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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  • But tonal music has all those processes (in bold) going on as well as harmonic progressions, so how can they be equivalents?

    Nate Mitchell said:

    As for your question about the post-tonal equivalent of harmonic progression, I mean the ways in which music proceeds from points of rest to its goals.  Of course the vast amount of ways in which music advances from point A to point B are difficult to numerate in the post-common-practice era.  But suffice it to say that a number of processes in the realm of pitch, counterpoint, rhythm, texture, and timbre can be seen as "modern equivalents of harmonic progressions" depending on the composition in question. 

    Good or bad? Searching for objectivity in composition.
    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…
  • In my opinion, it is a matter not of whether or not they are present in any given composition (certainly most are in any style), it is rather which is asserted as the primary driving force.  For example, in the Viennese Classical period, harmonic motion to cadences is often seen as the principle parameter of interest in many theories.  In Caplin's Classical Form, for example, "Local harmonic progression is held to be the most important factor in expressing formal functions in themes (or themelike units)." (Classical Form, 4)  Harmonic progression is even enough to "override" our sense of rhythmic orientation (in theory at least, in practice composers usually complement rather then oppose).  David Epstein, for example, notes that "While on lower levels articulations are integrated and to some extent determined by metric features, this is not the case on macrolevels.  On these broad planes periodic definition of strong and weak - upbeat and downbeat - is determined by harmony, or, more precisely, by harmonic progression." (Beyond Orpheus, 64) Thus harmonic progression is also a controller of rhythm in tonal music.  To put it simply, parameters such harmonic progression are what Leonard B. Meyer would call syntactical parameters; that is, “perceptually discrete, proportionally related stimuli that can… serve as the basis for auditory patternings" ("A Universe of Universals," in The Journal of Musicology, 8).  Parameters such as timbre, dynamic, and texture would be, on the other hand, "statistical parameters," in that they may vary subtly without even knowledgeable and attentive listeners being aware.  In classical music, therefore, syntatical parameters (the most important of which is harmonic progression) are primary in our perception of the unfolding musical "narrative," wheteras statistical parameters are subsidiary.

    In post-tonal music, however, while the distinction between syntatical and statistical parameters may remain in place (or it may not, that is another discussion, though), the harmonic progression no longer is necessarily primary. Most obviously, in a piece like Verese's Ionisation or in like works for instuments of indefinite pitch, other musical parameters are used to move the music from rest through various "progressions" (usually rhythmic or textural) to goals (rhythmic and textural "cadences" if you will.) Thus, the music has taken parameters that were subsidiary to tonal harmonic progressions and has asserted them as the primary driving force for the piece in question.

    Thus, what takes on the role of the "harmonic progression" in post-tonal music depends on the composition.  It is whatever is taken as the principle (or one of the principle) parameters that advances or defines the musical "motion" (that is, the movement from rest to a "cadential" goal).

    In modern music, 


    Michael Tauben said:

    But tonal music has all those processes (in bold) going on as well as harmonic progressions, so how can they be equivalents?

    Nate Mitchell said:

    As for your question about the post-tonal equivalent of harmonic progression, I mean the ways in which music proceeds from points of rest to its goals.  Of course the vast amount of ways in which music advances from point A to point B are difficult to numerate in the post-common-practice era.  But suffice it to say that a number of processes in the realm of pitch, counterpoint, rhythm, texture, and timbre can be seen as "modern equivalents of harmonic progressions" depending on the composition in question. 

    Good or bad? Searching for objectivity in composition.
    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…
  • The type of goal I mean is the equivalent to Hepokoski and Darcy's "rhetorical framing event," that is the arrival point that represents both the “expressive/dramatic trajectory” of the preceding module as well as the preparation of the next. (Elements of Sonata Theory, 24).  In classical music, these are the major cadential arrivals that define the work's formal articulation.  In post-tonal music, this/these cadential moment(s) are still present, they just might not be harmonic cadences, but instead might represent the "expressive/dramatic trajectory" of any parameter that is set up within the composition as a primary musical element.


    Fredrick zinos said:

    Nate, Please dont think I am being obtuse but inmy  view you are using one undefined term as a proxy for another. For example, what is a "goal" of music? That is, in a sense, what this overlong discussion has been about.

    Good or bad? Searching for objectivity in composition.
    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…
  • Re: Ondib

    "For detailed explanation for why serialism generally does not work, and has been, for the most part, a failure, see McHard's book, on the Philosophy of Modern Music.  It's available on the Web on Google books.  

     

    This book was a veritable revelation as far as I was concerned.  It inspired me to revise my entire view of modern music, and I credit it with providing me a new and totally revolutionary surge of creativity in my own work.

     

    I cannot praise it enough.

    When you speak of "the often quickly-changing harmonies and textures so often encountered in serialist works," I do not see that in most serialist music.  I do not see it in,  say Schoenberg's or Webern's mature works.   To put it rather bluntly, I see what McHard and what many others call "Brown Music," music which does not change that much, in terms of harmony or mood.  Even changes in texture are mechanically performed, and therefore somewhat unmoving, due to the rigid nature of "serialist rules."

    The only book by McHard I found on Google Books was The Future of Modern Music.  Sadly, it was an incomplete preview, however I did not see in the index a mention of "Brown Music," nor did I find a critique of serialism, perhaps I have the wrong book or that part is missing from the preview.  Could you perhaps paraphrase the argument against serialism and minimalism for me?  From what you said above I gather that serialism is too strict to allow for meaningful music and that minimalism is too stagnant.  Am I correct?

    What I ask particularly with regards to the critique of minimalist music is why is harmonic change or tempo change inherently important?  I see why it is important to those in a particular aesthetic mindset, but in my opinion certain aesthetic states in which an audience member can be put may make harmonic and tempo change unimportant if the composition renders it so.

    I also wonder about your definition of the word "successful."  Certainly minimalist music and serialist music both can move listeners, I have personally been moved by examples from both genres, in this sense they were "successful" in those cases.  What defines success for you?  

    To answer my own question, I would define success as the ability to produce a meaningful aesthetic response in any listener.   Certainly any musical language can produce such a response in at least some listeners, yes?

  • oh, I am talking strictly of local musical events, this view of a "musical goal" is much different from the "goal of music."  A musical goal refers strictly to the process the music wants to lead to, however these "goals" are tools that a composer may use or choose not to use.  Some goals exist only conceptually: for example, if a cadence in classical music is promised by the harmonic processes at work, but then the cadence is never realized, leaving the listener wondering what "could have been."

    I understand "musical goals" to be arrival points at which the various processes at work in the composition are striving toward.  However the "goal of music" or what I would call the "aesthetic goal," varies from piece to piece and from genre to genre.  The basic aesthetic goal of any piece is to create a significant aesthetic response in an audience member.  Since the aesthetic mindset of audience members continually shifts, then the type of music that will elicit such a response is also continually shifting.  Different musical languages are attuned to different types of aesthetic mindsets in their audience members, and thus the goals of each individual language are vastly different from one another.


    Fredrick zinos said:

    if a legitimate goal of at least some music is cadential feeling then would it be possible to assert that a good piece is one in which such feeling is strong and a less good piece is one in which cadential feeling is weaker?

     

    Is that goal of music?

    Good or bad? Searching for objectivity in composition.
    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…
  • Yes, Ligeti and Berio, of course, are on my list, and many others.

    I cannot put everyone on that list who probably should be there.

    Older composers, such as Varese should be there, as well as Penderecki.


    Michael Tauben said:

    No Ligeti or Berio on your list Ondib?

    Good or bad? Searching for objectivity in composition.
    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…
  • 

Nate Mitchell said:

     

     

     

    “The only book by McHard I found on Google Books was The Future of Modern Music.  Sadly, it was an incomplete preview, however I did not see in the index a mention of "Brown Music," nor did I find a critique of serialism, perhaps I have the wrong book or that part is missing from the preview.  Could you perhaps paraphrase the argument against serialism and minimalism for me?  From what you said above I gather that serialism is too strict to allow for meaningful music and that minimalism is too stagnant.”

     

    Yes, you are right.  More of that book used to be available online than is available now.  You can find only one brief quote about “brown music,” online, and then the text veers off into a discussion of Debussy

     

    In essence, you have it right.  Serialism is too strict, and minimalism is, . . . . . . well perhaps “stagnant” is not exactly the word that is used.  Minimalism is too limited.  Too ‘minimal’, in that the sense that it lacks general variety and therefore fails to interest.  

     

    John Winsor talks about this in some detail, in his book, Breaking the Sound Barrier, Chapter 13. Here he talks about a specific piece by Phillip Glass.

     

     

     

    This passage does fit music's definition because it portrays rhythm to some degree - although it's virtually devoid of hierarchy. By incessantly repeating a single basic figure with only trivial variations (Glass would prefer “subtle” rather than “trivial,” I'm sure), it conveys its meaning to the listener. And its grammar is, of course, quite consistent. But it conveys almost no information at all. Measure 4 alone very nearly represents the entire message. The incessant repetition doesn't communicate the rhythm of human life so much as it suggests the drone of factory machinery. Ostensibly, Glass's music is important literature that is informed by his study of ancient Eastern mysticism. Actually, this excerpt, which is representative of his output in general, is a monotonously repeated arpeggio based entirely on the notes of a decidedly European F Major 7 chord. This music may be purported to facilitate a meditative state or trance - something that could be served just as well by listening to your refrigerator hum. Its remarkable lack of character, direction, significant patterns, and dramatic shape might well engender a state of aural habituation - of hearing without listening. Like the rock music that gave it birth, minimalism is probably best taken with drugs because its purpose is escape rather than engagement. I'm reminded of Samuel Johnson's description of music as a way of “employing the mind without the labor of thinking at all.” At best, this excerpt's appeal might lie at the shallow end of Copland's “sensuous plane.” Although Mr. Glass has a large following, his writing exhibits extremely poor craft.

     

     

    -----end of quote----

     

    You can read the whole passage by going to the book:

     

    http://www.john-winsor.com/index.php4?showpage=btsb

     

    There are several paragraphs about minimalism before the section I cited.

     

    I don’t think John Winsor has conveyed much useful in his book regarding the depth and complexity of the Eastern Traditions, particularly Indian music. Nor do I agree with John Winsor’s views about what he calls “post-modernism” and the so called “post-modern mistake.”  But that’s another discussion.  However, what he says about minimalism is, I think, essentially correct. 

     

    McHard takes the view that minimalism is hardly even worth talking about, and prefers to concentrate on what he considers to be genuinely modern music of the late twentieth century, focusing on the figures you saw in the table of contents.

     

    The problem with serialism can probably be summed up in the phrase used by Curtis.  Serialism is a “music of suppressed contrasts.”  As such, it often feels emotionally wooden.

     

    Of course, some serialist pieces and some minimalist pieces may be considered good music.  But you would have to name them for me, and I have not yet found very many representative works that I would be enthusiastic about.  Take Webern’s short Symphonie, for instance.  I have listened to that work many times.   It takes a good conductor to do it right.  Even then I am not particularly moved by the work, though I appreciate many of its subtle aesthetic qualities, and I partly understand why it is so highly regarded.  Some of the very best minimalist work, like the film score for Poaqaatsi, can be quite moving, emotionally.  However, I don’t think it stands alone as a form of art, apart from the visual imagery it was written to accompany.

     

    You concluded,

     

    “I also wonder about your definition of the word "successful."  Certainly minimalist music and serialist music both can move listeners, I have personally been moved by examples from both genres, in this sense they were "successful" in those cases.  What defines success for you?  

     

    “To answer my own question, I would define success as the ability to produce a meaningful aesthetic response in any listener.   Certainly any musical language can produce such a response in at least some listeners, yes?”

     

    Those and many other questions you asked are worth exploring in depth.  I’ll have to reply a bit later.

     

    Regard,

     

    O.

     

     

  • Reading about musical concepts is SO different from listening to music. ;-)

  • Ondib: before this discussion proceeds much further, I believe I should clarify what might be a misunderstanding (or it might not be).  When I speak of Minimalism and Serialism, I am referring not to necessarily to Minimalist and Serialist compositional approaches or techniques, but rather the musical languages typically associated with composers from those respective schools.  Thus, those that do not follow strict serialism (indeed, their compositional choices may not be particularly serialised at all) sometimes have chosen to write in the particular language that the second viennese school became so known for, and the same can be said about "minimalism," that is, music that adheres to the "sounds" commonly associated with minimalism, but which may often deviate from strict minimalist processes in favor of freer compositional approaches.  I recognize that this might be a misunderstanding that arose entirely from my underexplanation and particular use of the term, and I apologize if it lead to confusion.  Indeed I recognize that the languages I have termed "minimalist" or "serialist" may be a misnomer, since it may include examples which do not adhere to the compositional process advocated by the respective schools.

    Thus I posit my position anew: any musical language has the potential for success within it. What matters is not what language a composer chooses to work in, but rather how effectively the composer can craft meaningful compositions in the style that he or she chooses.

    Perhaps this did not need clarification, but it just crossed my mind that this oversight on my part may have caused some confusion in the discussion.

  • Yours is a well articulated position, and your clarification makes a great deal of sense logically.

    Still, I would wonder what you would praise in the way of examples.

    I mentioned two pieces, Webern's Symphonie, and Phillip Glass's score to Poaqqatsi, as pieces which were considered outstanding by many, as representative works of the "serialist" and "minimalist" schools respectively.  I thought these works failed, at least partly, because the criticisms of the two schools applied to these works, though the works are not without some positive qualities.

    So I just wondered if you had any examples.   Of course, there are countless pieces, written by serialists and by minimalists that I have not heard, that many of us on this forum may not have heard.   

    I am open to hearing any of them that you might suggest.

    The more they depart from the strict definitions-- the "freer" they are in their use of compositional approaches--  the better, as far as I am concerned.   

    (But then they would veer towards no longer being "serialist" or "minimalist" compositions, or they would even veer away from using what might be called "serialist" or "minimalist" musical languages.  It's a fine line, of course.  Or maybe it isn't so fine, depending on the example we examine.  )

    Regards,

    O.



    Nate Mitchell said:

    Ondib: before this discussion proceeds much further, I believe I should clarify what might be a misunderstanding (or it might not be).  When I speak of Minimalism and Serialism, I am referring not to necessarily to Minimalist and Serialist compositional approaches or techniques, but rather the musical languages typically associated with composers from those respective schools.  Thus, those that do not follow strict serialism (indeed, their compositional choices may not be particularly serialised at all) sometimes have chosen to write in the particular language that the second viennese school became so known for, and the same can be said about "minimalism," that is, music that adheres to the "sounds" commonly associated with minimalism, but which may often deviate from strict minimalist processes in favor of freer compositional approaches.  I recognize that this might be a misunderstanding that arose entirely from my underexplanation and particular use of the term, and I apologize if it lead to confusion.  Indeed I recognize that the languages I have termed "minimalist" or "serialist" may be a misnomer, since it may include examples which do not adhere to the compositional process advocated by the respective schools.

    Thus I posit my position anew: any musical language has the potential for success within it. What matters is not what language a composer chooses to work in, but rather how effectively the composer can craft meaningful compositions in the style that he or she chooses.

    Perhaps this did not need clarification, but it just crossed my mind that this oversight on my part may have caused some confusion in the discussion.

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