Most of us listen to music on a regular basis, but we don't think much about how we listen.
Our topic this week is the Mystery of Music. Music is an amazing thing. It can move us to its groove and or make us cringe. it can lift us up or bring us down. But exactly how does music work its magic on the mind? What separates good music from bad? And why do different people react so differently to the very same music? Those are just some of the questions we address on this week’s episode.
A first thought is that it’s all just a matter of taste and thus totally subjective! You like Beethoven, but his music leaves me cold. I like that Beatles, but you can take them or leave them. What more is there to say?
In fact, there’s a lot more to say. A person is missing something if she is not not uplifted by Beethoven’s triumphal Ode to Joy, if she’s not haunted by his Moonlight Sonata. And as for the Beatles, who could hear “Yesterday” and not feel an intense sense of longing?
In saying this, I don’t mean to be appointing myself the arbiter of all musical taste. Heck, I don’t pretend to be the arbiter of anything at all, actually. But do consider this. Suppose I put my hand right in front of your eyes. And suppose you were to insist that there or that you see a foot rather than a hand. That would be a sure sign that there was something wrong with your eyes and that it was time to get them checked. And it’s the same, I admit, with musical perception. Musical perception is no more or less subjective than visual perception. Sure, visual perception is partly subjective. But it’s also responsive to what’s out there in the world. Same with musical perception. It’s partly subjective too. But it is also responsive to what’s objectively out there in the music. That’s why I say that if you don’t hear the longing in “Yesterday,” you’ve got flawed musical perception.
Now some may worry that my analogy is flawed in that it conflates two distinct things -- perception and taste. Just because our tastes differ, you could say, it doesn’t follow that our perceptions do. Music is just sound. We perceive sound with the sense of hearing. if you and I hear the same musical sounds, we perceive the same musical reality. But mere perception doesn’t determine taste. That is, we might hear the exact same sound, that is, the exact same musical reality – a C sharp, say – but if you happen to like that sound and I don't it doesn’t follow that one of us has misperceived something in the sound. It’s just that C sharp appeals to you but doesn’t appeal to me. That’s all there is to it. Perception is one thing. Taste is something entirely different. Or so it may seem.
But I don’t think it’s as easy to untangle perception and taste as this line of reasoning seems to suppose. Think about beer. I love beer – especially a soft and creamy stout or a fruity Belgian ale. But I used to absolutely hate the stuff. During most of my college years, when I first started drinking beer, I would chug the first few so that the taste of the rest wouldn't bother me so much. So what changed in me? Part of it was that I started drinking better beer and not just cheap rock gut. But I also became, I think, a better beer drinker. As I a novice, largely unrefined beer drinker, I couldn’t tell a pilsner from an amber. But as I drank more and gained more experience, my palette became more refined. I gradually became attuned to the subtle differences among beers and learned to take pleasure in them. So it’s not just that I drink better beer these days, it’s also that I’ve become better at drinking beer. And I think one can do the same thing with music.
Of course, just because I am better at discriminating one beer from another than I used to be. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that I’m going to like this or that beer better, just because I can tell them apart. But I do think that my more refined makes me a better judge of true beer quality. For example, I would definitely trust the old, more experienced me to discriminate good beer from bad more than I would trust the young and inexperienced me. That’s because whether we are talking beer or music, aesthetic taste is a skill, a skill that can be honed. And if you want to hone our own listening and thinking skills tune in to our show and join the conversation.