6. Musical Sovereignty: A Political Analogy

Musical Sovereignty: A Political Analogy

The United Nations organization gathers together diplomats from all its member countries in order to prevent wars and solve global problems like climate change, world hunger and malnutrition, poverty, slavery, human trafficking, etc. But the UN does not have sovereignty. It is organized confederally, with a weak central government that has only the power granted to it by its constituent members, who are themselves sovereign. Likewise, starting the American Civil War, the states that tried to secede from the Union organized as the Confederate States of America. From the founding of the United States of America, the leaders and residents of these southern states believed and intended the Union’s states to be sovereign, not the national government. After the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling on the Dred Scott case—that slaves were property and therefore permitted in all states and territories—the southern states argued attempts by the Union’s national congress to legislate on the issue of slavery exceeded its jurisdiction and violated the sovereignty of the individual states.

In the United States Congress, senators and representatives have the right and the duty to vote against bills that run contrary to the interests of their respective states. But in contrast to the UN, should such a down-voting senator or representative be in the minority, he or she would still have to observe and respect the laws passed by the majority. After all, the United States government is organized federally, with a strong, sovereign central government and comparatively weaker constituent states that are not sovereign. In the UN, if a member country feels a certain resolution does not align with its interests, it may vote against it in the resolution’s preliminary stages. And if the resolution passes anyway with an appropriate majority, those countries who disagree with it have no legal obligation to comply with the resolution. This principle was demonstrated in 2003 when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq against the will of the United Nations.

Given the inherently benevolent mission of the UN, most of the resolutions proposed would be in the best interests of everyone in the world. After all, who doesn’t want to reduce environmental pollutants? With respect to the narrative of the human race, in which all humans are the protagonists, it would seem rather antagonistic for a UN member country to reject, for example, a resolution that provided means to reduce human trafficking. So why do countries sometimes exercise their sovereignty by spurning UN decisions?

President Bush based his justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in spite of the UN’s disapproval, upon his confidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that posed a legitimate threat to American security. Controversy surrounded his decision. Hussein had denied the existence of WMDs in his country, and by the end of the war, the United States had not found any. Did we have bad intelligence? Did the Bush Administration have other reasons for wanting to invade Iraq? Further, citing a potential but yet-unrealized threat as grounds for invasion constitutes the paradoxical ‘offensive defense.’ In the abstract sense, are there instances in which it is diplomatically justifiable to attack another country in self defense? Concretely speaking, were we justified in invading Iraq in 2003?

Answering these actual-sovereignty-related questions is outside the scope of this book. But let’s digress for a moment and conduct a thought experiment. Imagine a parallel universe in which everything is the same as in this one, except the following conditions are true (remember, this is our thought experiment, so the conditions are true because we say they are, not because they do or do not resemble in any way events that actually took place):

  1. It is 2003.
  2. There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  3. Saddam Hussein intends to use the weapons against Americans.
  4. American intelligence agents have verified absolutely that Hussein possesses such weapons and intends to use them against Americans.
  5. For some reason, though the reason is irrelevant here, the United States cannot share this intelligence with the United Nations. Perhaps it is because the information was obtained illegally, and to divulge the source would reflect poorly on American diplomacy in the international community. Another reason could be that revealing the specific source would undermine ongoing clandestine operations in the Middle East. Again, though, the specific reason does not matter. What matters is that we know but cannot tell.
  6. Though the United States cannot give proof of the threat without diplomatic consequences, it will not hurt the position of the United States to tell the United Nations of a suspected threat.
  7. The US tells the UN its suspicion, and asks for permission to use its military to “investigate.”
  8. After voting, the UN General Assembly/Security Council denies this request.

Taken together, these conditions exemplify circumstances in which a UN member country would be well justified in operating against the will of the other members. The UN decided based on incomplete information, and if Hussein’s target was specifically the United States, the stakes would be higher for Americans than for the residents of other countries. Who are they to tell us we can’t defend ourselves?

These conditions, again, are the products of our little thought experiment, whose purpose was to create a situation in which national sovereignty would be legitimately used to subvert the United Nations. It is not ideal that the interests of the UN conflict with the those of the US or any other country, but our thought experiment proves the legitimacy of such a conflict to be possible.

The relationship between the US and the UN is analogous to the relationship between the definition of music and the people who listen to it. The analogy, in which the UN represents the will of all the world’s people, is constructed below:

A sovereign nation : The United Nations :: The definition of music : The will of the people

To compare music to a sovereign nation-state does not mean music is best when it conflicts with the will of the people, just as it is not ideal when the interests of sovereign nations conflict with the will of the UN. Nor does the comparison mean a confederal system of international relations, in which nations can exercise their sovereignty against the the will of the UN, is best.3 The comparison is only that—a comparison—to help us better understand the relationship between music and its listeners.

To fully appreciate music, then, what we need is an objective definition of music that is irresponsive to what people want, just as a sovereign government, acting in its own interests, is irresponsive to what the UN wants. That is not to say the definition of music would not reflect what people want, that the interests of a sovereign government would never align with the interests of the UN. We would expect to see alignment in most cases for both music and international relations. And we should expect to create the highest quality music when it aligns with what people like to hear, just as we should expect to solve the greatest number of the world’s problems when the interests of individual sovereign nations align with the interests of the UN. With respect to international relations, this alignment must occur via international cooperation. With respect to music, the alignment must occur from the coincidence of what the people want and the natural and physical properties of music, not because the people said so. We will explore these natural and physical properties of music in the Chapter 1 as we construct our definition of music.


3The Rourke text presents a compelling case for the necessity of moving toward a model of international relations in which some national sovereignty is yielded to a central international government.

5. Thinking Objectively About Music #2

Thinking Objectively About Music #2

Below is a scenario that further illustrates the importance of separating the objective from the subjective:

Farmer: I’ve got the best darn pig in this whole county fair!
Judge: No doubt; I have never seen a finer animal.
Farmer: Then why didn’t I win the blue ribbon?
Judge: This here is a pie-baking competition. You want the livestock pavilion.

This example gets to the heart of the point. The quality of the pig is matter of opinion, though this matter is not contested; both the farmer and the judge agree the farmer has a pig of award-winning quality. Whether or not the pig is actually a pie, however, is a matter of fact, and in the example, this matter is contested, at least at first: the farmer has mistakenly categorized his pig as a pie. And as a matter of fact, the farmer is objectively incorrect.

The example of the farmer and the judge underscores one last point that must be made before moving on. To ask of a given sample, “Is it music?” is not the same thing as asking, “Is it good?” A thing can be both good and not music at the same time; if a thing is shown not to be music, that does not mean it is not of good quality.2

Indeed, subjective personal judgment does play an important role in the appreciation of music, but it is a secondary filter, enjoying less primacy than the fundamental objectivity filter that separates music from non-music. Perhaps the most important task of the music appreciator is to develop the taste to answer the question, What is good music? This question has two parts, for which possible answers must pass through both filters, objective (What is good music?) and subjective (What is good music?). It seems bizarre that one would even need to use the first filter, perhaps because we so rarely use it deliberately. We take for granted that we use the first filter all the time, often subconsciously. Common sense tells us not to enter a pig into a pie baking competition, which is why anyone attending a state or county fair would be so unlikely to see such an entry. But this first filter is precisely why we would abstain from entering even the best pig into a pie-baking competition in the first place: we are making the objective judgment that a pig is not a pie. We never even need to use the second filter that asks us to determine just how good of a pie that pig really is, and this second filter is the one we employ more conscientiously and deliberately.

So far, we have seen extreme examples to illustrate the difference between objective and subjective judgments. Clearly a pig is not a pie, and clearly chocolate is not music. In extreme examples like these, the first filter is intuitive and automatic: a pig is so far from a pie, as is chocolate from music, that the case would never even go to trial. But with music there are examples where the incongruence is not so obvious, and in these instances we must employ our objectivity filter much more conscientiously and deliberately. The genre of rap provides the one of the highest-profile examples of something that certainly seems like it could be music but may not be, though there are other examples which we shall examine in Chapters 3 and 6.


2The only exception to this rule would be if the weighing mechanism for assessing the quality of something asked how musical the thing is. If the thing in question aspired to be music (i.e. the artist intended it to be music, and wanted it to be judged as music), but it lacked musical qualities to such a degree that it could not be reasonably categorized as music, then we could conclude it to be of poor quality overall because it is a poor example of music, the standard by which the artist insists it be judged.

4. Author’s Anecdote #2

Author’s Anecdote #2

Depending on your disposition, the notion that music shouldn’t be governed by our opinions and subjective experiences could offend you. If you are an avid music listener, you may well also be a music collector, and to dismiss the role of your personal judgment would be to say that all the time and critical listening you have invested into curating your collection is for naught. I must therefore demonstrate why it is important to have such a resolute distinction between objective and subjective judgments about music.

During my sophomore year of college, I took a fine arts gen-ed class on the appreciation of American music. The instructor’s syllabus listed as one of the course objectives that students should leave the class able to objectively describe the music to which they listened. The instructor clarified that, upon listening to a piece of music, students should be able to discern musical facts from the performance. I hear a trombone would satisfy this requirement, as would identifying the name of the piece and/or its composer, or if it were, rhythmically speaking, in duple, triple, quadruple, or some other meter. I like this song, this song makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, and this guitar solo is badass would not pass the objectivity test.

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.

2. Author’s Anecdote #1

Music Theory, Musicianship, and Music Careers

In my first semester of college, one of the electives I took was a course on music recording technology. Of the twenty or so students in the class, only one other student aside from me completed the music theory/aural skills course sequence.1 The rest were aspiring rappers and rockers who wanted to learn the technology they needed to make their beats and record their hooks and licks without having to learn the language of music, which would have showed them how to assess whether or not their licks, hooks, and chord progressions were any good.

One kid in particular bragged about how he purposefully abstained from learning music theory because he didn’t want it to ruin music for him, for music to lose its magic. And I’ve heard similar sentiments from other people as well. After several years of reflecting on the importance of learning music theory for one’s career as a musician, I developed the following philosophy: Studying music doesn’t take away its magic; it turns you into a magician. This philosophy also applies to non-musicians too: the more a listener learns about music, the more intimate will be his/her experience with it.

My music professors made sure to emphasize that nearly all professional, working musicians did more than one “thing,” by which meant revenue-generating music-related activities. In other words, most professional musicians earn a living not just performing music in professional ensembles, but also teaching lessons and classes, composing or arranging music, and, less commonly, writing about music. This book is part of my attempt to carve out a career as a musician.


1These courses are the fundamental courses for becoming a professional musician. They teach the language of music, and at some schools, aural skills courses are called ‘musicianship’ courses. Music theory and musicianship can be thought of as opposite skills. Whereas music theory teaches students how to hear (in their heads) and understand written music without it actually being played, musicianship teaches them how to transcribe and understand music they hear (from a live or recorded source), though these are overly simplistic definitions.

Sometimes when professional musicians use the term musicianship, they are not referring broadly to a quality possessed by anyone playing an instrument or singing, but to the specific set of skills developed in a musicianship class: interval recognition (e.g. perfect fifth, major sixth, etc.), chord quality recognition (mostly triads and seventh chords), and chord function recognition (with respect to the key/scale of the music, which note is the root, and how is that chord used?). The music profession recognizes these skills as basic and fundamental, so even if someone becomes a financially successful music performer (e.g. rockstar, singer-songwriter, rapper) despite not having developed these skills, s/he will not be recognized by the profession as a strong musician. For more on the ‘Rockstar Myth,’ see Chapters 8 and 9.