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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  • Ok, Ondib Olmnilnlolm mentioned magic flute. Have you heard it backwards? Best music sounds great backwards.

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  • I agree that consensus does not give rise to objective truth Ondib, that's a great point. An example of this is that the majority of people once believed the world was flat, yet it was round (er well, pretty much round) even then, objectively (as far as we know).  But judging the quality of a work of art is not the same as describing the shape of the Earth.  The consensus still does not point to objective truth, that remains the same, but in this case, there simply isn't any objective truth, and I will be so bold as to poo poo Socrates and say that I know this is the case.  

    You miss the fact that music has a variety of functions when you write the following

    Suppose the vast majority of a thousand people say, "Love, love me do . . .  you know, I love you . . ." is better music than the first five minutes of  Bartok's 4th String Quartet; and imagine only one of the thousand says, without doubt, the Bartok String Quartet is objectively better.   I hope everyone on this forum has sufficient aesthetic understanding and enough familiarity with the art of music to know who is objectively correct.



    Love Me Do is very successful, or was, at being a smash hit, it's a dance number, the Bartok did not have such a function, dancing to it wouldn't work out so well.  Did the Bartok take more skill?  I would think so.  Does the Bartok transport the listener and uplift them in a way that Love Me Do does not?  Sure, ok.  And if that is what you value in music, the Bartok will be better.  For you.  Objectively even.  It is an objective fact that you enjoy that piece more.  Yet, the values you espouse are themselves subjective.  When you say that an objective standard exists, but it is beyond our knowledge, you suppose that there is a supreme set of values all should hold, and would hold if only we didn't have all this cultural baggage (perhaps, performing "the white man's lie" that western art music is cultureless) And furthermore there is one and only one purpose that all music should serve.  I can't agree with that.

    Let's get rid of the idea of different functions though and compare pieces that have the same purpose, as Michael suggests.  As an example, consider your claim of Mozart's 40th being objectively better than any of JC Bach's orchestral compositions.  Let's even go so far as to say you are right.  I'm not sure what that would mean.  If somebody prefers JC Bach, are they then wrong?  Maybe I am getting personal preference mixed up with objective measurement there but I'm not sure how to separate the two.  What if somebody is so familiar with the 40th that they are sick of it and prefer the JC Bach?  Is their familiarity an imperfection that has crept into their judgment, or is it a completely valid criteria?  You could say "all things being equal, say one has studied both pieces the same amount, and brings no prejudice concerning the author's name to the table, and isn't a JC Bach scholar, and is over the age of 12, born in Western Europe, educated using such and such a text book and" so on and so forth "then they will see that Mozart's 40th is superior".  

    This is making my head hurt.  I'll never be able to convince everyone, probably not even myself.  My final statement in any case: there is no objective standard of judging music, nor should there be.  That shouldn't stop us from judging music though, or creating canons (consensus on what pieces should be studied and performed), or laughing at people for listening to what we think is crap, (although that's probably a little mean), or arguing about it until the end of time, cause it's fun!

  • Intellectual discussions that reach conclusions that are of no pragmatic use, are pointless.

  • ^^That conclusion was pointless : )

  • That comment is pointless......

    However

     "As an example, consider your claim of Mozart's 40th being objectively better than any of JC Bach's orchestral compositions.  Let's even go so far as to say you are right.  I'm not sure what that would mean.  If somebody prefers JC Bach, are they then wrong?" 


    But if they preferred Ludovico Einaudi to Chopin then yes, they are wrong, as wrong as wrong can be.


    Tombo Rombo said:

    ^^That conclusion was pointless

    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…
  • I had never heard of Einaudi before, just listened to a bit of his music.  It would seem that his work is based on extremely different aesthetics than Chopin's, making this comparing across genres once again:  It's like comparing Chopin to George Winston.  Anyways, I find Einaudi's piano music (from what I'm listening to right now) to be overly sentimental, simplistic, new age, yawn inducing elevator music.  But some people prefer that kind of thing, say if they're really into yoga and getting massages and rubbing crystals, and far be it from me to say they shouldn't or that they are wrong.  

    It did occur to me, however, that If you compared Chopin to a beginning student trying to write like him, maybe then you could say Chopin is objectively better.  The beginning student's mother may prefer her daughter's composition to Chopin's, but that might rightly be called an unfair bias.

  • Have I heard the Magic Flute backwards?

    No.

    I am, however, willing to hear anything backwards.

    Do you have link for that, or a link to any great piece of music that is played backwards.

    I suppose you mean backwards like this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmIq9d3COdo

    and that you do NOT mean playing backwards, like this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43hAZBAW3GE


    Mikolaj Holowko said:

    Ok, Ondib Olmnilnlolm mentioned magic flute. Have you heard it backwards? Best music sounds great backwards.

  • hehe, I mean like in the first link. I don't have one. I've heard it sometime ago but i can't remember where. Just get it and reverse it. Sure the attack is reversed but music is still there.

     

    EDIT@ i only found requiem http://youtu.be/Ypy6A2jrRrQ
    but magic flute sounds better

  • I think judging music objectively is difficult at best, and probably impossible. Being objective involves stepping outside of what it is you're judging. If you step outside of music, you totally miss the point of it. I've read about how the leaders and trend setters in music of the 50s and 60s (e.g. the Darmstadt School, and Babbitt at Princeton) tried to define criteria for validating the music they were making, and the criteria had nothing to do with how the music sounded or how the audience experienced it. That branch of music philosophy lead to nowhere.

  • ------

     

     

    

Tombo Rombo said:

     

    You miss the fact that music has a variety of functions when you write the following

     

    Suppose the vast majority of a thousand people say, "Love, love me do . . .  you know, I love you . . ." is better music than the first five minutes of  Bartok's 4th String Quartet; and imagine only one of the thousand says, without doubt, the Bartok String Quartet is objectively better.   I hope everyone on this forum has sufficient aesthetic understanding and enough familiarity with the art of music to know who is objectively correct.

     

    
Love Me Do is very successful, or was, at being a smash hit, it's a dance number, the Bartok did not have such a function, dancing to it wouldn't work out so well.  

     

    --------

    My reply:

     

    Permit me to continue the discussion, using that last idea as a starting point.  You say that I am not considering the variety of functions of music.

    I do have such functions in mind.

    Let us extend this part of the discussion, with a different comparison.

     

    Instead of comparing “Love me do,” with a Bartok String Quartet, let us compare “Love me do,’ with a ballet score, like Stravinky’s “Rite of Spring,” or Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin.”

    If we accept your assumption--that one of the main functions of “Love me do,” is to serve as an accompaniment to dancing-- then the comparison will yield these questions.

     

    Which of the pieces—the Beatles or Stravinsky’s—lends itself to a dance performance that has aesthetic value?

    Would a dance, choreographed for the score of “Love me do,” be able to rival one choreographed for the “Rite of Spring?” I ask whether it would do so for experienced listeners, who understand the complexities of advanced dance, the history of choreography, and the full scope of the art of choreography, as it has developed over the centuries?

    [This link may shed some light on the question:

    A staging of The Rite of Spring, based on the original choreography 

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jF1OQkHybEQ   ]

    Does adding “dance” to our discussion of music, really alter the distinction between valuable, objectively sublime art, and highly promoted manifestations of popular culture, which are relatively simple and unambitious, with regard to their ability to elevate the intellect and the soul?

     

    You said,

    “Did the Bartok take more skill?  I would think so.  Does the Bartok transport the listener and uplift them in a way that Love Me Do does not?  Sure, ok.  And if that is what you value in music, the Bartok will be better.  For you.”

     

    Your remark here is very much to the point.  It raises for me, these questions:

     

    1.  What is the role of skill in our discussion? 

     

    If we were talking about a purely physical activity here, I wonder how the subjectivist view would stand up?

    When we judge an Olympic sport, the victory and praise go to the athlete who displays the most skill:  the one who runs the fastest, the one who throws the discus the furthest, or the wrestler who wins the match.

    There are objective criteria.

    Why should we behave any differently when judging art and music?

    We don’t watch an athlete and say, “Oh, I liked that athlete more, even though he has less skill.”

     

    Imagine a conversation like this between sports aficionados.

    -----------------

    “He’s a good fantastic basketball player,

    “But he can’t even get the ball through the hoop.”

    “I still like him.”

    “Why?”

    “I just like his style of playing.”

    “But he’s never even managed to get his hand on the ball.”

    “It doesn’t matter. All our judgments about what makes a good player are ‘subjective.’ 

    -----------

    Now imagine a similar discussion between lovers of music.

    -----------

     “I like that piece of music.”

    “But it remained in the key of C, and had no changes of rhythm or tempo.”

    “That doesn’t matter.”

     “The same melody repeats over and over, with no development.”

    “So what’s wrong with ‘Row, row, row your boat,’ for Orchestra?

    “All the instruments are playing in unison.  There is no meaningful orchestration.”

    “I like it because it give me pleasure.”

    “It’s not even a round.  It’s just ‘row, row, row your boat,’ with no harmony whatsoever.  It’s totally monophonic.”

    “What difference does that make?”

    “It’s not as good as Beethoven or Bach.”

    “I like it better.  All our judgments about what makes a good piece of music are ‘subjective.’ My judgment is as good as yours.”

     

    --------

     

    If we believe that skill makes a difference, isn’t it clear that the lover of Bach and Beethoven has a point, one that is lost on the second speaker, due mainly to the second speaker’s ignorance?

     

    Isn’t the listener to music who pays no attention to skill just as much in error as the sports aficionado who does not take skill into account?

    The listener who says, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat for Orchestra is just as good as Beethoven’s Eroica,” might appear just as silly (or maybe even sillier than) the basketball fan who says my one-legged uncle Herman is just as good a player as Wilt Chamberlain was.

     

    2.  After skill, comes the more important issue of music’s ability to “transport.”

     

    You said, “Does the Bartok transport the listener and uplift them in a way that Love Me Do does not?  Sure, ok.  And if that is what you value in music, the Bartok will be better.  For you.”

     

    What are we to value most in music, if it is not music’s ability to transport us?

     

    If music does not have that quality, and only serves as background in film, or to provide a beat at a party, so people can entice each other sexually, through the medium of informal dance, then we reverse the terms of the conversation.

    In that case, Bach and Stravinsky are “bad music,” because they might distract us, by causing us to think deeply, or to engage in complex ruminations.   Sophisticated music might actually distract us from the cheap action on the screen, or it might even lead us contemplate the divine, rather than trying to seduce the person whose clothes are slipping off in the middle of dance.  If the criteria are set up a certain way, Beethoven and Wagner are definitely “bad music.” 

    You can test this theory by putting on a Beethoven Quartet while people are engaging in superficial gossip.  Aren’t they likely to object?  Aren’t they more apt to object than they would if you put on piece of “elevator music”?

    So the difficulty does not lie in any supposed fact that musical judgments are subjective.  The difficulty does not lie in the actual fact that people have widely varying views about what is good or what is bad, artistically speaking.   The difficulty lies in the reality that many people do not have either the experience or the desire to become savvy (much less sophisticated) in addressing the issue:  What makes good music?

     

    You said,

     “When you say that an objective standard exists, but it is beyond our knowledge, you suppose that there is a supreme set of values all should hold, and would hold if only we didn't have all this cultural baggage (perhaps, performing ‘the white man's lie’ that western art music is cultureless) And furthermore there is one and only one purpose that all music should serve.  I can't agree with that.”

     

    You make a good point here, and my answer needs to be very clear.

     

    I am not advocating one rigid absolute standard.  Nor am I saying we too have much cultural baggage ( I am saying we lack broad cultural knowledge and familiarity with diverse traditions and musical means).

     

    I am advocating belief in the idea that the Absolute is approachable, but not reachable in human experience on this world.  As finite human beings, living on a planet which possesses less than a few thousand years of recorded musical culture, we have a great deal to learn.  Pretentions to one single absolute standard are just that:  pretentions.  Humility is necessary.  At the same time, we can formulate a wide variety of standards which are “sub-absolute,” but not totally subjective.

     

    We can judge a piece of music using a wide range of criteria:  A good piece must have been composed with skill, a knowledge of melody formation, key structures, rhythms and tempos, an understanding of development, inversions, retrogrades, inverted retrogrades, modulations, harmonics, and a host of other technical considerations that we can add to the list, including knowledge of the various instruments and theories of orchestrations, and so on.

    If the piece of music in question does not display skill in the deployment of knowledge about the uses of sound (the kinds of knowledge mentioned above, and more), then it cannot qualify as a highly valued composition. 

     

    These are necessary, but not sufficient conditions.

     

    To go further, if we can say that the truly great music “transports” us--or that it reflects the invisible Divine to us (in a way that the mind can apprehend)-- then it achieves the heights of sublimity.   The experience of “beauty,” though difficult to quantify (and only marginally less difficult to qualify), is a real experience.  Many can attest to it, when encountering the great moments in works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and others. 

     

    Rather than saying this experience of the sublime is “subjective,” I would suggest just the opposite.  It is a glimpse of the Absolute, or of an aspect of it.  It is apprehension of the Real.  One can call it an experience of God, if one strips away from the notion of God all purely parochial, local, or sectarian constructs.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     



    Tombo Rombo said:

    I agree that consensus does not give rise to objective truth Ondib, that's a great point. An example of this is that the majority of people once believed the world was flat, yet it was round (er well, pretty much round) even then, objectively (as far as we know).  But judging the quality of a work of art is not the same as describing the shape of the Earth.  The consensus still does not point to objective truth, that remains the same, but in this case, there simply isn't any objective truth, and I will be so bold as to poo poo Socrates and say that I know this is the case.  

    You miss the fact that music has a variety of functions when you write the following

    Suppose the vast majority of a thousand people say, "Love, love me do . . .  you know, I love you . . ." is better music than the first five minutes of  Bartok's 4th String Quartet; and imagine only one of the thousand says, without doubt, the Bartok String Quartet is objectively better.   I hope everyone on this forum has sufficient aesthetic understanding and enough familiarity with the art of music to know who is objectively correct.



    Love Me Do is very successful, or was, at being a smash hit, it's a dance number, the Bartok did not have such a function, dancing to it wouldn't work out so well.  Did the Bartok take more skill?  I would think so.  Does the Bartok transport the listener and uplift them in a way that Love Me Do does not?  Sure, ok.  And if that is what you value in music, the Bartok will be better.  For you.  Objectively even.  It is an objective fact that you enjoy that piece more.  Yet, the values you espouse are themselves subjective.  When you say that an objective standard exists, but it is beyond our knowledge, you suppose that there is a supreme set of values all should hold, and would hold if only we didn't have all this cultural baggage (perhaps, performing "the white man's lie" that western art music is cultureless) And furthermore there is one and only one purpose that all music should serve.  I can't agree with that.

    Let's get rid of the idea of different functions though and compare pieces that have the same purpose, as Michael suggests.  As an example, consider your claim of Mozart's 40th being objectively better than any of JC Bach's orchestral compositions.  Let's even go so far as to say you are right.  I'm not sure what that would mean.  If somebody prefers JC Bach, are they then wrong?  Maybe I am getting personal preference mixed up with objective measurement there but I'm not sure how to separate the two.  What if somebody is so familiar with the 40th that they are sick of it and prefer the JC Bach?  Is their familiarity an imperfection that has crept into their judgment, or is it a completely valid criteria?  You could say "all things being equal, say one has studied both pieces the same amount, and brings no prejudice concerning the author's name to the table, and isn't a JC Bach scholar, and is over the age of 12, born in Western Europe, educated using such and such a text book and" so on and so forth "then they will see that Mozart's 40th is superior".  

    This is making my head hurt.  I'll never be able to convince everyone, probably not even myself.  My final statement in any case: there is no objective standard of judging music, nor should there be.  That shouldn't stop us from judging music though, or creating canons (consensus on what pieces should be studied and performed), or laughing at people for listening to what we think is crap, (although that's probably a little mean), or arguing about it until the end of time, cause it's fun!

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