Saturday, February 16, 2013

Learning to Unappreciate Music!

In my last post I stumbled across an interesting cliché about listening to music: that learning more about music and how to listen to it inevitably leads to appreciating more music. Here is how one writer put it:
Researchers at Australia's University of Melbourne say that the more dissonance (which they describe as "perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound") that we hear in music, the less we enjoy said music. Seems obvious enough, right?
Also falling into the "no kidding" category is the not-at-all new notion that the more we're exposed to a certain kind of music — either through intentional engagement or simple osmosis in whatever culture we're immersed in — the more we like that music.
 So, any exposure to any kind of music means we will like it more? I'd like to test that theory. Here, listen to this:

If you didn't appreciate it the first time, then I'm sure that just listening to it ten more times will do it?

How about this?

Just give it more time and I'm sure you will start to appreciate the subtleties...(!?!)

The truth is that most music is not very good and some is rather remarkably bad. If I were still teaching at university I would love to offer a course in "How to Unappreciate Music". We would learn to identify bad music by listening. This is valuable because good music, not to mention great music, is at one end of an aesthetic spectrum at the other end of which is bad music. The clues as to what constitutes aesthetic worth are as evident, by their absence, in bad music as good music. If you want to appreciate the subtle power of good repetition in, say, Beethoven, then I really think that you should be exposed to the grating unpleasantness of bad repetition.

Why are the virtues of unappreciating music so rarely mentioned? Is it that those who are trying to flog music appreciation courses are just scared of driving away business? Is it the fear of seeming negative? Is it just too subtle a concept? The truth is that the more comprehensive and profound your knowledge of music is, the fewer pieces of music you are likely to enjoy and the more music will drive you up the wall! Ah, that's probably why people don't want to mention it.

Well, let's clear the palate with some good music, shall we? Here is a late Haydn symphony, nicknamed the "Drumroll" for obvious reasons:


Mike101 said...

You forgot Arnold Schönberg and the second Viennese School. They still get the label Classical ? And do we scholars really hate them ?

Bryan Townsend said...

Funny you should mention Arnie and Alban and Anton! I'm just reading Structural Functions of Harmony by Schoenberg. I certainly don't hate their music. There are a lot of pieces that have a unique, eerie beauty.