Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Good Part

We've been reading Plato in English for the past three weeks, and so I feel like my posts are a lot more abstract than usual, and I haven't done a book review in ages (Side note, but oh, myyy, I received my copy of Annotated Alice a few weeks ago, which is positively splendid, but it's much too good for a review, and so I actually reading stuff, but it's just that I'm not posting. I'll do a short 'feelings' post later, though, because Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of the 65 - see this post.)
But to get a little theoretical, if you will, what makes parts of a song 'good'? There's this long article, which - gasp - is part of Stanford's Plato website, called The Philosophy of Music. It's incredibly long and even more dense, and so I've done the hard part and read through it. To paraphrase, there is a difference between the aesthetic and artistic value of the song, so first I should define what I mean by 'good'. Furthermore, to quote the page (key points bolded. Really, just read the bolded points. Everything else is for context):

With regard to the value of art in general, there are two central points on which there is some consensus. First, most philosophers take the value of artworks to be intrinsic to them, in the sense that the value of a work is tied essentially to the experience that the work affords. Thus, artworks are not (properly) valued merely instrumentally, as means to some end, but ‘for’ or ‘in’ themselves (Budd 1995, 1–16; S. Davies 1987, 198–200; Scruton 1997, 374–6; Levinson 1992, 15–17). The question that naturally arises next is what it is about the experience an artwork affords that makes it valuable. That pleasure is a non-negligible part of the answer to this question is the second point upon which there is some consensus (S. Davies 1987, 198–205; Levinson 1992; Kivy 1997b, 212–17). However, concomitant with this consensus is an acknowledgement that simple pleasure taken, say, in the pleasant sensuality of the musical sounds is too trivial to ground the great value we attribute to music. In looking for other sources, the puzzle that arises is that music is supposed to be an abstract art, par excellence. If this means that music is divorced from everything else that concerns us in the ‘real world’ (that is, extra-musical life), it is puzzling why we should find so valuable the experiences musical works afford. Like the questions about musical expressivity and understanding considered above, this puzzle is most evident with respect to ‘pure’ instrumental music, though solutions to it may be applicable to the purely musical elements of ‘impure’ musical works such as songs.
There are a couple of dimensions to most solutions of the puzzle of pure music's value. One is the extent to which it is agreed that music really is abstract. To the extent that one thinks that music is not unrelated to the real world, one will be able to argue that music's value is at least no more puzzling than the value of arts more obviously related to the real world, such as literature and representational painting and sculpture. The other dimension to most solutions of the puzzle of pure music's value is the extent to which one thinks the abstractness of music is the source of its value. Thus, two theorists might agree on the extent to which music is related to the real world (by being expressive, say), yet one locate its primary value in that expressivity while the other locates it in its abstract, purely musical features.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, those who take the experience of music's expressiveness to be a more intimately emotional one (through being predicated on imaginative engagement with the music, say), tend to emphasize that experience as more central to musical understanding, and thus attribute a larger part of music's value to its expressivity. Those, on the other hand, whose theory of the experience of musical expressivity is more distanced (a matter of noticed resemblance, say), tend to place less weight on this element in their theories of musical value. At one extreme of this spectrum is the position that denies music to be expressive at all, and thus cannot attribute music's value to its expressivity (most notably Hanslick (1986); see also Zangwill 2004). Apart from this extreme position, most theorists agree that music's value is to be located in different kinds of experience, including the experience of purely musical features and expressive features; their disagreements are mostly about the relative weight of these different kinds of experiences in a complete account of musical value.
As with the debate between architectonicists and concatenationists, discussed above, the extent of the disagreement between various parties to this dispute is not clear. Those defending the value of music's expressivity tend to claim that its contribution to overall musical value is significant, but they stop short even of according it primary value, and do not argue against the value of purely musical elements of musical works (Ridley 1995, 192–6; Levinson 1982; 1992, 20–2; 1996b 124–5). They content themselves rather with pointing out the ways in which expressivity can be valuable. These include many of the features discussed above with respect to our interest in listening to music that arouses negative affective states in the listener. To recap, our emotional responses to music's expressivity can enable us to savor, understand, and even, to some extent, experience emotions in a ‘safe’ way. They can provide us with a cathartic release, and enable us to participate in a kind of communication with the composer or communion with other members of our musical culture (Levinson 1982; 1996b; Higgins 1991; S. Davies 1994, 271). Emphasizing this last point, Roger Scruton argues that music's value is quasi-moral, in that the kinds of music one responds to, or those valued in a particular culture, reflect the state of that individual's or culture's ‘soul’ (1997, 380–91; see also S. Davies 1994, 275–6.) Stephen Davies (1987, 207–12) has argued that there are beneficial consequences of an interest in music in general, such as heightened emotional and aural sensitivity, which are not properly valued as consequences of listening to individual pieces, but which lead us to value musical culture as a whole (just as we value kindness for its consequences in general, while rejecting instrumental motivations for kind acts) as inappropriate.
On the other hand, those who defend the value of purely musical features tend to argue that the value of those features is primary, and that the value of music's expressivity is overrated. Alan Goldman (1992), for instance, argues against the idea that music is particularly suited to the expression of emotion, claiming that representational arts such as painting and literature are better at this. Moreover, he disputes the grounds of the value of expressivity given above. For example, he denies that music can teach us much about the emotions, and that we can savor our negative emotional responses to expressive music. Similarly, after an extensive discussion of the nature of musical expressiveness, Malcolm Budd argues that such expressiveness cannot come close to explaining music's value (1995, 155–7). He points to the facts that much valuable music is not expressive and that the equal expressiveness of different pieces would be outweighed in a comparative evaluation by the differences between them in terms of their purely musical value.


In Katy Perry's Roar, there's the part where roar is sung as ro-o-o-o-o-or (oh, just listen to it. You'll know what I mean.) (How surprising, huh? Juxtaposition of a Stanford page on Plato, and Katy Perry's Roar. I must admit, I'm quite proud of myself.) A friend was listening to the song when she suddenly turned to me and said "That's my favorite part!". So more precisely, what makes a part of a song better than the other. I'm focusing merely on the pleasure part, the sensuality, because for the expressiveness of the piece to count, it must be viewed as a whole. In the case of Roar, it may be said that the tune is "catchy", and thus the question is what makes something "catchy". It's repetitive, easy to follow, a mediocre melody, range of notes, and kind of nitty-gritty things like that (read a little more about it here, which refers to a study done at Dartmouth on the topic.) 


But take a more melow tune. Devenire, by Ludovico Einaudi. There are swells in the song, faster paced parts, parts that evoke more hopeful feelings, and parts that are a bit darker. Say one prefers the more hopeful bits, where the song flows a dash faster, or is a bit smoother. Is it just a matter of personal taste? Or is it - going back to the Stanford excerpt, more of an experience, and it is the emotions created that are more catchy? What makes a part good?

Socrates usually ends up admitting that he has no idea how to define piety or justice or how to answer his original question, so I'll pull a socrates here and leave you hanging. I admit that I don't know the answer to the my question, and wrote this whole thing just to write. Also, the phrase pulling a socrates sounds clever, doesn't it? I might start using it.

Side note: This is also pretty interesting, although not very enlightening. Might want to check it out, though.