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Is it possible to be judge a piece of music objectively?

There is a school of thought which says " If I like it it's good, if I dislike it it's bad"

Whereas I believe that a judgement based solely on a subjective response is not a judgment at all, at least not one worth considering.

As a composer, even when writing for 'oneself' as opposed to writing 'applied' music to order, is it not the case that one must strive for objectivity? 

It is my belief that whatever choices one makes in a composition, it is the musical logic, language and unity of any particular piece that should inform those choices. At least to some extent. Anything which appears as arbitrary can only weaken the piece.

 

( This is a topic some of us were discussing in another thread but was deemed 'off topic' so perhaps we can carry on here.)

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I think that to objectively rate music, a formula must first be derived to describe 'good music'. I don't think that is possible. All we can compare new compositions to is existing compositions which have been judged subjectively. I'm at university at the moment and have studied some psychoacoustics, and will continue on to study the psychology of music. So far I have learnt that there are very vrey objective measurements and that a lot is down to preference. A piece musician may need to be technically brilliant to play a piece, and it may confrom to traditional styles, but there is the possibility that it sounds 'wrong'.

Well Anne, is it therefore also impossible to judge anything objectively?  Is there no case in human endeavour where example X can be said to be better than example Y? 

And James, you said we need to derive a formula  to describe 'good music'. Do we also need a formula to describe 'good' anything? 

 

Don't we know when we are being presented with something sub standard in music as in anything else.

Obviously we have to compare like with like. But isn't it the case that experience, knowledge, expertise, gives us the tools to discern the wheat from the chaff? Like a connoisseur of wine?



Anne Goodwin said:

Let's begin with a definition of the term "objective" Michael.  In the 1988 edition of "The New Lexicon Encyclopedic Dictionary" that I own, there are two main definitions given  to this term.  It says: 1. adj. of or pertaining to an object//having a real, substantial existence external to an observer//pertaining to an external object or event quite independent of the observer's emotions or imagination//unbiased, to take an objective view,//(gram.) of the case of an object governed by transitive verbs or prepositions. 2. n. an aim or goal//(mil.) a place to be captured, destroyed, etc.// (gram.) the objective case//something having an existence external to an observer//(optics) the principal image forming device in an optical instrument.  In a microscope or refracting telescope it consists of a lens or a system of lenses forming an image of the object at the focal plan of the eyepiece [fr. M.L. objectivus]

To provide a short response to your question, no, I don't think it is possible to judge a piece of music objectively just as I truly doubt that it is possible to judge the performance of a piece of music objectively even though music competitions are held all the time and the judges do just that.  HOWEVER, I do think for through-composed art music that it is possible to judge at least SOME of the ELEMENTS of the piece objectively (albeit in a subjective way).  Perhaps you have entered a composition competition and specific criteria were given regarding what the judges of the competition would be looking for, for example, the piece may be required to be atonal where sweet-sounding harmonies are to be avoided.  Conversely, it may request that the piece be tonal and that an identifiable key must be established and that the piece must conclude with a perfect or plagal cadence.  These sorts of criteria are fairly straight-forward (I think!) and therefore can be judged 'objectively.' 

 

Those are my thoughts for the moment. :)

 

Actually no, Michael. Some things areto serve a specific purpose. For a example, a good kettle boils water fast, quiet and energy eficciently. How 'good' it is can be measured objectively by comparing the results for each kettle.

 

Music is there to express and entertain (I'm not getting in to a discussion of what is music and what is it for). The amount of people entertained can be measured objectively but not their enjoyment. And enjoyment cannot be measured, nor is it a measurement of how good music is. Hence my suggestion of a formula. Although, this would describe the 'perfect' piece maybe and all other music would be an imitation.

I like a kettle to be a nice shape and to be loud enough so I can hear it going on from the next room. Therefore, what makes a good kettle for me might not make a good kettle for you.

 

 


James Watson said:

Actually no, Michael. Some things areto serve a specific purpose. For a example, a good kettle boils water fast, quiet and energy eficciently. How 'good' it is can be measured objectively by comparing the results for each kettle.

 

Music is there to express and entertain (I'm not getting in to a discussion of what is music and what is it for). The amount of people entertained can be measured objectively but not their enjoyment. And enjoyment cannot be measured, nor is it a measurement of how good music is. Hence my suggestion of a formula. Although, this would describe the 'perfect' piece maybe and all other music would be an imitation.

Good point, but you're using subjective terms there. How do you quantify 'nice' and what is loud enough? These aren't requirements, they're additions. Appearance do not affect performance, in kettles at least. Maybe not the best example.

However, all things are subjective - listen to equal temperence tuning then Chinese tuning. Their scale sounds good to them and ours sounds good to us - we're used to it. So anything we do in the name of objectivity is ultimately subjective unless you approach it mathematically.

Helmholtz studied the percieved consonance of harmonic tones and found that 'musically naive' listeners prefered the interval between two similtaneous notes which lined up roughly with the mathematical musical scale. Science proves a preference for intervals so we know these are 'good'. But still, this 'goodness' is always, always subjective.

The matter of scales, tunings and culture is a vast subject on it's own so I won't go there.

However, I still say that if criteria are agreed before hand then qualitative judgement can be made.

If you agree on what makes a good sonata, essay, poem, pizza, pair of shoes etc. you can then go about judging examples of each.


James Watson said:

Good point, but you're using subjective terms there. How do you quantify 'nice' and what is loud enough? These aren't requirements, they're additions. Appearance do not affect performance, in kettles at least. Maybe not the best example.

However, all things are subjective - listen to equal temperence tuning then Chinese tuning. Their scale sounds good to them and ours sounds good to us - we're used to it. So anything we do in the name of objectivity is ultimately subjective unless you approach it mathematically.

Helmholtz studied the percieved consonance of harmonic tones and found that 'musically naive' listeners prefered the interval between two similtaneous notes which lined up roughly with the mathematical musical scale. Science proves a preference for intervals so we know these are 'good'. But still, this 'goodness' is always, always subjective.

@ Michale and James - So basically subjectivity creates objectivity and since not everyone's subjectivity is the same, the results will differ from person to person?

Could it be said that the only person(s) that can judge something objectively are those that are responibile for its creation? Assuming that their was a specific goal in mind and structure in order to convey...something? And once they reveal their intentions to others, it is then that the piece can be seen and judged differently?

But even still, an outsider would still judge music subjectively when attempting an objective response, so basically you can't have one without the other?

Is there even an answer that would satisfy the author of this post? Or was this just to stir up a debate?

I'm hungry.

I won't post any more confrontational responses but I will say this: it is my understanding that art (inc. music) cannot be objectively measured. If something physical is designed/contructed only to serve a purpose, it can be objectively examined against the criteria in terms of proficiency. I write music that I love, I don't write music to be good, so Hell No the writer can't be objective, or at least I can't.

 

Alton, you say 'judged differently', which I struggle to conceptualise regarding objectivity. Objective judging can only differ if the criteria differ. This is a new idea to me so bear with me... People can look at a piece of music and believe they are being objective, but their decisions are influenced by personal taste. So they may have set their own personal criteria for a good piece based on previous experience which is certainly subjective.

 

Going back to your wine comment Michael, yes the connoisseur can detect nuances in the flavour, but it is him which decides if the flavours go together. You can grade objectively on technicality but not on an arbitrary scale of 'goodness'.

No need to not post "confrontational responses" I personally enjoyed the discussion.

When you said, "Alton, you say 'judged differently', which I struggle to conceptualise regarding objectivity" you went on to express yourself and basically answered the question that I had first asked. 

As for the quote. I was thinking about the message of a piece of music. Some people like to tell stories with music, some people like to mimic nature, etc etc.   If it isn't obivous that that is what the composer is doing, the listener just hears the sounds and from those sounds, draws a limited conclusion but when it's explained, the perception changes. How they sonically and visually see the music begans to evolve into something else. There could be a measure where a fox is stalking it's prey and how you represent that can be compared to how it's been to done before or how the listener would represent that.

 

Now, I am not concluding anything on the topic of objectivity or what have you, the previous paragraph was only to explain my question. While I see your point and it does make sense, I only have questions.

So a painting or musical composition or a poem by a chimp can be said to be as 'good' as that of Van Dyke, Bach and Keats?

 

Why does a kindergarden art exhibition not draw the same critical attention as the latest Royal Academy or Guggenheim Museum exhibition? 

 

If art is about self expression ( I don't believe it is, at least not to such a great extent) why is Mozart's 'self' more worh listening to than my plumbers ham fisted poundings on his piano? ( No offense to the noble trade of plumbing).

Who gets to decide what is 'good' and why?  If it's all just personal taste.

There's an example I've heard used, althoughit's a bit out there - if an alien were to observe it. Basically, if someone who has never heard music were to listen to it for the first time, with no prior knowledge or understanding of it, they would not be able to determine which peice was judged better by us. From the outside, Bach and N-Sync may be graded the same.

 

For example with art, I personally don't get anything from Picasso but I do accept he's highly regarded. It's the influential who decide what is popular, then in time popular becomes classic. In the 'old days' when not everyone could get anything published, only what the influential liked became popular. And people believed them.

Bach and N-Sync cannot be compared because they are in different fields. How about the alien listening to Bach and some of Bach's contemporaries, many of whom have been forgotten.  Or even comparing one of Bach's fugues with a high school student's attempt ( in the same style). Even an alien, surely could tell which one was produced by a master. 

Even with less strict forms it is possible to perceive that which is the product of a superior understanding, command, imagination, technique etc. Isn't it?

 

As to your relationship with Picasso. You are deferring to those who you believe 'know' more about art. He is highly regarded by some, that is true, but I'm sure he has had and still has his critics.  If you spent a lifetime (or less) in the study and practice of drawing and painting then you might feel your opinion is as 'valid' as the 'influential' and make up your own mind. Perhaps you would conclude that Picasso is overrated or perhaps you would conclude that he was a genius. 

 



James Watson said:

There's an example I've heard used, althoughit's a bit out there - if an alien were to observe it. Basically, if someone who has never heard music were to listen to it for the first time, with no prior knowledge or understanding of it, they would not be able to determine which peice was judged better by us. From the outside, Bach and N-Sync may be graded the same.

 

For example with art, I personally don't get anything from Picasso but I do accept he's highly regarded. It's the influential who decide what is popular, then in time popular becomes classic. In the 'old days' when not everyone could get anything published, only what the influential liked became popular. And people believed them.

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