I’ve long held that virtually all the different types of art are open to anyone, that you can, for instance, come to embrace music you used to hate if you just give it a little effort. I’ve taken most people’s denial of this as evidence of their own self-ignorance or bullheadedness or lack of ability to feel: a willfull blindness (or deafness, in this case) to some area of human experience that they should feel a little embarrassed about at least. I find my attitude especially rare among musicians, who in their own self-editing tend to hone their tastes to a fine point and dismiss anything that violates the rules of their own creations as crap. Admittedly in such cases musicians will often take a looser attitude towards music of a fundamentally different type than that which they create, so that a rocker might not have such strong opinions about opera even if funk or country are roundly dismissed as being inadequate, non-rockin’ forms of rock. The more similar in some respects the music is to what they like, the more the violations of their particular aesthetic ideals will be seen as offensive.
Of course this little theory of mine is hardly scientific: it is not falsifiable, for one thing, in that if anyone tries to get into something new and fails, I can just blame them and/or the content of the particular work in question, e.g. Nazi folk songs are just going to be off the table for some people no matter how jaunty the songs may be, and it’s hardly a character flaw that someone can’t just “get past” the lyrics in such a case.
In our Santayana episode, I got another challenge to my non-theory here: Santayana agrees with me that appreciation of a work is a matter of a matter of a reaction between the spectator and the work (and not just purely a matter of whether the work is any good or the spectator’s “taste” where there’s nothing more to be said about this), and also agrees with me that the overall quality of a work best determined not by how widely it is appreciated but by the quality of the appreciation of those who love it best, but he doesn’t agree with me that people can change what they like and don’t. Given how deeply Santayana goes into the mechanics of appreciation, there’s a lot more he could have said had he considered this question directly: to what extent is “musical conversion therapy” possible?
I like this new term for getting to like a new band because of its associations with the notoriously misguided conversion therapy for sexual preference. If musical taste is more biological, as Santayana sometimes makes it sound, then no such conversion in taste should be possible, but surely we all have the experience of getting to like something over time (in the area of food too!), even if we don’t conclude from that that ANYTHING can be appreciated over time from that experience.
Santayana gives us the tools to address this question in his analysis of a work as involving form, matter, and expression (i.e. associations), even if on a closer look these categories tend to blend together.
“Form” is the part that Santayana most applauds, and is on his account the most open to refinement. If you learn some musical theory, you’ll likely appreciate complicated classical music like Stravinsky or Mahler more than otherwise. While these composers do have their visceral side so that such education often isn’t needed, it can help one “get it.”
“Matter” has to do for music with the quality of the sounds themselves. Orchestral strings playing a full chord sound nice, whereas a weenie synth sound lacks that warmth, with all the overtones, and the complexity that comes out of 20+ violins (or voices) all playing the same thing but with slight variations. So can one “learn” to like the thinner sound? Will it somehow get more lush with repeated listenings? No, but one can adjust one’s expectations and learn to ignore some deficiencies of this sort by paying more attention to other aspects, even other aspects of the matter. So if we’re talking about cheesy 1981 techno music, maybe it’s a matter of focusing on the beat (we were unclear in the discussion whether the beat counts as form or matter, but who cares), the melody, the singer’s persona, or the way the different synth lines fit together rather than merely getting turned off by a horrid synth string (or, worse, syntho horn!) sound and/or a cheap drum machine.
“Expression” is everything not covered by the above. So the drum machine may not have a nice sound in itself, but if it evokes the mechanical (Devo, anyone?), then that can be part of its “statement,” not just in delivering a satiric or otherwise meaningful message, but in shaping how we feel in reaction to the music. A singer’s voice may not evince the quality of tone (matter) that would be ideal, but may sound more “human” (Paul Simon’s talk-singing comes to mind) or make be calculated to evoke a character that is interesting in some way.
Expression is the thorniest area when it comes to differing and evolving tastes. If a song relies on its lyrics for its appeal, and I don’t speak its language (literally or figuratively, as when I just don’t get the appeal of “thug culture” and so can’t get into gangsta rap), then I’m not going to like it. Can I get over that by learning? Maybe or maybe not. Satire in particular relies on cultural touchstones to appreciate: if you’re not similarly annoyed by the machine that the artist is raging against (say, because you’re just not familiar with it or it wasn’t rammed in your face when you were growing up), you’re not going to sympathize with the work.
Expression is in most cases purposefully complex, such that it may be really hard to figure out, when you don’t get a work, what it is exactly that you’re not getting. I think a lot of it really can’t even be put into words: through repeated listenings, you have to feel your way around to gain comfort in this new environment and try to find connections to things you do appreciate, even if these were not connections intended by the artist. There are often lots of “ways in” to a musical genre or particular artist or work. I tend to glom onto particular artists, such that once I get a paradigm model of how great their work can be by really connecting with one album or even a song, then I can listen to other things and try to see them as children born within the same family, such that if one seems especially ugly, I can try to figure out why: what was different about that album, that song? Was it the token contribution by the guitarist who doesn’t usually write songs, and so coming from a completely different place than the rest of the album? Was it a failed experiment whose intentions, at least, one can appreciate? Was it drawing on some arguably goofy musical influence that the songwriter usually doesn’t let surface so overtly?
With expression involved, music appreciation becomes sociology: Is the music baudy? Geeky? Down home? Is it real, it it authentic according to some model of authenticity you can understand and related to? And again, it’s one thing to step back and respect different musical goals and forms in the way you’d “appreciate” different cultures, but it’s another to actually jump in and surrender (at least temporarily) to the aesthetic itself, which, again, may involve building ways of relating to the material that even run counter to the attitudes of the creators themselves.
Beyond being interesting in itself, thinking about music appreciation in these terms can help inform the question of why people embrace or reject philosophies, apart from rational grounds whereby arguments are impartially dissected, as if “impartiality” in this sense were any more than an empty ideal and a lot of the work weren’t being done on a pre-rational level, as discussed in our Deleuze episode.
We’re currently in discussions about a potential music-oriented episode whereby we’d subject ourselves to this kind of conversion therapy (OK, whether the other guys will tolerate me pushing far-out music onto them). Given that it’s a wholly different mode of taking in new material than reading difficult texts, it’ll be interesting to see whether I can get the other guys to jump into it with both feet.