Social media has made Ciceros out of a lot of us. Before we know it, we’re neck-deep in a debate about one person’s deepest passion, something no one else had even thought about until that moment, and suddenly it’s the Roman Forum. Feelings get hurt because most of us are only there for a little conversation and not a debate, something that requires skill, tough skin, and a certain amount of intellectual distance. It’s enough for a lot of people to swear off Facebook entirely or opt for a less verbal medium like Instagram.
In what started as a friendly conversation about our favorite songs written specifically for film (this is the kind of thing my friends and I do for amusement), I contributed Paul McCartney’s epic offering to the legacy of Bond Themes, “Live and Let Die,” to which my buddy responded that while, as with “all things Wings,” he does love the song for sentimental reasons, he can evaluate Paul’s songwriting here as half-baked and the arranging and producing as overblown. I proceeded to argue publicly for the merits of “Live and Let Die” (the songwriting is “economical and effective” and the bombastic production is “appropriate to the task at hand”), but it got me thinking. How much of this love of our favorite songs is just a pure product of nostalgia? How can we separate the music from the pleasurable memory of experiencing these songs from an earlier, more innocent time? I mean, is this stuff really any good at all?
There’s no accounting for taste and it’s foolish to try, but that is no reason to swear off evaluating art altogether, which begs two legitimate questions.
Why evaluate music, to begin with? Good or bad, why does it matter? Is there anything beyond “I like it” or “I hate it” that is even worth talking about?
I’ve found that it’s been worthwhile to give music I once didn’t like another chance.
Modern life is an unceasing bombardment of information and our personal filters have grown super-acute from constant use. We have become so protective of our time and attention that a lot of good stuff can get bounced in the process. As someone always on the lookout for overlooked gems, I’ve come to distrust my own overactive filter and I’ve lately come around on some great music I had previously rejected for what now seems like inexplicable reasons.
Like everything, there’s a lot of bad music out there to sift through. It requires patience we don’t have and fresh ears that are impossible to maintain, so a lot of good stuff gets lost in the process (I hated Elvis Costello when I was first exposed to him by a roommate and grew to adore what was initially repellent about him). Quick reactions are valuable in some cases (have you read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell?), but probably not here, so a more evaluative method can yield better results and you can end up with a little more music to love. Which is nice.
Is there anything beyond “I like it” or “I hate it” that is even worth talking about?
But what about the music we do like? What’s the point of being analytical about the music that thrills us?
We are always evaluating and making judgments as part of the modern human condition; it’s involuntary, so we might as well get good at it. Figuring out, not just what we like, but why we like it helps to turn that involuntary action into an asset, a valuable skill. If you’re a glutton for great music of all kinds like I am, knowing what you like and why makes the search for new music to enjoy less overwhelming and confusing.
But having great taste doesn’t require any analysis at all — feeling your way through it is perfectly acceptable and can work really well. I just happen to be one of those people that really enjoys identifying what I like and then going to look for it elsewhere. So for me, the real reason I’ve found for analyzing the songs that I like and the music I love is that it’s fun.
That covers the easy question — why.
How do we differentiate true quality from mere nostalgia? How do we legitimately analyze and evaluate popular music? By which standard do we measure the quality of one song vs. another?
This is where it gets tangled. Our ears are easily deceived by what we bring to the listening experience. We may be attracted to an old song that pushes the sentimentality buttons in our subconscious. We may be repelled by something new that may contain unfamiliar sounds or a singing voice that we find irritating on the surface. Neither provides a reliable basis of judgement of the music itself, and their influences on us as listeners trying to make an evaluation can be nevertheless profound.
Music has definable, often measurable properties. How fast is it? How wide is its melodic range? Dynamics (how loud or soft the music is and if there’s a large or small differential between the peaks), harmonic key (or lack thereof), meter (how the beat is counted), rhythmic complexity or simplicity, form and structure (the sections and how often they are repeated) — all of these are characteristics that can be thought of as residing in the piece of music itself. No one of these elements can in itself be the deciding factor in determining whether a piece of music is great or even good. Even in combination, these are only objective properties; it’s the listener that interacts with the music, and it’s in that intersection where music’s greatness resides.
When music is good, we just know it. This is the kind of knowledge that isn’t based on measurements or any other objective criteria but they may be among the most unshakable truths we possess. It’s a contentious area, this space between empirical, measurable fact and just “knowing,” but since the abstract realm of art and music and the way it moves us is the most natural habitat of this sort of knowledge, let’s just chalk it up to belief. And while Plato, Aristotle, and a whole army of modern philosophers have sought to weed out “justified belief” from mere opinion, the likelihood that there is a working epistemology of music is not very likely.
Still, signs indicate that there may be something going on beyond mere opinion. I think I can tell the difference between a great song and one that is pleasing merely because it pushes my nostalgia buttons. Conversely, we can recognize the high quality of songwriting in, say Bob Dylan, without necessarily enjoying listening to his records (you may not be one of these people, but you might live with one). I don’t love listening to opera but I can tell it’s not because it’s terrible. I just don’t have a preference for operatic voices or a sustained interest in listening to music in languages that I don’t speak. When our tastes evolve, we know it’s not the music that has changed, but our ability to hear it that has shifted.
This is the kind of knowledge that isn’t based on measurements or any other objective criteria but they may be among the most unshakable truths we possess
This gets us no further in figuring out how to objectively analyze music but this kind of awareness can be helpful in breaking out of our arrogance, to maintain some elasticity in our ear canals and be open-minded enough to embrace new bands and artists and new possibilities in music.
I’ve been accused of overthinking music, but I know it’s not true. I know because I still derive great, visceral pleasure from listening to records and witnessing live performances. I get inspired, excited, and often overwhelmed listening to music — none of these can happen while overthinking. What I am guilty of is thinking about music but it’s almost always after the fact; listening to and playing music are experiential for me.
There may be nothing definitive to be gained by intellectualizing music. It’s a process, not a methodology. In other words, thinking about music can only inform, entertain, and help us develop as listeners and musicians, it can’t do much more. Music is not a syllogism to prove or a puzzle to solve, and it can never be mastered, even by virtuoso musicians. Thinking about music is similar to practicing — it brings clarity and prods development, but those are only tools for further exploration. What’s important is preserving the emotional, experiential aspect of music. So, nostalgia and sentimentality are ultimately legitimate if they help us to feel the music, or more specifically if they help the music to get us to feel emotions, even if they’re the easy ones.
I say this all the time. Music is personal. We all have different ways of listening to and using music in our lives, unique relationships to the bands and artists we love, and we all have tastes and attachments to songs, albums, and musical works that align with no one else. To go even further, we all have different processes when it comes to music, ways that we sift through the universe of musical offerings, artists, bands, genres, periods, and styles. And while it’s pointless to try in earnest to get your friends’ tastes to align with yours, it’s fun to find commonality, it’s edifying to let others guide us, and it’s even enjoyable to argue about music to an extent. It’s something we all know a lot about and a little intellectual jousting can be fun. While we may never get to the bottom of the question, “is this stuff even any good?,” the quest itself is its own reward, and the journey to seek out great music is among the most enriching and worthwhile endeavors I know, and I’ll bet you’d agree. Now that streaming services and YouTube makes the panoply of music only a click away, it’s open season, so happy hunting. And please, when you find something you like, try to flow some dollars to the music creators by buying some hard copies or merch if you can. Just one more thing to think about!
Turntable Photo by Anton H from Pexels
David Tobocman is a columnist at Esthetic Lens and an Emmy-nominated songwriter, musician, record producer and film composer living and working in Los Angeles who thinks about music when he’s not writing, playing, or listening to it.