Obviously, Ayn Rand was not a
trained musician—nor even, it appears, very well read about music. (The only reference I recall her ever giving was
Helmholtz' 19th century work, On the Sensations of Tone.) But that is not to say that her valid principles developed
in areas much more familiar to her (e.g., literature) could not be extended appropriately to music. (Nor, granted, that she
was always correct in applying them, let alone in how she extended them to music.)
For instance, back in the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate student in music at Iowa State University,
I became very excited by Rand's treatment of plot-structure as a key ingredient in good literature. It seemed clear to
me that this had a clear analog in music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras—and the better music from the
20th century. Yet, despite the ready availability of books (some of which I will cite below) that demonstrated this very point,
she was strangely silent on the matter.
parallel: musical themes or motifs "behave" similarly to the characters in a dramatic novel or play—the "gestural"
aspect of music, as it is sometimes referred to. Again, Rand had nothing to say about this.
On the other hand, what Rand did say about music and musical perception (especially in her
essay "Art and Cognition," now a chapter of the revised edition of The Romantic Manifesto) was sometimes
atrocious—not to mention, incorrect.
Her basic error
about musical perception was in treating musical tones as sensations, rather than percepts. (Rand's
inconsistencies here with her earlier epistemological writings—especially, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology—are
glaringly obvious. I discuss more fully how she diverged from her previous, correct discussion of perception in chapter 4
of my book Esthetics, Objectively, which is not currently available. This material is, however, available in updated
form in my JARS essay, Music and Perceptual Cognition
This led Rand to analogize between the ear's/brain's
integration of musical tones into a melody and the brain's integration of sensations into a percept of an entity. (Thus, her reference to a melody as a "musical entity.")
Instead, had Rand correctly regarded tones as percepts, she could have seen the multi-layer structuring
of music as more similar to architecture—e.g., the combining of a great number of bricks into a building. (Each
tone being like a brick.) Or, since music-as-performed is a dynamic process, she could have seen each tone in an orchestrated
melodic-harmonic progression as being similar to the actions and events of a dramatic progression.
But all of these wonderful, illuminating analogies fell by the wayside. Instead,
Rand's principal legacy in music seems to be that she reinforced Objectivism's reputation of intolerance by shaming
or brow-beating her friends, followers, and acquaintances for their unacceptable tastes in music. (E.g., Beethoven is "malevolent."
Check out Barbara Branden's biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, for a broader discussion of this.
Is it any wonder, then, that Rand's (and my) ideal of an objective standard for
musical value seems to have provoked more "instinctive," knee-jerk, negative reaction than in any other area?
Having registered my complaints about Ayn Rand's views on music, I now hasten
to weigh in on the side of objective standards for the good in music—and to voice my criticisms of modern "serious"
music and bebop jazz. (I have played, listened to, and studied plenty of both, so I believe I am at least moderately qualified
in this area.)
Here is my basic argument. If you believe
a. The two main forms
of symbols—language and art—serve in complementary, division-of-labor fashion the purpose of objectifying (concretizing)
and communicating human abstractions;
b. The objectification and communication of abstract ideas serves a valid, vital human need; and
c. Symbols—like all human tools—can
and should be judged as to whether and how well they serve that need-fulfilling purpose;
Then you should also realize that:
d. Linguistic utterances can be judged as to whether or not they are meaningful, whether or not they
are true, and whether or not they have been well-formulated (i.e., skillfully convey their meaning, by following the rules
of grammar and syntax, as well as by doing so with clarity and economy).
e. Artistic presentations can be judged as to whether or not they are meaningful,
whether or not the view they present is true, and whether or not they are well-made (i.e., skillfully convey their meaning,
by following appropriate artistic principles analogous to the linguistic principles mentioned above).
But none of this, I want to emphasize, implies support for any kind of authoritarian
measures or attitudes in support of certain forms of art or language, or to outlaw others. Just as (hopefully) we all become
exposed to the proper rules of grammar and syntax, etc., but are free to decide for ourselves the degree to which we will
"color outside of the lines" when we write and speak—so, too, should we be free to decide how eclectic to
be in our pursuit of artistic enjoyment as producers and consumers.
Who wants to be taxed "for the public good"—or browbeaten "for our own good"—to carry
out someone's crusade for "good art," for Pete's sake?!
In regard to artistic consumption, as Nathaniel Branden said long ago (Chicago, 1971)—and I paraphrase (with
the standing offer to look up the exact quote from my files, if anyone is interested)—be very cautious about giving
up supposedly irrational pleasures. (For they very well might not be irrational, in fact—as opposed to being
irrational in someone else's opinion.)
regard to artistic production, I say: Down with the "politically correct," in art (including music) and
language. Hands off our symbols! Let the (economic and intellectual) marketplace decide the value of our creations and utterances.
In that spirit, I would like to offer some thoughts as to why modern "serious"
music and bebop jazz do not represent "pro-life" (to use the Randian phraseology) forms of music, worthy of esteem
by Objectivists—or listeners in general. Just remember, though, I'm not seeking to shame or bully anyone, esthetically—merely
to clarify what it is about certain music that gets in the way of its being of need-fulfilling value to most listeners (even
My second-hand, long-distance impression
of Ayn Rand leads me to believe that she would most likely have scorned contemporary "serious" music and bebop jazz,
if she talked much about it at all. Her opinions aside, however, there are very good, and not-too-technical reasons, why these
kinds of music are not something that Objectivists should admire and appreciate as art.
In arguing for this point in regard to bebop jazz, I think I can do better than resort
to the unfortunate tendency of some to pass off such music as "bleeps and bloops." That
is not an adequate argument!
To begin this critique
of bebop jazz, I will start by engaging in the greatest act of vulnerability you can undertake in an Objectivist discussion.
Acknowledge my fallibility? Reveal my innermost personal feelings? Admit that I like country-western music? No—define
At least, let me make a stab at defining
"jazz." According to The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, jazz is "an eclectic, expanding collection
of 20th century styles, principally instrumental and of black American creation." When I co-wrote a chapter on arranging
for the jazz ensemble in a recent college textbook (Gary White, Instrumental Arranging, William C. Brown, 1992),
I added the following characteristics that distinguish jazz from the pre-20th century European styles of music:
1. Strong emphasis on rhythm, with the numerous
rhythmic styles broadly grouped into two categories: "swing" rhythm and "straight" rhythm.
2. A wide variety of articulations and a distinctive
sound concept, which requires that the performer learn a much greater number of playing techniques than did pre-20th century
3. A flexible
approach to pitch, with many "bent" or "blue" notes and glissandi (slides) between pitches.
4. Considerable emphasis on extemporaneous group
and/or solo improvisation, due to the unique difficulties in trying to notate jazz accurately—and the loss of jazz'
characteristic spontaneity in trying to play notated jazz.
let me get a little sloppier, OK? And from here on, I will rely heavily on Henry Pleasants' book Serious Music and
All That Jazz (henceforth, SMAATJ; Simon & Schuster, 1969, especially the section pp. 132-162).
Historically, jazz falls into three periods: traditional and swing jazz, which began
about 1900-10 in New Orleans; bebop or bop jazz, which began 1940-41 in New York City; and avant-garde jazz, which began about
1959, at which time Ornette Coleman—one of my all-time un-favorite jazz musicians—arrived
in NYC. Obviously, there is a lot of carryover from the earlier periods to the present—thank God! (A large part of my
workday involves playing Dixieland and swing-era jazz.)
primarily want to focus on jazz of the kind that originated in the middle period, but first a few remarks and quotes are in
order about avant-garde jazz, aka New or Free Jazz. (Only a few, however; in my opinion, the avant-garde is its own best critique.)
Avant-garde jazz is the reductio ad absurdum of the trends begun during
the bebop era. In throwing aside all harmonic and rhythmic restraints, this form of jazz dispenses with all attempts at creating
a distinctive style and resorts to "shock and gimmicry...silly eccentricity and pompous vulgarity...aural
assault." (SMAAT, p. 152) Avant-garde alto player Charlie Mariano said (Melody Maker, fall 1966): "I don't
want to hear pleasant music today. I want to hear screaming and hollering and kicking and biting. That's what the world's about today. And I believe that music should reflect life." This equates Art with a
temper tantrum, as Pleasants pointed out. Even the more amiable avant-garde jazz is little better than "infant prattle."
(SMAATJ, p. 159)
I must interject here that in citing Mariano's
comments about "pleasant music," neither Pleasants (!) nor I am trying to argue in favor of pleasant music,
whatever that might be. While I admit to having my own "tiddlywinks" music, such as Paul Desmond's wonderful
album of Simon and Garfunkle tunes ("Bridge Over Troubled Waters"),
I also love Miles Davis' collaboration with Gil Evans in "Sketches of Spain," Dave Grusin's
soundtrack album to "The Firm," and Michael Brecker's collaboration with Claus Ogerman in "Cityscapes." None of these is either bebop or avant-garde jazz—yet each
is clearly better described not as "pleasant" or "tranquil," but instead as "unsettling."
Pleasants draws the obvious parallel to "the child rambling along in its own
language before it has learned to express its thoughts and feeling in language and gestures intelligible and acceptable to
the community into which it was born...There is nothing wrong in [jazz musicians doing] this, but nothing especially admirable,
either—or anything sufficiently remarkable to make it worth a price of admission." (SMAATJ, p. 160) And, once we
have reached a state of musical anarchy, where "anything goes" and "nothing was any longer demonstrably bad,"
there is no longer any "sure way of distinguishing between sincerity and opportunism...or between original genius and
charlatanism." (SMAATJ, p. 154)
In other words, there
may be reasonable disagreement as to the true musical worth of a particular bebop jazz performance, but any kind of objective
evaluation of avant-garde jazz is out of the question. (For this reason alone, avant-garde jazz would be disqualified for
someone like Ayn Rand!)
Before 1940, jazz "concentrated
on the melodic elaboration and ornamentation of a more or less familiar tune over the chords associated with that tune..."
(SMAATJ, p. 136). Bop, on the other hand, "altered the chords and distorted the melody accordingly.
There were also rhythmic and accented refinements and dislocations. When a group of bop musicians had finished with a given
tune, it would be unrecognizable even to its composer." (SMAATJ, pp. 136-7)
What triggered the creation of bop? Two related facts with a single cause. Jazz harmonic and melodic
procedures and devices, once bold and decisive, had become so predictable during the late 1930s that: (1) the best jazzers
were becoming bored and wanted to "break out of the groove;" and (2) even the inferior jazz musicians knew the cliches and insinuated themselves into jam sessions, playing six or seven choruses to prove that they
"couldn't blow at all." (Dizzy Gillespie's words) So bop was invented to give the most talented players
a more sophisticated outlet for their creativity and "to scare away the no-talent guys." (Gillespie
Unfortunately, as Pleasants points
out, "what had begun as a device to exclude the square musicians at Minton's and other gathering places of the new
elite was sustained in more public performances to exclude the square lay listener, too, the trick being to make a secret
of the musical enterprise...[The secret, of course, was] the more or less familiar tune which, with its chord changes, would
be the musicians' point of departure, but which would be neither announced nor played," unlike in traditional Dixieland
and swing jazz." (SMAATJ, p. 142)
gives more specific detail: "The enigmatic titles of many jazz compositions are reminiscent of Renaissance and Baroque
puzzle canon instruction, anagram texts and acrostic dedications. They are all the marks of a circle of initiates." ("The
Silent Traditions of Jazz," The Musican Quarterly, July 1967)
Now, this might, in a sense, be "exalting the mind" as opposed
to the feelings—a standard Objectivist theme—but in my rationally humble opinion, it falls flat on its face, intentions
notwithstanding. All the ingenuity in the world is artistically irrelevant, if your audience cannot reasonably be expected
to perceive and understand your little hidden, creative gems. And it is a historical fact that for every bebop musician who
was willing to help bring his audiences along into the "new world," there were that many and more who delighted
in leaving their audiences "in the dust." An argument could be made that some of the latter were perhaps exercising
a little cultural revenge on the unwitting white folks who had formerly looked down on them.
I have my own theory about how all this "secret society" stuff started. There is a device
called "quoting" that has been used by jazz musicians since well before bebop came along. It consists of inserting
into a jazz solo a fragment or phrase (whether or not altered in some manner) from some other musical piece. We do this sometimes
out of creative whimsy, but at least as often out of boredom. Sometimes our audience (often, dancers) hears what we are doing
and comments (usually favorably). Thus, quotes can be a good way to communicate with an audience that is listening.
More often, however, our little didos
are perceived only by our colleagues, and we laugh to or among ourselves, if we sneaked it past the leader (unless he is a
"hip" leader, in which case, we're pleased if he notices). (Just for the record: my two
all-time favorite quotes have been "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" during a solo on "Proud Mary"—the
idea being "don't cry for me, Ike and Tina"—and "Alley Cat" during "Memories. And
I readily concede the utter tastelessness of quoting the "Too Fat Polka" at a wedding reception for the first dance
of an overweight bride with her new husband.)
In any case,
I suspect (but cannot prove) that it was this particular practice that "ran away with itself" and was a large contributing
factor to the excesses of bebop jazz. Boppers were encouraged in this and other immature, elitist behavior toward a public
historically disposed to appreciate them by critics who told them they were Artists to whom "the public has a solemn
obligation to listen, to render homage, and to pay." (SMAATJ, p. 140) Sort of, "the Emperor's New Clothes"—in
a turtleneck and beret!
Now, to wax Randian briefly once
more: does this exclusionary attitude and practice of bop musicians and their critic pals really
"exalt the mind"? Or does it instead elevate the will to a prominence that encourages bop musicians
to isolate themselves from the minds of those who might well be sympathetic, were they let in on what the
boppers were trying to do?
Don't get me wrong. Jazzers (myself included) are perfectly free to play as "far out" as we like for the enjoyment
of ourselves and our little in-groups. But we should not complain, if no one wants to listen to what we play, let along to
pay us for it! If we are unwilling to educate our listeners—a la Leonard Bernstein's Young People's concerts—or
temper our creative excursions so that they are accessible to thoughtful listeners, we will have no one to blame but ourselves
for our much-deserved obscurity and/or poverty.
the elitist, "secret society" attitudes and practices of many bebop musicians, is there any value in what
they do? Well, as in all forms of music, there is good bebop, poor bebop, and bebop that is so-so. The primary value lies
in the experience not of ingenuity so much as efficacy—viz., "the bop musician's frequently transcendental
virtuosity." (SMAATJ, p. 144) Or, as we jazzers refer to it: "having great chops."
Even when audiences can't understand exactly what a bopper
is doing in his "melodic inventions and harmonic adventures," they certainly "recognize and understand"a
musician's "feats of instrumental derring-do"—as well as plain old one-upsmanship
("carving"). Ideally, bop's esoteric
character could be wedded to a considerable amount of ecstatic expression. "Granted an immaculate
execution, there was listening pleasure even in pure instrumental athleticism." (SMAAT, p. 144)
Unfortunately, "since in virtuosity, as in athletics, what one man accomplishes
will quickly be accomplished by others, the initially exceptional soon became commonplace. With less inventive musicians it
also became a bore...desperate but vain exhibitions of familiar and no longer purposeful...acrobatics." As a result,
"...since for many in the audience, possibly the majority, executive brilliance had always been the principal attraction...once
the initially compensatory virtuosity began to pall" many lost interest in jazz." (SMAATJ, p. 145)
How could bebop have been saved? What was missing? According to Pleasants—and
I agree—the missing ingredient was memorable melody.
As Pleasants puts it: "Nothing is so insidious in contemporary attitudes about music—and nothing so destructive—as
the tendency to think of a good tune as somehow inferior, or ignominious...The Great Composers, from Bach to Bartok, knew
better. They knew that without a remembered melody, the listener is lost, and further
composition futile. They sought good melodies, and, having found them, they assisted the listener's memory by repeated
them." (SMAATJ, p. 146)
Repetition also "accounts
for the durability of the conventional AABA song form favored by so many of the most successful American song-writers...Most
well-remembered melodies are repetitive within themselves..." But bebop melodies ("heads," in the parlance)
have not usually been "memorably" melodic, in this respect, "and they have been rendered less easily memorable
by denying the listener the remembered melodic nucleus...the melodic workings of bop are more difficult for the lay listener
not because they are more complex but because they offer so few obvious clues." (SMAATJ, pp. 146-7)
Granted, the use of the "head" to frame the solos is very helpful to the
audience. At least, it is recognizable repetition. But it would help even more if the "head" were memorable
(to more than just the musically trained or gifted listeners). That is why people usually like listening to jazz played on
standard melodies more than on bebop heads. A tune that has words you already know is
just more infectious than a (usually unlyricized) bebop head. Although I get around well in either
medium, I personally prefer playing bebop and Latin stylings on standard tunes. That, to me, is
the best of both words—hip, fresh stylings and musical material that rises above the musical
equivalent of Chinese food (15 minutes later and you've forgotten what you ate).
To put it simply, bebop musicians "forgot how to sing." By failing to recognize that their
listeners needed singable melodies, bebop musicians turned their focus to other matters, mainly harmony and virtuosity. By
abandoning the primitive tie of music to the human voice, boppers ultimately lost their audience—and their way.
On the bright side, without bebop's influence, we wouldn't have had many
great non-stylists such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Stan
Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, and others. It's safe to say that "...none of these
admirable musicians would have played as he does, or did, had there never been such a thing as bop." (SMAATJ, p. 139)
Not to mention, eclectic, lesser lights such as myself, who enjoy playing the style,
while bending it as much as possible back toward the audience, whom we often try to identify with—and "sing to"—while
So, in the final analysis, I see bebop jazz
as being a kind of stylistic cul-de-sac, which nevertheless has considerable "salvage value." Those interested in
exploring this style further are encouraged to seek out the early recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford
Brown, and others.
Bebop’s sins/shortcomings are
much less global than those of avant-garde jazz. Unlike avant-garde jazz, bebop is often/usually melodic, just not often/usually
memorably so. It has order, it has structure, it has a number of virtues, to the extent
that it transcends its juvenile, elitist origins. A lot of it is good—if not great—art, but you really have to
hunt for it.
Avant-garde jazz, on the other hand, is practically
all unmitigated garbage—neither great, good, mediocre, nor bad. Just crap. (I would be delighted
to learn of even one counterexample.
Ayn Rand wrote a nice
explanation of a colloquial distinction that I will apply here: "It's a great work of art, but I don't like it."
(See her essay "Art and Sense of Life," The Romantic Manifesto.) John Coltrane was a superlative jazz saxophonist—I
just don't like his music. Coltrane was one of the second wave of bebop jazz musicians; and
while he also delved into avant-garde playing, he is more widely respected and appreciated for his early recordings. In his
second wave bop playing, he was still working within a basically structured context, so you can certainly analyze and/or respond
to true artistic values in his playing. (I respond to them, all right—just negatively!) And there is no doubt
that he was a virtuoso. We could certainly distinguish in a blindfold test between Coltrane and a less talented amateur.
Another saxophonist, Ornette Coleman, on the other hand,
was in the vanguard of the jazz avant-garde. He was "deconstructing" both music and instrumentalism. For that reason,
I despise him and his recordings. (My negative response to them is not to artistry I am uncomfortable with, but to
a con artist trying to pose as a true artist.) We might be able to distinguish between Ornette
Coleman and a less talented amateur—but only in a sense similar to being able to tell the work of the Unabomber apart
from that of a high school or college age terrorist bomber. But why bother??
For further reading:
Leonard B. Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas. Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture, University
of Chicago Press, 1967. See especially the next to last chapter,
"The Perception and Cognition of Complex Music."
Pleasants, The Agony of Modern Music, Simon & Schuster, 1955. See especially
Henry Pleasants, Serious
Music and All That Jazz, Simon & Schuster, 1969.
See especially pp. 132-162. But hell, read the whole book!
One of the best parts of exposing my views on the Internet is the unexpected feedback I receive from concerned people
who take issue with what I have said. John Z. McKay, a music major at MIT who shared some interesting
remarks about my essay on perfect pitch, also disagreed strongly with my slant in this piece. We had an interesting email
discussion, which is excerpted below:
17, 2000, John Z. McKay (jzmckay@MIT.EDU) wrote:
I came upon your webpage while looking for Objectivist thoughts concerning aesthetics, specifically with regard to
music. The reasons for this investigation are rather diverse, but let’s just say that I am very interested in various
philosophies of music and aesthetics.
In any case, I read some of your essays, and I must say that you have a lot of thoughtful arguments. However, I'd
like to respectfully disagree with some of them.
I just wanted to voice my thoughts regarding your objectivist attempt to give criteria for "good" music,
as exemplified in your Bebop article.
I perceived that you had two major arguments:
(1) Bebop is not "good" because it doesn't have singable melody, and a good melody is
often the most important criterion good music, since it gives something for the listener to have something to latch onto—allowing
the music to be understood as a greater whole.
(2) Avant garde jazz is not "good" because it lacks organization (and, often,
arguments, I say the following:
Why do you perceive melody to be of primary importance? One of the most important roots of jazz is in African music, and much
of this music carries considerable complexity in rhythmic forms while placing little or no emphasis on melody. Other world
musics are similar in emphasizing other aspects of music other than the tradition of Western music
(i.e., Western music having a melody supported by tonal harmonies, often with a regularized form). Are you then categorically
dismissing a large amount of world music as "bad" music? Just because we can't understand the rhythmic complexity
of African music without intense analysis, does that mean that our emphasis on melody supported by harmony is superior and
more self-evident? Through a study of ethnomusicology, one can see that other cultures place considerable emphasis on aspects
of tuning (which we've all but forgotten since equal temperament became standardized), rhythm, timbre, etc. And many of
these musics use melodies that are either simple enough to be inconsequential (and downright boring
if taken on their own) or complex enough in a non-Western way to make them "unsingable"
by most Western audiences.
essence, I think your claim that Bebop is not redeeming music because it doesn't have strong melodies is making a strongly
SUBJECTIVE value judgment that is due to your indoctrination in Western musical culture. Just because we can't fully understand
African music (or Balinese or Indian music) with our Western ears, is it bad? In the same way, just because we can't hear
the complexity of Bebop without a great deal of training in that area of jazz, is it bad? Your argument about artistic intellectualism
and exclusionism is different—and perhaps has some merit. But the value judgment about melody being one of the sole
characteristics of good music is on very shaky ground as an objective criterion.
(2) Music is defined most broadly (by some) as simply "organized sound."
I know you take issue with a definition like that, but it speaks directly against your argument... Avant garde
jazz IS ORGANIZED. Perhaps the organizational criteria are very free—perhaps there are few limitations on what is permissible.
If there are no limitations (i.e., someone is allowed to run around the room banging whatever he wants and doing whatever
he wants), then we may argue about whether that could possibly be perceived as music. However, even in that extreme case,
we may still be organizing the sound by putting some limitations (e.g., the person cannot leave the room and thus is limited
by the kinds of sounds he can produce).
However, although I myself may have trouble calling that example "music," Avant garde
jazz, and specifically your examples of late Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, have considerable amounts
of intense organization, without which the music would dissolve into incoherent nonsense. Take "Lonely Woman," by
Coleman—one of the great free jazz compositions. Here, we have a melody which is played by two instruments, mostly in
unison, in somewhat free rhythm. The freedom of both players produces a somewhat heterophonic
sound, which makes it interesting. At times they play in intentional harmony. Underneath is a complex rhythmic pattern on
drum set and a bass drone. The drums may appear to be completely independent of the melody, but actually they add dynamics
and punctuation through their own ebb and flow. And, overall, the rhythmic pattern is very specific and organized.
Anyhow, I'm sure from your background that you
are familiar with what I'm talking about. My point is that there are a large number of parameters that are specifically
limited in free jazz and Avant garde music. One of the arguments that was
made against all of jazz early this century (and still by some conservatives) is that the improvisation factor makes the music
a disorganized sham. Soloists get up and squeal and solo away—how can that be good music? The only good that comes out
of it is the soloist showing off....
Is that the argument you're trying to make? In that case, we might as well throw out a lot of New Orleans style
music as well as late Swing Era. Of course, you say this music is good because you still have melody and melodic fragments
to hear. Then we get to Bebop, and all that is left is the rhythm and the chord changes—and that is bad, you say. But,
then we have Coleman producing music that DOES have a recognizable melody. Yet that is bad because it is "disorganized."
Basically, I think you're drawing a line that
cannot be drawn OBJECTIVELY. And, I don't think you should pretend that it is in any way objective. All music has some
organization, by definition. But your argument tries to make up some critical line about the specific ways in which music
must be organized to be "good." And, I think that is something that will always be subjective.
In essence, I admire your attempt to come up with
an objective theory of musical aesthetics, but I can't buy it. I'm going to keep looking, though...
To which I replied, on January 22, 2000:
> But, my real reason for e-mailing you is that I just wanted to voice my thoughts regarding your
objectivist attempt to give criteria for "good" music, as exemplified in your Bebop article. <
I think you misunderstand what I'm driving at.
I don't view music as all or nothing good vs. bad. There is a continuum along which I would place particular musical pieces
as being relatively better or worse. Secondly, I judge music both according to its technical/esthetic merit and its
philosophical/sense of life merit. That is why I referred to Coltrane's playing as "great art, but I don't like
> (1) Why do you
perceive melody to be of primary importance? One of the most important roots of jazz is in African music, and much of this
music carries considerable complexity in rhythmic forms while placing little or no emphasis on melody. Other world musics
are similar in emphasizing other aspects of music other than the tradition of Western music (i.e., Western music having a
melody supported by tonal harmonies, often with a regularized form). Are you then categorically dismissing a large amount
of world music as "bad" music? <
No. Just because I hold that melody is a primary or high value in music, does not mean that I cannot value and enjoy
relatively non-melodic music. For instance, I enjoy some of Debussy's less-melodic works much more than I enjoy some of
Schubert's more-melodic works. And I can "get into" music of other cultures, as well, though I find it a lot
of work for not a lot of payoff. In general, I acknowledge that there are many values that can be found in music and the other
arts. The reason that I argue for melody—especially, dramatically structured melody—is the same reason that I
prefer drama with characters and plot. I think that the "world" they help construct is more interesting and says
something much deeper about human life than music or drama without it. But that doesn't mean that all music or all drama
has to conform to this ideal in order to be worthwhile. Nor, however, does it mean that the best music or drama that does
not conform to it is as worthwhile as the best music or drama that does.
> Just because we can't understand the rhythmic complexity of African music without intense
analysis, does that mean that our emphasis on melody supported by harmony is superior and more self-evident? <
Yes, as I argue above.
> In essence, I think your claim that Bebop is not redeeming music because it
doesn't have strong melodies is making a strongly SUBJECTIVE value judgment that is due to your indoctrination in Western
I said that "...in the final analysis, I see bebop jazz as being a kind of stylistic cul-de-sac, which nevertheless has
considerable 'salvage value.' ...Bebop's sins/shortcomings are much less global than those of avant-garde jazz.
Unlike avant-garde jazz, bebop is often/usually melodic, just not often/usually memorably so. It has order, it has structure,
it has a number of virtues, to the extent that it transcends its juvenile, elitist origins. A lot
of it is good—if not great—art, but you really have to hunt for it." So, contrary to your statement, I do
hold that bebop jazz has redeeming qualities.
because we can't fully understand African music (or Balinese or Indian music) with our Western ears, is it bad? <
No. See above.
> In the same way, just because we can't hear the complexity of Bebop without a great deal of
training in that area of jazz, is it bad?
No. See above.
> Your argument about artistic
intellectualism and exclusionism is different—and perhaps has some merit. But the value judgment about melody being
one of the sole characteristics of good music is on very shaky ground as an objective criterion. <
I didn't say music couldn't be good without
> (2) Music is defined most broadly (by some)
as simply "organized sound." I know you take issue with a definition like that, but it
speaks directly against your argument... Avant garde jazz IS ORGANIZED. Perhaps the organizational
criteria are very free—perhaps there are few limitations on what is permissible. <
Read (if you haven't already) Leonard B. Meyer in Music, the
Arts and Ideas in which he discusses avant-garde music and points out that a good deal of it exceeds the cognitive ability
("channel capacity") of even the educated listener. Granted, no one says that an artist must guarantee that his
viewer will be able to grasp it, but if the artist raises the bar too high, he will guarantee that the viewer will be unable
to grasp it. This feature of aleatoric and serial music is interestingly similar to the problem
listeners of avant-garde jazz have in figuring out what is going on. Intellectual/artistic elitism has played a pernicious
role in this mismatch between artist and audience.
In essence, I admire your attempt to come up with an objective theory of musical aesthetics, but I can't buy it. I'm
going to keep looking, though... <
All of this discussion of bebop and avant-garde jazz aside, I hope you will check out my new essay "Music and
Perceptual Cognition" in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1. You can read it by clicking here.
John replied again on January 23, 2000:
I do realize that you were not trying to say that there is some sort of simple "good
vs. bad" categorization to music, however the very nature of your essay implies that you were trying to draw a line somewhere—if
not between "good" and "bad" music as a whole, then at least between good and bad characteristics of certain
types of music. My point was mainly that those characteristics which you earmark as "bad" might not necessarily
be perceived as such if we have enough listening background in a particular style.
I guess my main reason for making that argument is from the number of
research studies done in the psychology of music over the past century or so. Basically, if there is one thing that they have
shown, it is that the old attempts to somehow derive Western music from acoustical theory without any social context are on
very shaky ground. The art of music is largely based on the culture we live in, and any theory that claims Western music to
be "superior" or tonal music to be superior or anything else has to see that in light of research done in the developmental
psychology of music.
perceptual standpoint, cultural indoctrination has allowed some cultures to perceive music composed entirely on one monotone
(with a variety of timbres, attacks, dynamics, etc.) to be extremely emotionally affecting. That's a severe case, but
nevertheless this is what ethnomusicology has discovered. So, although I certainly enjoy a good melody, I wouldn't go
so far as to make the judgment that melody is the superior factor in producing artistic or emotionally-affecting music. Culture
seems to play a much larger role than acoustics.
However, although I am not ready to make the judgment that certain aspects of Western music are superior, I am sort
of in a personal quest to find something superior about, say, Schubert over Schoenberg. But, I don't think that the answer
to dismissing serial or aleotoric music comes through making claims like "Melody is the most
important component of good music." Ethnomusicology has shown that many cultures find too much artistry in music that
places little or no emphasis on melody for me to make that judgment.
As for your point about "cognitive capacity" regarding serial music, well,
I acknowledge that there is probably something to that. However, although I am not familiar with the work you cite, I have
read a bit about musical cognition studies (by the way, I never did mention my background—in case you're curious,
I'm a senior in college majoring in music, and I'm going to graduate school to study music theory next year. My interest
in music cognition and the philosophy of music may be something I pursue in graduate studies, but for now it's more of
a hobby). The only problem I have with the "exceeds cognitive capacity" argument is that I think it assumes that
we have to process music in very specific ways to enjoy it. However, people who are basically "musically illiterate"
can still enjoy Mozart to a high degree. Thus, just because we can't hear a tone row or something doesn't mean that
we can't enjoy the music.
although I still have trouble getting enjoyment out of a lot of serial music, other people I know who are open-minded with
regard to 20th century music find the music to be affective without being able to understand its structure. For instance,
a classmate of mine recently told me that, of the operas she has not seen, she most wanted to see Alban Berg's "Wozzeck"
live. Granted, this music is somewhat more accessible than most Schoenberg (in my opinion), but I still have trouble enjoying
this music. Yet she finds it very affecting, even though she has a very limited understanding of the music, how it is constructed,
and even the harmonic language of the piece.
In any case, I don't think that "processing capabilities" necessarily will limit enjoyment of music.
In Lehrdall and Jackendorf's "A Generative Theory of Tonal
Music" (one of the ground-breaking books in finding parallels between linguistic theories of grammar and the "grammar"
of tonal music), the authors discuss how tonal music is perceived and how the brain breaks it down to enjoy it. However, later
they make some brief comments regarding serial and other complex 20th century music where they argue that most serial music
cannot be broken down by the brain in the same way that tonal music is. However, just because we cannot "parse"
the language of serialism, that does not
stop us from enjoying the diversity of dissonances, rhythms, and timbres that make up the piece. So, although it may be more
difficult for composers to produce the effects that tonal music imparts, the authors argue that we can still enjoy the music's
other factors. It is different, but there is nothing that proves that it cannot be emotionally affective through some alternative
processing in the brain. (I recommend this book—it's a bit dry and a bit difficult to understand unless you know
the basics of linguistic theory, but by browsing the main points you can see the basic theory that is now being developed
to explain how we can enjoy large musical forms as a whole.)
Lastly, there is another book I'd recommend. Although there are occasional psychological terms
that can be confusing, "The Perception of Music" by Robert Frances is an excellent introduction to the complex nature
of musical perception—and, important to our discussion, the huge amount of influence that our culture has on how we
perceive music and what sorts of characteristics we need in the music we enjoy. It also contains a number of references to
non-Western musics that are built on totally different types of structure. It's a somewhat
older book, but it's a good primer and most of the information is still pertinent.
Anyhow, I could give some more recent references if you'd like more
information, but I think "The Perception of Music" can really open your eyes to the amount of processing that our
brain does to the sounds we hear—and how much of that is influenced by the music we have heard in our culture. (It certainly
taught me a lot of things.)
thanks again for your reply. And, I hope you continue thinking about the philosophy of music—it's a great topic,
and something I wish more people (musicians and non-musicians) would take more seriously.
Also, thanks for the references. I'll check them out, as well as
your more recent essay