3. Thinking Objectively About Music #1

Thinking Objectively About Music

There is a textbook for political science students called International Politics on the World Stage, by John T. Rourke. One of the things that made this text memorable was that at the beginning of each chapter, the author used excerpts from Shakespeare plays to illustrate the concepts within the chapter. For example, at the beginning of the chapter on traditional approaches to national security, Rourke included the Hamlet excerpt “Be wary then; best safety lies in fear.” It was partially from these interdisciplinary juxtapositions—using drama to make sense of political science—that the title of this book was conceived: Musical Sovereignty. The juxtaposition of Musical Sovereignty uses political science to make sense of music.

For those unfamiliar with the term, sovereignty describes the highest level of political power—if a political organization has sovereignty, no other political organization governs it. For example, neither my home state of Illinois nor any of the other forty-nine American states are sovereign, because they must respect the laws passed by the national government. In contrast, the United States nation-state is sovereign, because there are no laws, other than its own, that it is legally bound to observe.

Implied in the concept of sovereignty are two senses, one establishing a sovereign government’s jurisdiction over the subjects within said jurisdiction, and the other establishing its immunity to laws external to said jurisdiction. It is this second sense, emphasizing immunity, that the author intends with the metaphor comparing music to a sovereign government. The juxtaposition created by Musical Sovereignty suggests that music, like a sovereign national government, is not, need not be, and cannot be responsive to external demands, especially those placed by people. Music is bound only by its own rules.

Why specify that music must be exempt especially from those demands placed by people? To answer this question, let us examine an activity I used to do when I worked as a full-time substitute teacher. Somewhat frequently, maybe once or twice per month, the absent teacher for whom I happened to be subbing would leave instructions for students to work on an activity most of them had already completed—for example, finish the assignment from yesterday. In these types of situations, I would use free class time to stage a debate answering the question, Is ‘rap’ music?

The idea behind the debate topic was that students would need to define both rap and music in order to assess if there is sufficient overlap between the two items to conclude that rap has absolutely and proportionately enough musical characteristics to be considered music. Often, students would contribute definitions that would include subjective experiences of music, like music makes you feel good. Okay, fine, maybe that’s true in some cases, but in a scholarly debate, that kind of definition is not nearly precise enough. Using that kind of description as a definition for music, at least for the students who decided rap was music, creates a faulty syllogism. “Music makes you feel good” can be rewritten as the premise If something causes someone to feel good, it is music. The faulty syllogism is below:

Premise 1: If something causes someone to feel good, it is music
Premise 2: Rap makes me feel good
Conclusion: Therefore, rap is music

An examination of this syllogism helps to understand why its logic is flawed. Starting with the first premise, that music evokes a positive emotional response from the listener is not a universal characteristic of music. There are plenty of examples of music that run contrary. Take, for instance, movie scores. Composers use incidental background music to reduce the ambiguity of an otherwise-ambiguous scene, by accompanying the scene with music that directs the emotions of the audience. Imagine a scene that features, say, a woman alone in her house. If the music were mostly in a major key, used stable and consonant harmonies, and was neither too fast nor too slow, one could reasonably infer that the woman had a relatively normal day, perhaps one that was better than average. Music like this would be the most likely to evoke a positive emotional response.

Contrast that scene with one in which the background music featured unstable or dissonant harmonies. The most dissonant combinations of notes, at least in Western music, include the tritone interval (a common interval used in police sirens) and the minor-second interval. Melodically (played in sequence rather than simultaneously), the minor second is the “Jaws” interval. Play it slowly on two low notes, and all of a sudden we’re anticipating the woman alone in her house will be attacked by a shark. Psychologically, dissonant harmonies beg for resolution. Even if there is not a conventional way to resolve the dissonant tones—like the way a G Dominant Seventh chord conventionally resolves to a C Major chord—a scene accompanied by dissonant music requires dramatic resolution in which the characters return to some sort of equilibrium.

If good feelings are subjective, can we say with any confidence that music makes us feel certain ways besides good? As the above example demonstrates, the strongest evidence comes from the conventions of film scoring. Even if some postmodern hippy-troll insists no one else can tell her how music makes her feel, and that all music makes her feel good, the standard practices of film scoring are well enough established that we can reasonably conclude there are some kinds of music that deliberately make most people feel uneasy or scared or confused—anything but good.

Back to the first premise of our faulty syllogism—because consequent good feelings are not a universal characteristic of music, we cannot use ‘music makes you feel good’ as a premise for a syllogism in which the conclusion makes a claim about the definition of music (e.g., ‘rap is music’). If it were a legitimate first premise, we could construct the following syllogism:

Premise 1: If something causes someone to feel good, it is music
Premise 2: The Jaws motif does not make me feel good
Conclusion: Therefore, the Jaws motif is not music

Obviously, we know this syllogism to be false; the Jaws motif is clearly and intuitively an example of music (we will examine how we may prove it to be music, rather than simply intuiting it to be so, later on in Chapter 2). Another reason the original syllogism is illogical is that the first premise is not an effective filter to rule out items that are clearly and intuitively not music. For example, consider the following syllogism:

Premise 1: If something causes someone to feel good, it is music
Premise 2: Chocolate makes me feel good
Conclusion: Therefore, chocolate is music

Just as the Jaws motif is clearly an example of music, chocolate is clearly not an example of music.

From here it should become apparent the need to divorce the definition of music from subjective, social considerations: our preferences and experiences are so diverse that no single subjective definition could fully encapsulate all instances of music. And if the subjective definition were generalized and broadened to include or reflect the preferences of every single person, it would then be broad enough to include or reflect non-musical things too. Having a subjective definition is how we end up with dolphins in our tuna net—mostly tuna, sure—but mostly isn’t good enough for a definition. We want our tuna cans to qualify for the ‘dolphin safe’ badge on the label, and that means tuna only.

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