The Need to Validate Musical Emotion
Everybody takes his own taste in music for granted.
When you love a piece of music, it seizes you, it grabs hold of you, it consumes you. The reaction is immediate and soul-filling. Your favorite music, perhaps more than any ordinary emotion, feels absolutely inevitable and self-evident. And because music is such an intense pleasure, it feels particularly irresistable--as though it would be impossible, nay, inconceivable, to not embrace it.
And yet we find that different people have radically different taste in music.
You say that a certain piece is beautiful, uplifting and inspiring, but someone else finds the same piece boring and sleepy. A young person regards some song as powerful and envigorating, but his parent finds it obnoxious and irritating. One man says that this symphony is intensely passionate and heartfelt, another says that the same music is sappy, gushing, and ridiculously "heart-on-sleave."
When we encounter such disparities of taste, we are often surprised, even shocked or blindsided. The thing that had felt so unquestionable and obvious is suddenly revealed to be highly questionable and far from obvious.
And yet, when one wants some answers and some resolution to this dilemma, the mind is blank. What is the basis for those reactions? And who is right?
People don't know.
With music, we take our own likes and dislikes for granted--just as the boy took for granted the smell of his own house, just as a person takes for granted the "wallpaper" of his own mind. There is much more going on, which we need to become aware of.
We are right to enjoy music in the moment, and to give in to it fully as an emotional experience. But when we resist analysis after the fact, we commit the same fallacy as the solipsist: we fall into subjectivism, small-mindedness, bias, and unnecessary ignorance.
Notice that without answers in this domain, we end up in one of two places. Either we become dogmatists, trying to command our own taste as superior, on the basis of some sort of authority, unproven prestige, or "Will of the Group"; or we become subjectivists, throwing up our hands and declaring it's all just a matter of opinion, we can't know, and that's the end of it. In either case, reason surrenders and becomes passive, instead of engaging with the substance of the question.
The same shock of disparity we experience on a personal level has played out in world history, as different cultures first became aware of one another. For most of history, people encountered only their own local culture--its language, food, art, style of music and dancing--and they took that cultural package for granted. As far as they knew, it was the one and only, eternal way.
But as explorers and traders reached ever more distant lands, people began to learn about different cultures--including very dramatically different ones. With this information, they faced the realization that their own culture was not the only possible one. What they had taken for granted all along was not a given, after all.
In this historical progression, we see the same two errors of dogmatism versus subjectivism. Some sought to conquer and eliminate other cultures, imposing their own ways, on the basis of nothing more than the crudely primitive assertion of, "My tribe is best--obey!" Others concluded with "multiculturalism"--the idea that there are no common, cross-cultural standards, and that to think in terms of any universal value-judgments is chauvinistic and unfair. This is an enormous false alternative.
Neither dogmatism nor subjectivism, neither oppression nor multiculturalism, gives us answers.
Neither provides us with the objectivity, the self-knowledge, or the validation that human nature so profoundly requires.
So let us, for a change, seek out precisely these things.
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Musical taste is not like what sort of ice cream you like or what baseball team you root for. It is an expresion of the core of who you are--of your deepest identity as a person. Music is not just "ear candy"--it is a statement on the meaning of life.
Musical expression and taste are intimately connected with all the questions of personhood: personality, mental health, moral character, cognitive style--everything that makes an individual unique.
So we all face, as an inescapable logical fact, the question of what your taste in music says about who you are. If some music you love is bad, does that make you a bad person? Does it mean there is something wrong with you? If you like something noble and grand, does it don you an air of superiority over the next guy? If you love some music that no one else around you can stand, does it mean that you are just crazy, or are you actually right while everybody else is wrong? How do you process contradictory "guilty pleasures"--which one may feel in spite of his better judgment?
Musical taste is an expression of your unique character as a person, and your own implicit self-concept. It is an enormous affirmation of who you are inside.
So when that affirmation is challenged, what can you do to meet that challenge?
We need to bring objectivity. We need to rise above the emotions we have been locked into--not to negate them, but to understand what they are, and where they come from.
An objective theory of music allows for the person-to-person and culture-to-culture variation which does exist, while finding the universals, the common fundamentals of human nature. It identifies the laws of musical emotion, which are the framework within which we can understand and validate individual taste. It points the way to some standards of value: of what is the best man can aspire to, and to what we should grant the highest honor.