Friday, 10 February 2006

Music appreciation: Objective or Subjective?

In July last year, Cokemachineglow writer Amir Nezar wrote a really interesting article about music appreciation entitled On Criticism: When Feelings Aren’t Enough. Another Cokemachineglow writer, Peter Hepburn, has recently responded with his own article The Subjective Approach to Music Criticism.

Take a read, it's really interesting stuff.

If you can't be bothered reading it, here is the gist. Amir's stance is that you can't talk about your appreciation of music without having objective evidence to back it up. He says that a good critic doesn't simply say "so and so have released a fantastic album that feels right" without giving evidence as to why it's right. He feels that there is a need for in-depth technical musical evidence here, right down to discussing the use of time signatures and chord changes as the basis for enjoying music.

Peter thinks that Amir is wrong for "attempting to place a technical framework on music criticism". He talks about how the Stooges hardly even knew how to play their instruments, but they gave birth to punk rock. He talks about some artists like Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham can be appreciated more based on their lyricism and delivery rather than their musical compositional abilities. He discusses how certain quintessentially British albums like Parklife, Different class and London calling will most definitely be appreciated on a different level by British fans than by American fans.

Which side of the fence do I sit on? I think it's fairly obvious from my posts on this blog that I most definitely agree with Peter's arguments. I'm not a muso. I've dabbled in a few instruments in my time, from recorder, clarinet and guitar. But it always ended in a cop-out when I couldn't be bothered anymore. Instead, I prefer to leave it to the experts and I do the listening instead :-)

Because I have less technical musical knowledge than some, does that make me a less capable music critic? Aren't the intangible qualities of music, which I generally talk about, just as worthy of discussion? After all, it's all good and well if you can discuss an artist's use of a 7/8 time signature and experimental chord changes, but is that going to make you enjoy the music any more?

Now I know some readers of this blog (one in particular springs to mind) may take offence to my comments so I'd like to be clear here. I'm perfectly aware that there is a difference between a technically competent musician and one who doesn't know their B sharp from their F flat. I'm not arguing that. I'm simply making the point that I don't think technical competence is in any way proportional to musical enjoyment.

Frank Zappa was considered one of the best composers of the 20th century. I've tried and I've tried (I have 7 of his albums) and I just can't get into his music as much as I'd like to. I'm not doubting that he's a master at composition, but just doesn't hit the right spots for me. Bob Dylan has a technically poor singing voice, but it doesn't mean that he isn't one of my favourite vocalists of all time.

In most cases, I can't put into words why I love a particular album, song or artist. There's something deeper going on here, and trying to treat music appreciation as a pure science with objective metrics doesn't gel for me.


  1. Settle down, Brett, just count slowly to 10 and walk away... :)

  2. I'll have to sit on the subjective side of the fence. Universally, music listeners cannot agree on good and bad, so technical composition isn't the lone magic solution. I think there's got to be an interpretation factor.


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