On the Appreciation of Music

January 2013 | Musings

All of us, albeit to varying degrees, enjoy listening to some type of music. We connect with it, we "like" it, and we develop a strange type of relationship with the creators/interpretators of it. We stick by our favourites, and when they're challenged, we clash with whoever said "Man, those guys suck!" or "Yeah, I don't really like them." And that's when things get interesting. I've had enough of these arguments to see that most people support either a completely subjective evaluation of musical quality, or a completely objective one. Funnily enough, it seems to be the subjective ones who are the most stubborn. For them, musical "quality" is a question of whether you like it or not - whether the music speaks to you, whether you feel connected to it in any way. A lot of people actually fit this bill. A smaller group are completely objective and think that all you need to do to get "into" a band is to see whether their music is of any objective quality. The truth is, however, appreciating music requires a bit of each, on some sort of scale.

You see, we can't deny that some bands just connect with us on a level that has nothing to do with the objective analysis of their music. The ones with which that connection is the deepest are usually our "favourite" bands - my top two are Muse and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That is not to say that I don't have that connection with other bands, but those are the strongest. However, we also can't ignore the fact that music has an objective side - there is such a thing as "good" and "bad" music, speaking from a completely objective, quality-wise point of view. I guess "good" and "bad" aren't exactly the best terms - rather, we should use something that alludes to the fact that music is created on a scale that goes from formulaic bubble-gum pop simplicity to inter-dimensional telekinetic jazz improv complexity. There's quite a bit in between there, and somewhere there is a line to be drawn - a line on which one side lies objectively good music and on the other is everything that isn't good. The placement of this line requires a whole other argument and quite a bit of research that I'm not gonna get into now, but I just may at some point...

Anyways, back to our studies. Let's say we've managed to place this line somewhere. Now we must bring into play the undeniable human aesthetic nature that drives us to like and dislike things. We must however, re-emphasize how different this is compared to the objective quality of music. Liking and/or disliking music does not have anything to do with whether music is good or bad. Which is why we can have those "guilty pleasures", where we very much like music that we know is objectively bad. Essentially, we need to understand that although music can be good or bad, the aesthetic attraction we feel towards the music can be in complete disregard of its objective quality. The combination of the strength of this attraction with the objective quality of the music is what has led me to declare Muse and RHCP as my favourites.

So then, how are we to go about evaluating music we come across so easily in this age of the Internet and social media - where bands (and my projects are no exception) pummel you with links to their material and demand that you give them plays so they may feel a little better about themselves. My basic strategy is this: first, begin with an objective evaluation of the music's quality. I know this is harsh, but if the music's truly bad, close the tab and move on. If the music's objectively of some quality, keep listening. If there's something that right away throws you off about the music - be it the guitarist's style, the vocalist's sound, or something else - then again, close the tab and move on. If not, keep listening. Listen to all the songs that they've put online through various social music networks. Once you've listened to everything, then you can decide whether you like it or not. And that's where the subjectivity kicks in. Did it elicit some sort of aesthetic reaction from you? Were you interested in the band? Did it just make you want to say "Awesome!"? From that, decide whether or not to like their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, get their music, or whatever. But that's just how you're gonna have to survive here. To help everyone, we can't give crappy music a chance because you think the singer is cute or you like their happy-emo-contradictory genre. As mean as that sounds, I'm sorry but it's true. If I make something terrible, please ignore it and walk away. Or offer constructive criticism. Your choice.

But this discussion is not really about the Internet, so let's get back to the main point. Objective and subjective appreciation of music are not two concepts that are at odds with each other. They are two concepts that should be used together to determine whether an artist or band or composer's music is something that you would put in your music library. Think of it as a threshold above which music is good, and above that threshold you can separate music into stuff you like and stuff you don't like.

The final warning is to not confuse good music you don't like with bad music. It's easy to call music you don't like "bad", but is it truly bad? There are a lot of very talented bands whose music I cannot stand, but it's an insult to them to say they are bad - for they are not. I just don't like their music. This must be differentiated from truly bad music. Because the people who make truly bad music should not be allowed to "make it" in this new music industry, but people who make good music you don't like definitely deserve it.

I wrote this little essay because I think this is a very important point to wrap our heads around - not only for ourselves but also because it can affect the way the new music industry is created, and who gets in (or doesn't). Although I know that the explanations I've provided here are not altogether complete, like the fact that the threshold where music stops being bad and starts being good is more like a grey area than a line, I hope this gives a basic overview of the ideas behind appreciating music this way. And I truly think this is the way we should be looking at music.

© 2015 Pierre Massé