Arthur Schopenhauer thought of music as the greatest of the art forms because it and it alone; rather than being merely a copy of the Platonic Ideas, was a copy of the will itself, the metaphysical foundation of the world. Kierkegaard also saw music as the highest art form, but this was because he thought it was the only medium capable of representing the most abstract idea (the sensual) which in turn meant that the musical composition was unlikely to be repeated since it had already acquired its perfect expression.
In this article; rather than assessing the aesthetic value of music in relation to other art forms, I want to answer a relatively simple question, “What makes a Beethoven symphony better than the latest boy band song?” I had a discussion some time back with a British friend of mine who tried to convince me that music had peaked with the Beatles and been in decline since. He had a string of reasons why this was the case (to my shame I can’t remember a single one) and had clearly given the matter some serious consideration. Was he right? Had the Beatles unlocked musical perfection in the 60s? This specific claim seems unlikely but it does raise a couple of interesting side questions; “Why do people feel inclined to rank music in hierarchies?” and “Why do they then want to elevate those hierarchies to the status of universal and/or eternal truth?”
The Typical Approach
Everybody has their own favourite kind of music and while musical tastes are as varied as there are artists to sing songs, musicians to play instruments and producers to promote them, one thing is almost guaranteed to be true; whichever genre, artist, or era takes your fancy, phenomenologically your choice of music appears so obviously ‘better’ that you cannot help but see it as an objective fact. You haven’t necessarily analysed what it is about that particular kind of music that makes it the best but you can feel it. It’s in the way it makes you tap your feet, or the way it carries you away when you close your eyes, or the goose bumps you get when the singer hits that high note, or maybe just the happy mood it puts you in. Of course, you can analyse what makes it better than other genres. Perhaps it’s the complex and intricate harmonies in jazz, or maybe the journey that classical musical takes you on, or perhaps the raw energy of rock.
With what we have outlined here, we can already see a fairly reliable pattern emerging. We take something that starts as a personal preference (“I love this music!”), elevate it to an objective truth (“This is the best type of music!”), and finally justify it (“It’s the best because it is a representation of the underlying metaphysical reality”). Laying out the process like this it should be obvious that, in retroactively justifying why our particular choice of music is the best, we have gotten things backwards. Rather than finding objective, valid reasons to support our theory, all we’re doing is trying to rationalise our subjective preferences.
personal preference –> objective truth –> justification
This process gives rise to a couple of questions; ‘Where does our original preference come from?’ and, ‘Why do we feel the need to elevate that preference to objective truth?’
The source of your original preference in all likelihood arose through some combination of biological and environmental influences. Perhaps your parents listened to a lot of that type of music when you were young, maybe it was what the ‘cool kids’ were listening to when you were in high school. Of course, we also know that exposure to a thing produces a preference for that thing (this is called the exposure effect in psychology) so there may be a consciously directed element behind your preference; you might believe listening to classical music makes you sophisticated and, by playing it enough have managed to cultivate a taste for it. (This can also work the other way though. A friend of mine who hated rap, bought a car that had a radio which was ironically only able to pick up the local rap and hip-hop station. He didn’t like driving in silence so he would just let the station play. Within a month, he complained to me that he had begun noticing he was starting to like the music. The irony was that even though he had no conscious desire to like rap (in fact, he was consciously resistant to it), as long as he kept listening to the station, he was powerless to prevent his own growing affinity). The point here is that your favourite genre of music almost certainly came about as the result of completely random influences you had little to no control over.
So, why do so many of us feel the need to turn what is likely a random preference, into an objective truth? Think about other largely contingent preferences; taste in food or sports, for example. There are no treatises about why cricket is more ‘sophisticated’ than basketball or why apples are more ‘refined’ than oranges. We seem to accept that these types of preferences are completely reducible to individual taste. Music (and more generally, art), however, seems to bring out the elitist in us.
One reason for this, I suspect, is the unique power rhythm and harmony have to arouse such deep, physiological responses in us. Have you ever gotten goose bumps from looking at a painting or eating a delicious meal? Probably not. Has watching a sports game ever made you gyrate and contort your body in a wild but rhythmic fashion? How could a reaction this powerful and in many cases, irresistible, not reflect some kind of undeniable, objective truth?
If all of the ‘reasons’ we muster in defence of our favourite genre of music turn out to be post-hoc rationalisations, am I then committed to a kind of relativism here? Yes, I think so. Let’s look at exactly what someone is saying when they claim that a certain type of music or a particular song is better than any other. The key word here is ‘better’. For something to be ‘better’ than something else means the former has more value, but a thing is only imbued with ‘value’ under the apprehending gaze of a conscious subject, which in turn means it is always contingent on the goals/preferences/standards of that subject. Ultimately, this means that the value of music always comes down to a mediation between the listener and the work, and is therefore 100% relative to him or her.
If you judge (value) music by how complex it is, jazz will obviously be ‘better’ than pop. If your main criterion for good music is its capacity to endure across generations, classical music will be ‘better’ than rap. On the other hand, if you judge music by the inventiveness of its lyrics and the strength of its beat, rap will be ‘better’ than classical music. This then brings us back to the question we began this article with; “What makes a Beethoven symphony better than the latest boy band song?” Given all we’ve seen thus far, it turns out that we can’t provide a satisfactory answer because the question is poorly formulated. A Beethoven symphony isn’t intrinsically better than a boy band song. It may be more involved, more difficult to perform, more complex, more intellectual, but if you don’t value these traits, it won’t necessarily be better.
Can’t someone just object that we should judge music by these traits? Isn’t it obvious that these traits are better than their opposites? Unfortunately, it isn’t. Why should music be complex? Why shouldn’t it be simple? Why shouldn’t music make you tap your feet rather than ponder the meaning of life? If you want the latter, wouldn’t you be better advised to pick up a philosophy book? It quickly becomes clear there are no good arguments for either position because they all turn on what an individual values most in music.
What about the objection that the true appreciation of music requires training and education? The ability to discern good from bad music is, like all skills, an expert ability we must work to acquire. You wouldn’t take your car to a random person and expect him to tell you what’s making that banging sound. You’d take it a mechanic; someone who has experience working with cars and has become an expert concerning how they should work, someone who knows what distinguishes an optimally functioning (good) car from a rust bucket (a bad one).
The problem with this is that the ‘expert abilities’ our objector is equating appreciation of music with, fall within clearly defined parameters. When an expert mechanic assesses a car, she is measuring it against very clear, unambiguous benchmarks. Do all of the parts work as they were designed to? Does the car run smoothly? Do all of the buttons and handles and displays work properly? Cars, and car parts, were designed with very specific functions in mind. This makes it easy to judge whether a car meets these standards; i.e. whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Music (and art, in general) is not like this. It has no clearly defined purpose or function. Is music to intellectually stimulate us? To dance to? To relax us? To fire us up? And then we’re back to the problem of value.
Earlier, I claimed that our musical preferences are in all likelihood determined through a combination of varied influences. I stand by this, but there is one particular influence which seems disproportionately responsible for determining, or at least reinforcing, musical preference; namely, the music one listened to during one’s youth; particularly as a teenager and in one’s early twenties. It is almost a universal truth that “the music kids are listening to these days is rubbish”, and “they don’t make good quality music anymore”, with the phrase ‘good music’ referring precisely to the music we happened to be listening to when we were young.
I believe this is the case because it is during this age period (15-25ish) that we have to find our footing as adults. Obviously, a lot of physical and psychological changes take place around this time, but we also suddenly come upon an entire world of new experiences; our social lives become more complex, the joys and pitfalls of dating open to us, careers begin, we move out of home and become independent, etc. What all of this means is that our musical preferences may have less to do with the music itself and more to do with what we were going through while we were listening to it. When I listen to music from the ‘good ol’ days’ (back when music was still music), I notice that, in addition to enjoying the rhythm, I also experience an involuntary, but pleasant, flashback to that time when life was relatively new and a wealth of opportunities were laid out before me. In this way, music may serve more as a phenomenological marker connecting us to past positive experiences than a simple arrangement of sounds.
The attempt to justify one’s musical preferences as objectively ‘better’ in some way always falls prey to what I call the conservative fallacy, a delusion which always starts with the phrase, ‘Back in my day…’. The conservative fallacy holds that things were actually, intrinsically better in the past, even if this wasn’t the case. The music you listened to when you were young, the movies you watched, the way people socialised, peoples’ attitudes, etc.; all were better, not just different, than the way things are now. In essence, the conservative fallacy is an inability to see past one’s own limited, contingent perspective. It arises in the individual who mistakenly sees him or herself as a completely independent observer, standing above the influences of life, drawing unbiased, objective, pure conclusions about what he or she sees.
This type of nostalgic fantasy manifests quite noticeably in music, where simply hearing a few bars of a song is enough to ‘take one back’ (invariably) to one’s youth in a visceral way, the outcome of which is often the understandable, but equally unjustifiable, impression that your preferences have led you to an objective truth.
 Obviously, it doesn’t count if you have done this in response to your team scoring a goal, hitting a six, or landing a three-point jump shot from downtown.
 Obviously, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that sometimes things were objectively better in the past. The conservative fallacy is the blind belief that this is the case when, in actual fact, it isn’t. For example, one might claim that life was better when kids played outside (like when I was young) rather than chatting and instant messaging all the time, but the hidden bias shows itself when we consider that if the complainer in question had been born in an earlier or later generation, he or she would almost certainly have a completely different opinion.