointed limbs are likely to be common among civilized species, but not universal, e.g. squid people or snail people might develop unusual ways to efficient tool use; likewise, music).

      At any rate, when it comes to us expanding our aesthetic horizons, we will expand our understanding and appreciation of the world the more we learn to recognize the value of different genres of music. We need not learn to appreciate all systems of music. But more is better than few. And when we understand what it is about music (biological or environmental) that brings us pleasure, we will be better able to zero in on music that is optimally pleasurable to us, but also we will derive even more pleasure from the music we already liked, by more fully grasping the attributes of it that are pleasurable (like the way learning through skill and experience can turn someone who hates wine into a connoisseur).

    • josefjohann says

      Richard- it should be emphasized that even cultural and individual variation are in an important sense driven by biology.

      Just as water could take any number of paths down a hill, the path it actually takes will be constrained by geography and the properties of water, the paths taken by culture and individuals will be shaped by our neurobiology and the degree to which neuroplasticity is accommodating of change.

      Certain destinations are more likely than others. Sometimes the same kind of aesthetic appreciation can be discovered from two completely different directions. (I think of metal music and some forms of dubstep which both go for extremely “heavy” frizzled tones.)

      At no point is our understanding of music released from the constraints imposed by our biology. It doesn’t just dictate our embedded inclinations, but also the means by which we change to have new inclinations. I think this is important because sometimes people view culture/individual variability as if it’s an independent force that in some sense overrules biology. As if biology is just about hardwired preferences but not about the means by which we change.

  5. Ant Allan says

    This post really deserves a more erudite comment than this, but I’d like to thank you for your earlier recommendation of the new Garbage album, which I bought and like a lot.

    Now you’ve prompted me to preview Paloma Faith’s album, which I might not have done otherwise, and I’ve added that to my (far-too-long) wishlist. But if you like that album, have you heard The Noisettes’ Wild Young Hearts? It seems to be in a similar vein.

    I never expected that FtB would become a source of music recommendations!! (And Ophelia’s got me reading Shakespeare again!!)

    /@

    • says

      The Noisettes…good call. That’s totally postmusical! It’s a little too bubblegum for me. But it is yet one more example of how diverse our music has become.

  6. DW says

    I mostly agree with your postmusical thesis. I guess my take on it would be that there are certainly some distinctive trends in the last decade or so, but none of them have become dominate since they are competing against so many other sounds. So the heavy sub-bass in styles like drum ’n’ bass and dubstep would be one of these trends. I didn’t have a subwoofer till I got a surround sound system after getting a HDTV. So now all that low bass sounds great.

    My favorite artist working low sounds is Emika. If you’ve not heard her, you should:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bS8ncvHVojI

    .

  7. andreschuiteman says

    As if pop music is all there is. Did pop music ever produce anything equivalent to Beethoven’s piano sonata opus 106, Wagner’s Ring, Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, etc., etc.? I have listened to some of the artists you mention, but I find the music utterly boring.

    • says

      Many people today would say the same of the composers you list. Culture and experience changes how you perceive music. Yet all good music (by any cultural standard) will share features in common. Thus, you might just have to expand your aesthetic horizons, rather than simply stubbornly focusing on one particular, geographically and historically idiosyncratic product.

      (The more so as the correct analogy would be to compare modern pop with folk music, drinking and work and festival songs, and similar common music, also being composed in the lifetimes of Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky but ignored by elitists then and now; while the proper analog to Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky are modern film composers, like Moricone, Williams, Horner, and Edmonson.)

    • andreschuiteman says

      Ultimately it is all a matter of personal taste. To me the difference between, say, a piece by Debussy and a typical modern pop song is the difference between trekking through a wonderful landscape and sitting in a bar (without company). Some people prefer sitting in a bar.

      But I think you’re just mistaken where you state that those film composers are the modern counterparts of Beethoven c.s. Sorry, but that is vastly overrating the film composers (not that they are all completely bad, but they are for the most part wholesale dealers in clichés). I never listen to film music for its own sake. If you want to look for modern analogs you could consider people like Pierre Boulez or John Adams. In fact, when I started reading your post, coming across words like ‘musical science’ and ‘philosophy’ I expected an essay on the latest developments in contemporary classical music. I couldn’t have been more wrong. :)

    • says

      Ultimately it is all a matter of personal taste.

      I’ve explained in the article and in this thread why it really isn’t. It’s not “all [just] a matter of taste.” Not only because of the biological understructure, but also because you can learn other cultural aesthetics and not enslave yourself to only one. There is no objective sense in which Beethoven is better artistically and aesthetically than Muse or the Black Angels. You just choose to pay attention to certain kinds of attributes you like, and ignore the aesthetic pleasure afforded by others. You don’t have to do that. You can learn to “perceive” other attributes (attributes which are objectively there, your brain is just overlooking them–or connecting them with bad experiences, the effect of environmental idiosyncrasies, which can be unlearned) and thus derive the same pleasure from other forms of music (meaning, the aesthetic best in other genres…not just “all” other music).

      To me the difference between, say, a piece by Debussy and a typical modern pop song is the difference between trekking through a wonderful landscape and sitting in a bar (without company). Some people prefer sitting in a bar.

      It sounds like you are conflating all pop music as aesthetically comparable in quality. Which demonstrates that you have developed no perceptive skill in the matter and thus don’t know what you are talking about, any more than someone with no skill for appreciating classical music would know what they were talking about when they said your preferred music is boring.

      But I think you’re just mistaken where you state that those film composers are the modern counterparts of Beethoven c.s. Sorry, but that is vastly overrating the film composers (not that they are all completely bad, but they are for the most part wholesale dealers in clichés). I never listen to film music for its own sake.

      Once again, it sounds like you cannot distinguish between mediocre artists and excellent artists in film scoring. There were plenty of mediocre artists in Beethoven’s time. You would not evaluate classical music by noting that fact. You would select the very rare sample of great artists from among the hundreds of so-so ones of the time. So, too, film scores.

      To begin with, there is plenty of the cliche in classical music. Indeed, if it weren’t full of cliches, it would not be identifiable as a genre. That’s why Beethoven sounds a lot like Mozart, in precisely the way that neither sounds like Morricone or Tangerine Dream. Once we dismiss your irrelevant dislike of cliches (since if you don’t see them in your own music, then you are aesthetically blind), and focus on how artists transcend the cliches they employ, then there is nothing any more cliche or mediocre about Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” or Tangerine Dream’s “Grind,” than there is about Beethoven or Mozart.

      If you can’t see that, then you have narrowed your aesthetic perception so narrowly it could almost qualify as a disability.

    • andreschuiteman says

      My initial reaction was prompted by irritation over this remark of yours:

      ”Real creativity, true freedom from the constraints of cultural and corporate expectation, truly rules the music scene now.”

      If anything, real creativity, true freedom from the constraints of external expectation, has always been the hallmark of the great classical composers, many of whom suffered because they refused to submit to the taste of the general public.

      ”There is no objective sense in which Beethoven is better artistically and aesthetically than Muse or the Black Angels.”

      Just like there is no objective sense in which Rembrandt is better artistically and aesthetically than my little daughter. But that doesn’t mean that Rembrandt is not better than my daughter; it only means that we have no way of measuring objectively in which way and to what extent he is better artistically. I am convinced that Beethoven is infinitely better than Muse or the Black Angels, but I can’t prove it to you by pointing out, for example, that his harmonies are more diverse, his rhythms less monotonous, his motives and melodies less static, his dynamics less predictable, his counterpoint more complex, or that Beethoven was evidently incredibly talented (being able to compose his ninth symphony while he was nearly deaf), etc., etc. These observations may all be true, but they don’t make the music necessarily better. So I have to resort to circumstantial evidence, which is ultimately my brain activity (and that of others) in response to his music. I doubt if you respond in the same way to Muse or the Black Angels as I respond to Beethoven. Maybe we should have our brains scanned while we listen to our preferred music.

      ”You can learn to “perceive” other attributes (attributes which are objectively there, your brain is just overlooking them–or connecting them with bad experiences, the effect of environmental idiosyncrasies, which can be unlearned) and thus derive the same pleasure from other forms of music (meaning, the aesthetic best in other genres…not just “all” other music).”

      I do like lots of other music apart from ‘classical’ music, ranging from Balinese and Indian music to, oh horror, pop music such as Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. I just don’t derive the same kind of pleasure from such music. The pleasure is more, dare I say it?, superficial.

      ”Once again, it sounds like you cannot distinguish between mediocre artists and excellent artists in film scoring.”

      I recognize that much of classical music is mediocre, cliché-ridden and boring and I recognize too that some pop & film music is much better than others. Morricone is excellent in his genre (and much more original than someone like John Williams). But music like that just doesn’t touch me in the same way that the great masterpieces of classical music do. I’m made to realize almost daily that I’m in a minority here.

    • says


      If anything, real creativity, true freedom from the constraints of external expectation, has always been the hallmark of the great classical composers, many of whom suffered because they refused to submit to the taste of the general public.

      This is not a true statement. Classical music (including the greats) all sounds far more alike than 21st century music. By far. Thus, it is an objective fact that artists now have more freedom and are using it.

      That the expectations of certain peers were extremely constraining upon classical composers, and they were able to wiggle a little bit outside of that box, does not make them more free, it just means they fought harder to get what little freedom they eventually did claim.

      By analogy, a slave who, against all laws forbidding it, learns how to read (as Frederick Douglas did) has gained a measure of freedom much greater than the expectations surrounding him, but he is still a slave. He is not more free than you or I, but still in fact substantially less so. Even when Douglas was eventually free, he was not as free as you or I, who have so much more cultural liberty than was available to him.

      Thus, that classical composers broke out of their culture’s tiny box did not make them more liberated than present-day artists. To the contrary, they were clearly substantially less liberated, generating work in the same narrow genre with the same instruments.

      You are therefore not measuring the same things I am.


      ”There is no objective sense in which Beethoven is better artistically and aesthetically than Muse or the Black Angels.” Just like there is no objective sense in which Rembrandt is better artistically and aesthetically than my little daughter.

      This demonstrates that you still don’t get it. Because your statement is false, and not at all comparable to mine. Muse and the Black Angels are better artistically and aesthetically (by far) than Britney Spears or LMFAO. And we can actually define in objective terms how and why.

      Thus, your “little daughter” (unless she is a prodigy) is simply not better artistically and aesthetically than Rembrandt, because she cannot achieve the objective aesthetic measures he could: for example, in his ability to employ his materials to emulate real features of human anatomy and lighting (which displays knowledge of reality your daughter, and her art, lacks; and a skill to communicate and represent that knowledge, which your daughter, and her art, also lacks) and to intentionally evoke emotional and cognitive reactions (an artist like Rembrandt can set out to produce a particular effect in the viewer, in terms of emotional response or cognitive rumination, and succeed in his intentions; your daughter cannot).

      Likewise in terms of the beauty response in the brain and how it reacts (and generates pleasure) in response to particular kinds of visual stimuli, which is a human universal: a Rembrandt intuitively knows those features (from extensive practice, observation, and experience) and how to manipulate them to maximize aesthetic pleasure in the brain (and, similarly, avoid those features that have a displeasing effect); a modern Rembrandt could even know those features cognitively (and not just intuitively) and thus do even better at this. These are objective features, and knowledge of them consists of objective facts, likewise knowing how to employ a medium (like oil on canvas) to effect them also consists of knowledge of objective facts.

      And as for painting, so for music. There are features of the art of Muse and The Black Angels that, like Rembrandt, intuitively plays on universal neurological features that effect and maximize pleasure in the brain, and that employ their materials (musical instruments, including voices) to emulate real features of the world and to intentionally evoke emotional and cognitive reactions, especially such as are not superficial (the paradigmatic examples are Muse, “Butterflies and Hurricanes” and The Black Angels, “Young Men Dead”). These are all objective properties. One must only have the trained perception to detect them or notice them, to connect them with each other and with the relevant concepts that then affect thought and mood. And one must not still have strong negative emotional memories attached to them (as one might idiosyncratically acquire from contingent circumstances of their upbringing).

      For example, the beauty of a Rembrandt (and this means, the objective fact of a greater pleasure response in the brain) substantially increases when you understand the skill required to produce his effects on canvas, which requires you to know something of how oil and paints work and how three dimensional impressions are created by two dimensional images, and the complexity of, for example, human anatomy and how difficult it is to recreate it, and not just recreate it, but in such a distorted way that the eye is tricked into seeing a realistic representation (just as the columns of the Parthenon had to be deliberately screwed up to appear straight and uniform to a distant viewer, owing to the peculiar way our brains process visual images). And so on. The more you know of these things, the more awed you are by looking at the product.

      Music is similar, only music is more abstract than visual media. Understanding the performance aspect, the role of evoking historical periods or landscapes or particular thoughts or emotions (even of a rather complex kind) with particular sounds, combinations of sounds, movements, and transitions, greatly increases the pleasure of music heard. Likewise not blocking the natural aesthetic response by pre-programming your brain to react negatively to a certain kind of music, thus attaching it to a negative emotional reaction (the way Beethoven was made to sound abhorrent to a once-admirer in A Clockwork Orange). This appears to be what you have done.


      I am convinced that Beethoven is infinitely better than Muse or the Black Angels, but I can’t prove it to you by pointing out, for example, that his harmonies are more diverse, his rhythms less monotonous, his motives and melodies less static, his dynamics less predictable, his counterpoint more complex, or that Beethoven was evidently incredibly talented (being able to compose his ninth symphony while he was nearly deaf), etc., etc.

      Notice what you are privileging:

      The notion that “more diverse harmonies” makes music better, when in fact simple harmonies can be just as pleasure-evoking and beautiful and powerful in evoking emotion or thought (indeed, simple harmonies can be used to a deliberate purpose, and to make the changes even more subtle and beautiful); if you do not notice this, then your aesthetic response is stunted relative to other listeners, possibly through idiosyncratic negative associations. “Diverse harmony” is not a requirement of beauty in music. It’s just one way to achieve it. And that can become monotonous in itself, when one seeks to diversify harmony to the neglect of the utility of repeating harmonies (just like language: diversity for diversity’s sake is not beautiful, whereas a lot of beauty can be created by deliberately self-referencing and repeating elements).

      Similarly, “rhythms less monotonous” is just a pejorative way of saying more consistent rhythms are less beautiful, which is objectively false. In its natural state the brain will find a variety of consistency and variation in rhythm equally pleasurable. You have to actually train your brain not to, which is evidently what you have done, thus reducing your ability to derive pleasure from more diverse music.

      Likewise every other element. None of the things you described are neurologically necessary to producing a strong beauty response. You can train yourself to hyper-value them (by learning to appreciate the skill it takes to produce them, and perhaps somehow learning to feel the emotions and thoughts they are intended to convey, if such they were), and you can train yourself to loathe other techniques (and thus conclude simpler music is awful, a notion you certainly were not born with; nor that complexity = good). But do this too much, to the point that only one genre of music pleases you, is like musical castration.

      Your last remark, however, is simply false. Beethoven was not “more talented” because he could overcome his deafness. Such a notion falsely presumes other artists could not also do this, were they so afflicted and determined. And it falsely presumes that overcoming a hardship makes the product aesthetically better, which is not really true. Knowing the fact of it can add to the pleasure and thus increase its aesthetic value (and objectively), but this is not the doing of Beethoven; it’s the result of you knowing and appreciating a fact about him, and not his ability to do a better job of composing music than anyone else.


      But music like that just doesn’t touch me in the same way that the great masterpieces of classical music do.

      Which suggests you have acquired some sort of emotional baggage in this debate that has distorted and altered the way you emotionally respond to music. You over-value complexity, and under-value anything outside one extremely specific historical-cultural genre (which obviously cannot be biological, since “the elite music of Western early modernity” is not genetically coded). That’s a shame. Because it means you see far less beauty in the world than most others do, and that most everyone could.

    • andreschuiteman says

      I am sorry that you feel the need to quote-mine me to make your point. Regarding the characteristics of Beethoven’s music I explicitly said:

      These observations may all be true, but they don’t make the music necessarily better.

      I know perfectly well that great music can be created with relatively simple means. Listen for a wonderful example to Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie.

      Classical music (including the greats) all sounds far more alike than 21st century music. By far. Thus, it is an objective fact that artists now have more freedom and are using it.

      You must know very little classical music for you to be able to say that. How much alike is Ravel’s Ondine to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung? Besides, I don’t hear your beloved Muse and Black Angels making much use of their freedom. ‘Young Men Dead’ doesn’t sound terribly different from certain songs of The Doors to me, while ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ has an incredibly trite and unoriginal melody. The whole ‘design pattern’ of these songs is exactly the same as that of thousands of others before them. They are constantly stuck in the same tonality and as a result sound static and, to me, quickly become boring. Where is the freedom and creativity in all this? I just don’t hear much of it. I really tried. I’ll admit that is is far better than Britney Spears.

      You also contradict yourself, where you say:

      Muse and the Black Angels are better artistically and aesthetically (by far) than Britney Spears or LMFAO. And we can actually define in objective terms how and why.

      Earlier, you had stated:

      There is no objective sense in which Beethoven is better artistically and aesthetically than Muse or the Black Angels.

      Which is it? Your discussion of Rembrandt focuses on his skills, his craftsmanship. But these are not what distinguishes the greater from the lesser artist. Van Gogh couldn’t draw the human figure nearly as well as Bouguereau, and was on the whole clearly the lesser craftsman of the two, yet most people would consider Van Gogh the greater artist. What distinguishes great art and music from the lesser is not the execution but the content, the semantics. This is hard, perhaps impossible, to capture in objective criteria.

      Which suggests you have acquired some sort of emotional baggage in this debate that has distorted and altered the way you emotionally respond to music. You over-value complexity, and under-value anything outside one extremely specific historical-cultural genre.

      I had the privilege of being able to visit the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam very frequently in my teens and to attend numerous concerts and recitals under ideal circumstances by the greatest artists and orchestras in classical music. Therefore, rather than putting it so negatively as me having acquired ‘emotional baggage’, I would say that I have gained a better ear for the qualities of this kind of music. I realize that many people find it difficult to follow music with constantly shifting rhythms and tonalities and in which many voices do different things at the same time. But once you have mastered these hurdles you may be inclined to become unsatisfied with simpler, more predictable music.

      “the elite music of Western early modernity” is not genetically coded

      Of course it isn’t. But this is the second time that you introduce the word ‘elite’ in connection with classical music. This suggests to me that your dislike of this kind of music has some weird sociological component that has nothing to do with the music per se. In other words, you look far more prejudiced towards classical music than I am towards your so-called 21st century music (which is in reality a narrow subset of contemporary pop music).

    • says

      andreschuiteman:

      You’re the one who is quote mining. To wit:


      I don’t hear your beloved Muse and Black Angels making much use of their freedom.

      I didn’t say they did. I said the musicians of this century do. That is, we have artists diverging much farther in style, constructing and pursuing their own. That is indeed the entire point of my whole series on the postmusical era: next to Muse and the Black Angels we have Hugh Laurie, Santogold, Neko Case, Moby, Arcade Fire, DeVotchKa, Zachary Mechlem, Minnie Driver, Paloma Faith, Lily Allen, Nouvelle Vague, Solar Fields, Bitter:Sweet, Shirley Bassey, Goldfrapp, Portishead, Naam, Trent Reznor, Belle & Sebastian, Tom Waits, M. Ward, Juno Reactor, and Lupe Fiasco. Compared to that field of options (and that’s just one culdesac of them), classical music looks very constrained to common tropes and instruments and not all that liberated.


      ‘Young Men Dead’ doesn’t sound terribly different from certain songs of The Doors to me, while ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ has an incredibly trite and unoriginal melody.

      I doubt ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ actually has a “trite and unoriginal melody.” You’re just making that shit up to be contrary. And the (very dim) evocation of The Doors in the Black Angels is no different from the evocation of predecessors in even the greatest of classical composers.


      The whole ‘design pattern’ of these songs is exactly the same as that of thousands of others before them.

      The same can be said of all tunes whatever, given that all music adheres to a universal structure, and the more so in periods and genres. That is again why all classical music sounds so similar. Not identical, but far more alike than diverse artists sound today. That can only be possible if they are using and reusing numerous similar features and choices in design.


      They are constantly stuck in the same tonality and as a result sound static and, to me, quickly become boring. Where is the freedom and creativity in all this? I just don’t hear much of it. I really tried.

      And that’s why I called sad. You are like a man without a nose: unable to appreciate most of the beauty of the world. For some reason as yet not diagnosed, you are blind to almost all the beauty of the world’s music, and hung up on one extremely narrow culturally specific product of a now-long-dead Western-European elite.


      You also contradict yourself, where you say: “Muse and the Black Angels are better artistically and aesthetically (by far) than Britney Spears or LMFAO. And we can actually define in objective terms how and why.” Earlier, you had stated: “There is no objective sense in which Beethoven is better artistically and aesthetically than Muse or the Black Angels.” Which is it?

      That you think this is a contradiction is proof again that you don’t get it. Beethoven is to the mediocre composers of his day as Muse and the Black Angels are to Britney Spears and LMFAO today. And that is an objective fact.


      …most people would consider Van Gogh the greater artist.

      He is not. There is no objective sense in which he is even a good artist. His reputation is entirely the product of fashionable thought and not any actual aesthetics. His art is valued because people were told it was valuable.


      I realize that many people find it difficult to follow music with constantly shifting rhythms and tonalities and in which many voices do different things at the same time. But once you have mastered these hurdles you may be inclined to become unsatisfied with simpler, more predictable music.

      Which would be awful. Fortunately, it’s not true. We can learn to appreciate both kinds of ingenuity and creativity, without destroying our ability to derive pleasure from either. You somehow destroyed half of yours.


      …you introduce the word ‘elite’ in connection with classical music. This suggests to me that your dislike of this kind of music has some weird sociological component…

      Hardly. Unlike you, I do love classical music. And modern music. You are the one who has lost half the pleasure of the musical landscape. And you did this by somehow obsessing on a single, highly-specific, historically and culturally idiosyncratic genre of it.

      And that’s sad.

    • andreschuiteman says

      If I were to claim that left handed artists with black hair are better artists than blond-haired, right handed ones I would be using objective criteria. Does this prove that my claim is correct? No, it only proves that objectivity in itself doesn’t validate a set of criteria. We can still choose between different sets of objective criteria. How do we do that? We would need…objective criteria to choose between different sets of criteria. But then, how do you avoid infinite regress?

      In other words, when you state that there is no objective sense in which Van Gogh “is even a good artist”, then this is true only with respect to your subjectively chosen set of objective criteria. Ultimately it is therefore just a subjective statement. According to my objective criteria, Van Gogh is a better artist than Bouguereau but a lesser one by far than Rembrandt. Who is to decide whose objective criteria are ‘better’? By what standard could such a decision be made?

      His [Van Gogh’s] reputation is entirely the product of fashionable thought and not any actual aesthetics. His art is valued because people were told it was valuable.

      ‘actual aesthetics’? You sound like one of those academic, reactionary 19th century artists who made fun of the impressionists and tried hard to keep them out of the ‘Salons’. The academic artists were just as convinced of the existence of indisputable aesthetic criteria as you are. And they were wrong.

      Returning to music, when I started listening to ‘Young men dead’ (I had never heard it before) I was impressed. There is no doubt that the Black Angels are excellent musicians, perhaps — objectively — better ones than The Doors. However, after a few minutes of ‘Young men dead’ there was no further development musically. To me it felt as if they got stuck (as in so many songs in this genre), which I found slightly annoying. I almost said to myself: okay, that was a great start, but where do we go from here? Why do we stay where we are? It is like driving to a fabulous national park and then spending the whole day on the parking lot. You, Richard, obviously don’t experience this annoyance. But why would you imply that I am somehow to blame for not enjoying something that is in a way deficient? Is this deficiency only found in me or is it actually in the music? Again, you seem to hide behind an objectivity that does not really exist.

      An elusive (but perhaps the most important) difference between the Black Angels and The Doors is that the latter have created some great songs (‘The End’, ‘Light my fire’, ‘Killer on the road’) that millions of people know and love, while the former haven’t (yet). Wherein lies the quality of a great song? It doesn’t reside in any purely musical factor and a song is not great merely because millions of people love it. You could write a song with the same instruments, the same rhythms, the same harmonies, performed by the same artists, but with slightly different twists and turns, and it wouldn’t work. Most of the other songs of The Doors aren’t worth listening to, in my opinion. Why is that? As I said before, there is a semantic aspect to art and music that is extremely difficult to define and may well be impossible to capture in any particular set of objective criteria. That’s why we will probably never agree about the relative status of Beethoven vs. the Black Angels. De gustibus non est disputandum. Trite but largely true.

    • says

      If I were to claim that left handed artists with black hair are better artists than blond-haired, right handed ones I would be using objective criteria. Does this prove that my claim is correct?

      That confuses correlation with causation. If it were a fact that “left handed artists with black hair” produced objectively better music, it would not be their left handedness or hair color that made the music objectively better, but still the same attributes that I have listed. Thus, left handedness and hair color would still not be measures of music quality.

      We can still choose between different sets of objective criteria. How do we do that? We would need…objective criteria to choose between different sets of criteria. But then, how do you avoid infinite regress?

      The brain.

      What our options are is constrained to what the brain has evolved to find pleasurable. Regress ends there…until we acquire the ability to rewire a brain any way we want, then there will literally be no constraint on what we could make pleasurable, other than pragmatic desire, e.g. we would not want to make pleasurable anything that would motivate self-defeating behavior. Human music response has evolved in respect to what helps us rather than hurts us, i.e. our musical neuroaesthetic is fundamentally useful, as I explain in Sense and Goodness without God. We would want to go further in that direction rather than against it.

      Thus what we have are a variety of options (all possible music forms), each a different way to stimulate the biological neuroaesthetic evolved in our brains. The more we train our brain to receive and perceive the attractive qualities in a musical variety, the more beauty we will see in the world, and the more pleasure we will derive from it. We will then gravitate toward the best in every variety, the “best” being that which stimulates the most brain-based pleasure-producing attributes, the most strongly.

      In other words, when you state that there is no objective sense in which Van Gogh “is even a good artist”, then this is true only with respect to your subjectively chosen set of objective criteria.

      They are not subjectively chosen, though. If we are talking about visual stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain, then it is an objective fact that Van Gogh sucks (I particularly explain the neuroscience of visual pleasure response in Sense and Goodness without God, because that is still the best understood). If we are instead talking about the pleasure caused by the satisfaction of envy or pride (as comes from the thought of owning something other people want or say is valuable) then we are no longer talking about Van Gogh’s artistry at all, but the aesthetics of capital consumption and display, in which event the owner of the painting becomes the artist (a performance artist in this case), not the painter. We are then no longer talking about painting.

      There is no doubt that the Black Angels are excellent musicians, perhaps — objectively — better ones than The Doors.

      Which reminds me to interject that a great deal of the pleasure we receive from music lies not only in the composition, but in the performance. This is as much the case with classical music, where a lousy performance can destroy even the most excellent of compositions.

      However, after a few minutes of ‘Young men dead’ there was no further development musically. To me it felt as if they got stuck (as in so many songs in this genre), which I found slightly annoying.

      Which, as I have said, is sad. You have lost a huge chunk of your ability to derive pleasure from music.

      Modern music is largely based now on the principle of dancing. Not literally (though people do literally dance to modern music of course), but cognitively. Dancing is about reversals, repetitions, and returns. The pleasure derived from a dance lies largely in its repetition, not its constant changes (although a dance with no changes would conversely be displeasurable). When we work, think, dream, lose ourselves in reverie, our minds dance. It is by allowing this part of the brain to be pleasurably stimulated that modern music succeeds. Repetition stimulates our pleasure centers that key on anticipation and expectation. Changes then work on pleasure centers that key on surprise. Good music will always have some measure of both. Bad listeners will obsess on one and derive no pleasure from the other. ‘Young men dead’ is an example: the most significant emotional change in the music is after the mid point, beginning at minute 2:30, using the repeated elements in an unexpected way, which becomes the most anticipated bridge in the song (from 3:01 to 4:22), combining simultaneously the pleasures of anticipation and surprise.

      Modern music is also often lyrics based: much of the beauty comes from the correspondence between what is being sung and the emotional effects of the music accompanying it, which allows a much larger aesthetic space to be explored. For example, the irony of juxtaposing an upbeat dance tune to the happy nihilism of the lyrics in OMD’s ‘History of Modern Part 1′; such an achievement is impossible with classical music outside opera, and even there this kind of irony was rarely attempted; ‘young men dead’ is another perfect example of the role the lyrics play in greatly enhancing the cognitive pleasure of the song, one closer to traditional opera, only more innovative and less constrained by stereotypes and elitist assumptions.

      People love to sing along with songs, even if only in their heads, and feel the meaning of the words, which is another key source of pleasure that modern music affords but classical music almost never does (not many great operas ever being composed in English or Spanish, for example). This requires repetition and cues accompanying the changes. The music of ancient Greece was similarly based on singing, especially of epic and lyric poetry, and it shows the same aesthetic use of familiar turns and repetitions and cuing of changes. If you are aware of this and tap into it and learn to surrender to it, you will derive pleasure from modern music that you won’t typically derive from classical (which does not make it better, just targeting of a different pleasure pathway).

      I almost said to myself: okay, that was a great start, but where do we go from here?

      Minute 3:01 to 4:22.

      Why do we stay where we are?

      You don’t. If you’d listened to the song, you’d know that.

      More importantly, you then can move on to the next song, which has the larger changes with respect to ‘Young Men Dead’ that any classical piece would have. You can even choose what that next song will be, and thus what the gear-shift will be.

      Is this deficiency only found in me or is it actually in the music?

      In you. This is talking about aesthetic response, not the qualities of the music. Your brain (unless it’s damaged; I am assuming it’s not) has the capacity to derive pleasure from all the same qualities I derive pleasure from. Because we are biologically the same in respect to musical neuroaesthetics. However, we can rechannel how signals get sent around in our brains, and thus link up certain qualities to displeasure centers, or decouple certain qualities from their pleasure centers.

      This is the role of idiosyncratic experience in molding aesthetic response (culture being just one larger component of that same environmental effect). If we allow idiosyncratic experience (cultural or personal) to narrow our aesthetic response, cutting off pleasure centers or increasing triggers to displeasure centers, we are degrading our capacity for aesthetic experience and its concomitant pleasure. If we do the opposite (and become proficient in responding to many kinds of good music) we enhance and expand our capacity for aesthetic experience and its concomitant pleasure. We probably can’t expand it completely (time, and limits to how many ways we can rewire our brain, and other practical and personal considerations might put a reasonable cap on how broadly we can expand our aesthetic responses), but we can expand it enough to have a broad base of enjoyment of musical experience. Which is obviously better than narrowing it to an extremely small window of musical experience.

      It doesn’t reside in any purely musical factor and a song is not great merely because millions of people love it.

      Actually, yes, it is. If you define great music as music known and loved by millions of people, you are then setting that as a criterion of “great.” If you instead admit that that can’t be a criterion of greatness (for the obvious reason that access to the music is limited: millions of people don’t even know about The Black Angels and thus can hardly have had the opportunity to assess them), then you can’t pick popular songs and call them great just because they are popular.

      In fact, popularity is more a function of nostalgia triggers (people love the songs they associate with great times in their lives, which is a historical contingency that often has nothing to do with the actual quality of the music) and fashion (most songs topping the charts in any given month suck, but they become fashionable for a variety of reasons, among them the lack of a well-developed aesthetic taste in the general public–a taste they could develop, if given the chance, e.g. most of the chart-picking public think classical music sucks, but this is obviously because they have not learned to appreciate it and allow it’s otherwise-alien sounds to reach their innate biological neuroaesthetics, and you and I know that could change–popular boredom with classical music is not genetic).

      Most of the other songs of The Doors aren’t worth listening to, in my opinion. Why is that?

      Because music is a more difficult art to compose in than, for example, painting (owing to music being far more abstract and indirect in how it reaches pleasure centers in the brain).

      …there is a semantic aspect to art and music that is extremely difficult to define and may well be impossible to capture in any particular set of objective criteria.

      First rule of science: never say never.

      Because you will almost always be proved wrong. Usually within a couple of decades of making the claim.

    • andreschuiteman says

      I don’t want to misrepresent you, but it seems to me that this is what you are arguing: When, on hearing the Black Angels, my brain’s pleasure centers don’t jump into action, that means that there is something wrong with me. Why? Because there are other people, like yourself, whose pleasure centers start producing endorphins, or whatever they do, like mad as soon as this particular band is listened to. This proves that the Black Angels are terrific. On the other hand, your pleasure centers are not stimulated at all by Britney Spears, so that must mean that Britney Spears is bad. Objectively so, because by measuring the activity of your pleasure centers we can demonstrate that you are not faking your indifference to Britney Spears. But there is hope for me, because I can learn to appreciate, nay, even to love the Black Angels. That would be good, because the more kinds of music I like, the more beauty I will experience in the world.

      I see at least three problems with this line of argument.

      (1) I’m fairly sure that there are many people who genuinely like to listen to Britney Spears and whose pleasure centers are stimulated in the same objectively measurable way as yours are when you are listening to the Black Angels. Why would your pleasure centers be privileged over those of others?
      (2) Why don’t you simply learn to like Britney Spears yourself? By your own admission this would increase the amount of pleasure you derive from the world, so that would be a good thing.
      (3) If one can learn to like things that one previously didn’t appreciate then this implies that we cannot use the response of our pleasure centers to measure the objective quality of a piece of music or a work of art. Because if our pleasure centers can be coerced into responding to stuff that previously didn’t register then we can always put a poor response down to a lack of proper training.

      According to George Orwell one can learn to love Big Brother. Does that prove that he is worth loving? You are in effect claiming that something that is loved (= stimulates the pleasure centers) is by definition worth loving (= objectively good). I think you are wrong, objectively so.

      If we are talking about visual stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain, then it is an objective fact that Van Gogh sucks

      How the hell do you know that? Did you measure the brain activity of all the visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam? Are you claiming that people who profess to love the work of Van Gogh are (like biologist Jerry Coyne here) just pretending? Is the appreciation of Van Gogh by a large section of the public all the result of a giant conspiracy?

      Why can’t I turn your own argument against you, what prevents me from saying that you need to train your own brain in order to increase the pleasure you derive from a visit to a museum? Why am I handicapped because I don’t get all fired up when listening to the Black Angels but you are not handicapped for not liking the work of Van Gogh? I can almost imagine you visiting the Van Gogh Museum, glancing around you scornfully, muttering “look at all those deluded tourists, buying expensive tickets to see something that doesn’t even stimulate their pleasure centers — this guy couldn’t draw humans properly, knew nothing of the laws of perspective, and handled his paint as if it were tooth paste,” while completely ignoring the dazzling colors, the striking compositions, the rhythms of the brush strokes, the atmosphere, etc. Now that’s what I call sad.

    • says


      When, on hearing the Black Angels, my brain’s pleasure centers don’t jump into action, that means that there is something wrong with me. Why?

      This is like asking “if I have lost my sense of smell, that means that there is something wrong with me. Why?”

      Of course, if you don’t care that you’ve lost a dimension of pleasure experience, then it’s not a great loss for you personally. It just means most people have access to a source of aesthetic pleasure you do not. And unlike losing the sense of smell, the inability to derive pleasure from modern music is not going to impair you much in any way that matters to your welfare.

      Nevertheless, it is from my perspective a sad loss.


      Because there are other people, like yourself, whose pleasure centers start producing endorphins, or whatever they do, like mad as soon as this particular band is listened to. This proves that the Black Angels are terrific.

      Not in itself. I have discussed the properties of music generally, and modern music specifically, that objectively correlate with pleasure centers in the brain and relate to objective measures of better and worse art. I won’t go over all that again.


      But there is hope for me, because I can learn to appreciate, nay, even to love the Black Angels.

      Ditto someone who hates classical music: they can learn to decouple the connections that make them dislike it, and recouple the connections that will make them see in it and love in it all the same things you do, and that you have so aptly described. Those are objective properties, and the human brain has innate facility to derive pleasure from them (in a way it does not have innate facility to derive pleasure from many other noises). Thus, someone who has not taken full advantage of their brain’s facility is missing out on aesthetic pleasures it could otherwise achieve: they are missing out on what you experience when you listen to great classical music. That is correctable. But whether any given individual cares to correct it is a separate question. That is a question of the more general value of aesthetic pleasure to human experience.


      I’m fairly sure that there are many people who genuinely like to listen to Britney Spears and whose pleasure centers are stimulated in the same objectively measurable way as yours are when you are listening to the Black Angels. Why would your pleasure centers be privileged over those of others?

      Comparatively, when they understand the objective differences between the two, they will derive greater, deeper, and more lasting pleasure from the better art than the worse. It’s the classic difference between the base pleasures and the greater pleasures, the difference between enjoying garbage and enjoying displays of skill, knowledge, artistry, and the intuitive command of the ability of art to evoke specific emotions and thoughts beyond the superficial. It’s the difference between being superficial and seeing little of the world, and having a deeper appreciation and understanding of the world. It’s the difference between thinking you don’t need to know anything, and realizing that knowing things makes life experience more profoundly enjoyable.

      It’s the same difference, in fact, between thinking classical music is just boring noise, and realizing it is so much more than that that it is absurd to ever have thought it was that.


      Why don’t you simply learn to like Britney Spears yourself?

      It’s no longer possible. I am now aware of the objective properties of her music that make it dull, uncreative, inarticulate, and superficial. But even before I was aware of those things I could still perceive a difference between that music, and better music. Now, I understand what those differences are, and thus can see them (and thus enjoy them) even better than once I did.

      To use a baser analogy: just as bad sex was never all that great, even when I thought it was the best there was (a state in which many people still reside), I now know what great sex is like, and how much more pleasurable it is (and thus always was and would have been). Though that difference is an objective fact and was objectively true even when I didn’t know it, now that I know it, bad sex is not even interesting to me any more. I could never reprogram myself to like it as much as great sex; that was impossible even when I thought bad sex was the best there was. I was then simply blind to how much better sex could be.

      As for sex, so for music.


      If one can learn to like things that one previously didn’t appreciate then this implies that we cannot use the response of our pleasure centers to measure the objective quality of a piece of music or a work of art.

      That’s not true. See the sex analogy again for why.

      In two respects, in fact: that good music has objective properties that distinguish it from bad music; and it is an objective fact that those properties can produce greater and more profound pleasure, which bad music never will have and never could have produced, even when we are unaware of that and think bad music is the most pleasurable music possible: we are simply, as a matter of objective fact, wrong. As we will know once we have the experience confuting it (as you acquired in your discovery of great classical music).


      How the hell do you know that [Van Gogh sucks]? Did you measure the brain activity of all the visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam?

      We could. But we don’t have to, any more than we have to drop an apple on every square inch of the earth to know how fast it will fall there if we do.

      We know a great deal about the neuroaesthetics of visual processing, and thus can make accurate general predictions about how much pleasure certain visual art works will produce or are capable of producing (though visual stimulus won’t be the sole trigger, as cognitive triggers will also play a role, i.e. our cognitive appreciation of the art, such as regarding its context and knowledge of what it took to produce it and so on, but again we can map and predict those elements, too).


      Are you claiming that people who profess to love the work of Van Gogh are (like biologist Jerry Coyne here) just pretending? Is the appreciation of Van Gogh by a large section of the public all the result of a giant conspiracy?

      Not at all. They are like people who think (sincerely and actually think) that bad sex is the best thing ever. Knowledge would change their opinions. As in sex, so in art.

    • andreschuiteman says

      I am now aware of the objective properties of her music that make it dull, uncreative, inarticulate, and superficial. But even before I was aware of those things I could still perceive a difference between that music, and better music. Now, I understand what those differences are, and thus can see them (and thus enjoy them) even better than once I did.

      This is exactly how I feel nowadays regarding pop music. When I was ten, twelve years old I loved to listen to bands like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Their music thrilled me. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the Black Angels too had they existed then (early seventies). But at the same time I was learning to play music by Bach on my guitar and listened to records of people like Julian Bream who could actually play it. I felt instinctively that this music was on a different plane altogether. In hindsight I would say it was like the difference between the children’s books I was reading and the works of Kafka or Flaubert that I discovered later. Over the years I have simply intellectually grown out of pop music. This music, as music, is too limited for me. And I fear it is doomed to stay as it is in this respect because the dancing and head banging audience wouldn’t tolerate otherwise. You constantly talk about the freedom of modern pop music, but this freedom is very restricted. How many fans would desert their favorite band instantly if it started playing more tonally adventurous music and produced rhythms that did not lend themselves to dancing and head banging?

      Modern pop artists are limited by the conventions of the genre and by the demands and expectations of their audience as much as any 18th century court composer. Yes, the sounds they can produce are more diverse today because of technical advances in electronic instruments. But that is really something superficial. If you are hung up too much on the sound, you can proclaim that the piano works of Beethoven, Chopin and Ravel all sound very much alike. That would only show that you never learned to listen to music properly.

      Let the music make my point. Here is Prokofiev writing heavy metal back in 1942:

      Piano Sonata nr. 7, third movement.

      This was composed in the Soviet Union during WW II under the reign of Stalin. This music, created under the most oppressive conditions imaginable, is more radical and more free than almost any pop music I know. And that says more about pop music than about this sonata, which is not particularly advanced for its time. I offer it as an example of what truly progressive rock music could sound like but never does.

  8. JT says

    I think that anyone who’s familiar with the music of the past forty years or so can easily come to the conclusion that modern music is not really worth listening to because it is simply a rehashing of things that have already been done. Why bother with imitation when you can go back and listen to the real thing? The fact remains that there are only 12 notes and while they can be arranged in nearly endless ways, the truth is that harmony and melody and rhythm are typically bland and predictable in most modern music. The reason for this is that the vast majority of listeners, and thus radio stations, etc, cannot tolerate much inventiveness in any of the three areas of music. For example, nobody but prog bands and metal bands really do much in terms of rhythmic diversity (prog and metal tend to have a lot of time changes and odd meters). Some popular styles of music like rap and hip hop contain almost no harmony and melody at all, and if they do, it is typically very generic.

    For me, modern music is simply imitation and pretty much unlistenable. In terms of modern bands, there is still a lot of innovation in metal. It always amazes me how much this genre of music is overlooked by people who claim to be aficionados of music. Metal features the very best musicians and remains one of the last bastions of creativity in music. It seems that Metal as a genre allows itself one of the largest canvases on which to paint, and avails themselves of the largest pallette of colors. Metal bands can still get away with long songs, complex rhythms and harmonies, odd meters, bizarre turnings, seven and even eight string guitars, finger tapping, hybrid picking, eight finger tapping, and a whole lot more. Heavy metal has always been at the vanguard in technical innovation on guitar, bass, and drums, and the musicianship of most metal bands is unmatched by any other style except jazz and classical. If you’re interested in exploring modern heavy metal, a good place to start is with Mastodon’s magnificent Crack the Skye album. What a breath of fresh air!

    • says

      I don’t regard complexity and innovation and experimentation in themselves as attributes of aesthetic quality. I recognize some brilliance in metal, for example, but just saying they use a “larger palette of colors” doesn’t make them better, or even good. Thus “complex rhythms and harmonies, odd meters, bizarre turnings, seven and even eight string guitars” is not in itself a commendation. If they do beautiful music with it, then yes. But what makes it beautiful is neither its complexity nor its inventiveness nor its oddity nor how many strings are on their guitars.

      I do tend to see this a lot, people equating “out of the box” with “good.” That’s to miss the point of everything we’ve learned in the neuroaesthetics of music–and the higher virtues of art (communication, such as of mood or impression; education, such as by emulating nature or evoking a culture or idea; and display of skill, which is only evident to a listener when recognizable). Artists should be liberated from cultural or period expectations. But once liberated, they still have to do great work. Merely being free does not make them great.

  9. mojo.rhythm says

    I’m glad you enjoyed the soundtrack to Tattoo and Inception. “Time” by Hans Zimmer is one of the most hauntingly beautiful, epic compositions I have ever heard.

    What did you think of the Tattoo movie?

    • says

      As I did not read the book, I can only evaluate the movie as what it was (which is how I think movies should usually be evaluated, since the medium often requires transforming the work rather than trying to accurately reproduce it). But that caveat aside, I found the film rather excellent, on all measures of cinematic art.

  10. mojo.rhythm says

    BTW Richard, speaking of movie OSTs, what do you think of the song “Lux Aeterna” by Clint Mansell? It is the title track from Requiem for a Dream (2000).

    • says

      I actually prefer its redaction, “Requiem for a Tower” (composed for the Lord of the Rings films, but I just listen to it as standalone music). But the original itself is an excellent piece.

  11. duce7999 says

    I am unsure about this postmusical concept, it seems to insist upon itself. I would be willing to reconsider if you will concede that Q Lazzarus was the first postmusical example.

  12. HoosierPoli says

    I think you’re going out on a dangerous limb with your “Post-Musical” hypothesis. My main concern is your analysis smacks stereotyping. You claim that musical/aesthetic eras have had a common denominator or recognizable signature, up until very close to the present. I see two major things wrong with this conclusion:

    1. It’s pure post-hoc rationalization. Of course we see the 60s as having a “sound”; this narrative has had time to be constructed and reinforced, and counterexamples have had enough time to decompose and fall from memory. There is far more diversity in the music of the 60s than is thought of readily, because this diversity doesn’t fit our stereotype of what the 60s was supposed to sound like. I think your glib comments about 90s music show this most clearly. I defy you to draw any aesthetic link between Bjork, Kriss Kross, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones that doesn’t utterly strain credulity.

    2. You’re essentially dealing with mainstream, radio-friendly hits. There is an exogenous variable you’re not even bothering to try to consider: the main pipeline through which popular music passed was DELIBERATELY homogenized by record companies attempting to copy proven hits. This was not some sort of obscure sociological phenomenon. It was a deliberate move driven by the necessities of marketing music on a large scale. As the record company/radio/retail iron triangle has begun to decay, so has this homogenization. But it’s nothing to do with aesthetics or philosophy; it’s econ 101.

    In short, I feel that you’re throwing around easy stereotypes instead of making a real historical argument. I think you should aspire to be better than this, no matter how trivial the subject.

    • says

      Hardly. Most of the music I discuss in my posts has not been radio chart material. And only recently (last five years) has this diversity of music broken into that market, so that several of my artist pics are now becoming popular and radio is no longer dictating what people want to hear (but still many aren’t getting there–not The Black Angels or Naam, for example), while a few of course always were. Yet still most of what makes the charts is crap. That’s always been true, though.

      As to the possibility of a retrospective fallacy, there is no danger of that. The lesser music of other decades was largely copy-cat and even more similar-sounding than the popular stuff. Thus the “sounds” of each decade are definitely real. This is especially so considering my musical interests in the 80s were wide enough that I heard pretty much everything being done then, so I know what was typical and how limited the atypical was then. And I have spoken to similarly informed people who knew 70s and 60s music and report the same. I very much doubt there was greater diversity in previous decades (yet still in each a distinctive sound). Nothing even remotely like now.

      As to economics constraining artists, that’s an argument I myself made. In my posts on this I specifically mention the ability to bypass studios due to cheaper production and distribution technology is a key factor in creating the postmusical era. Economics has liberated the art.

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