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Musing on Music

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Musing on Music

 Here are a couple of interesting thinkers talking about music. 

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and hugely popular author and lecturer. John McWhorter is a linguistics professor and opinion writer at the New York Times.

Some observations: The quote about all art aspiring to the condition of music is from Walter Pater, the 19th century English literary critic.

Is music "immune from rational criticism"? Ok, let's break that down. It certainly seems the case that performances of music are certainly open to criticism--that is what music critics mostly do. What about the pieces themselves? Certainly it seems that one can praise various pieces of music. Most current journalism, especially of popular music, does nothing but. So if you can praise a piece of music, can you not criticize one? Could you do so on the basis of being pleasing to the audience or not, being incoherently constructed, having grating timbres, having little or no interest and so on? One of the goals of the modernist movement in music was probably to make music immune from criticism, though I'm not sure they entirely succeeded.

What does it mean for meaning to be "subverted by criticism." Certainly by bad criticism, poorly framed, inappropriate or simply incorrect criticism, but valid or justified criticism? How would that subvert the meaning of music? Surely it would be more likely to reveal the meaning? At least that has traditionally been one of the goals of good criticism.

Peterson in his discussion of music as the harmonious interplay of patterns reflecting the true nature of reality is actually reviving the Medieval and earlier conception of the relationship between music and the universe. I'm not saying he's wrong, but wow.

Saying that music is "existentially engaging" is not so far from my own rather inchoate view.

And then McWhorter comes in and says that "a good beat implies truth" and I go wow squared. That's about fourteen bridges too far. Is then rubato misinformation? The mind boggles.

But I'm on board when Peterson says. "the greater the piece of music the longer it takes to exhaust it." I did a post many years ago in which I tried to place different pieces of music on a scale of how many times you needed to listen before you exhausted--or started to--the musical content. Some pop songs, about 10% of one hearing. Some great pop songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever," perhaps one hundred times. A little divertimento by Mozart, maybe 75 times. The Bach B minor Mass? I dunno, I've been listening to it for fifty years now and I'm a very long way from exhausting that piece!

McWhorter gets into some interesting territory when he starts talking about harmony: "Harmony is a funny thing..." Also, "the flatted sixth reminds me of the past -- why?"

But you know, at the end of the day, these two very wise and educated gentlemen are just music-loving amateurs with no actual musical training. As Peterson says at the end, "yes, probably someone knows this and we are just ignorant about it." Well, yeah, I guess so.

I am regularly surprised at how interested scientists, and these two are essentially scientists, though in the humanities end, often get in music, but never feel the slightest need to actually consult a musicologist or two. Because, yes, there are people that know stuff.

I guess this might be a good place to post "Strawberry Fields Forever." With my favorite nine-note guitar solo.




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