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A Question of Taste

PostPosted: Mon Feb 13, 2006 11:40 am
by howard male
A Question of Taste

Firstly a confession. And a confession which won't come as any kind of surprise to forum regulars. Whenever the subject of music comes up I am the first to loose any sense of perspective. I'll jump in with a, "but surely you can't think The Cosmic Blood Brothers are any good - that first album is pretentious drivel!" Or, " if you can't see the transcendental genius of John Doe you must be stupid - and no, it's not just because he died an early death that he's thought of as a genius!"

I can't stop myself. In many ways I couldn't be a more rational, analytical person, but when it comes to music I really don't understand why every right-minded person on the planet doesn't hear what I hear, and come to the same conclusion about what they're hearing.

And we're all guilty of this to a degree. Half the discussions here seem to be based around two or more people passionately believing they have the absolute definitive opinion on an artist or a piece of music - and I'm usually one of those people. Our tastes are our religion - we can't take on board the notion that a passionately held opinion doesn't contain an essential, objective truth: this music's great. Why can't everyone hear that?!

Now that I'm being occasionally paid to spout my irrational prejudices, I find myself wondering if I should be trying to attain some degree of objectivity on musical excellence. Does a publication want measured objectivity or do they want blinkered subjectivity? For fear of appearing a pedantic idiot I don't ask, I just try to make my reviews a concoction of both perspectives: although I found the Varttina album absolutely awful, I tried to decide if, on its own terms, it achieved what it set out to achieve. I decided it probably did, and gave it a fair if slightly sarcastic (to those that could read between the lines) review.

But is it ever possible to be objective about music? Are there any reliable starting points to fairly decide if a CD or live performance is fantastic or, to use the current vernacular, pants?

Perhaps if we start at the bottom and look up. Surely we can bin all the novelty records, all the 80's bombastic ballads, all the sub-Sinatra crooners, all the derivative heavy metal, all the funkless funk, all the soulless house music? Maybe soul is the keyword. If our instincts tell us that the music has been put together with a cynical eye on the charts or a particular contrived market, such as the execrable 'Lounge', then it stands outside any criterion of real quality?

But the more I think about this, the harder it gets. For one criterion many of us might use is whether the singer can sing or the band can handle their instruments. But there have been thousands of acts with bad singers and just as many with inadequate musicians. In fact these two criterion are the very essence of the much-loved, timeless genre of punk rock, so that's a non-starter. And as for cynically produced but great pop records I'm sure there has been may of those too.

But one thing's for sure: aspiring to greatness in pop music rarely works. In fact the opposite would seem to be the case. Their are thousands of great records which never aspired to greatness and many (Ultravox's 'Vienna' springs to mind) which aspired to greatness but are - quite frankly - vacuous and dated tosh

So what I'd like to try and do here is get to the bottom of whether or not their are any standard benchmarks we can use to quantify the quality of a piece of music (or an artist) outside our subjective opinions. In other words: what makes great music great and crap music crap? Or to paraphrase the whole falling tree in the woods scenario - does great music only sound great if there is someone listening to it?

Any thoughts folks?

PostPosted: Mon Feb 13, 2006 3:03 pm
by Adam Blake
Bless you, Howard. No-one could accuse you of failing to ask the big questions! It's funny because we've just had a difference of opinion that amounts to an article of religious faith as far as I'm concerned (The Beatles) but I'm still here and delighted to engage!

As far as music journalism goes, I think it's a question of informed subjectivity versus uninformed objectivity. The old school of NME/Creem/Let It Rock journalism pioneered by Lester Bangs that the likes of you and I grew up with is obviously an example of the former. I get nostalgic for it but I can see that it is impossible nowadays - there is just too much media, too much music, too many pundits for it to have any real meaning. The whole point of that style was that the writers knew that their readers were as informed (to a greater or lesser extent) as they were, and as interested in the same subjects. I remember when Mick Taylor left The Rolling Stones being a good example: it was just assumed by everybody in the music press that everybody cared about this and that everybody cared who would replace him. That kind of readership solidarity doesn't exist now, nor has it for a very long time. Also, of course, so much music journalism nowadays (and for some time) is just an extension of the industry's promotional campaigns. Uninformed objectivity is boring as criticism and only serves a purpose in telling you that something exists in case you didn't know.

So we get back to the question of taste: Duke Ellington once said, "if it sounds good, it is good" - and I can see no room for disagreement. If people ask me what kind of music I like, I always say anything that comes from the heart. But even then it gets a little tricky. I can't stand opera, for example, but who's to say it doesn't come from the heart? Likewise, a great deal of country music. Even metal - I love the first two Black Sabbath albums as classic cartoons but that's about it, but I'm sure there's a lot of heart in a lot of metal. I just don't like the noise it makes.

We're stuck in our tastes, but it's good to keep an open mind. This may be obvious but it's easily forgotten in an evangelizing moment!

Don't get me started......

PostPosted: Mon Feb 13, 2006 7:07 pm
by Gordon Neill
I really think we should start with something a bit more straightforward, like the meaning of life, and then build up our strength to try and explain what makes great music great.

I’m not even sure that I want to find an answer to the question. There is a risk to analysing music. A bit like carrying out an autopsy on your lover. To paraphrase Adam’s Duke Ellington quotation ‘if it‘s good, it‘s good‘. In my experience, explanations can corrode the magic. For example, one of my pet hates is musician pals pointing out the use of diminished flat 7th chords, or something, in my favourite track, or similarities with another treasured song. Invariably, for me, something is lost when this kind of stuff is added. I don’t want to know. I just want to be left in ignorant bliss. However, the love of my life has hopped up onto the table and I find that I have my scalpel in my hand, so……

I suppose the first issue is why do people love music anyway. It would be difficult to explain it to an alien (‘illogical, captain, illogical’). And, apart from Radio 1 DJs, it seems to be a trait common to all humans. As far as I know, no other animal has the same response to music. Yes, there is bird song, but it’s more of a form of identification. Yes, dogs can respond to certain pieces, but it’s on a Pavlovian level with, for example, a familiar TV theme tune signalling time for din-dins. Possibly, humming birds can hold a tune, but I’ve never heard them.

It’s difficult to separate the listener from the music (apart from when a Bay City Roller’s record is playing). So, first of all, I’ve thought of a few factors which can affect the listener’s ability to recognise great music. It’s stating the bleedin’ obvious that music can be a very subjective area. But it is possible to be objective about some of this subjectivity:

(1) A bit of perspective is useful. I often feel, when I’m browsing some Amazon customer’s ‘top ten best CDs in the universe ever, like’ that they’ve only actually heard 11 CDs. The youth of today may sneer at the Spice Girls but, unless they’re familiar with the works of the Bay City Rollers, they really don’t know how bad music can get.

(2) On the other hand, too much perspective can block an open mind. A certain childlike quality is useful when coming to music. I’ve often been struck by my son’s ability to pick out great (in my opinion) music. This can be obvious stuff, such as ‘Baby Come Back’ by the Equals or just about anything by the Beatles. But he’s equally at home with the Boban Markovic Orkestrar.

(3) On the other other hand (I know, that’s three hands, but this scalpel’s a bit blunt) some awareness of the context of a song can help. Knowing that a Ray Charles track is based on a gospel song adds to its power (implying that a woman is on a par with God certainly beats a box of chocolates and a plastic rose). An understanding of the civil rights movement adds to the impact of Sam Cooke‘s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. But there are limits. An in-depth knowledge of early 70’s Scotland doesn’t make ’Shang-A-Lang’ sound any better.

(4) Some form of ‘bullshit-detector’ is useful. I suppose this is related to a sense of perspective. Quickly spotting the tell-tale signs of pretension, earnestness, or bandwagon jumping can avoid much wasted time and embarrassment in later life.

(5) Hormones are also handy. The rhythm of music must surely have some connection with the…. erm…. Rhythm of life. While not essential, an interest in rutting does help an appreciation of music.

(6) And, on the subject of hormones, a bit of nostalgia can come into play and override good judgement. I still have a soft spot for Carly Simon (although it used to be a lot harder).

Right. I’m on a roll, so I might as well and try and answer the question that Howard actually asked. What makes great music great?

(1) First of all, it isn’t great musicianship. Some basic proficiency is needed to get the basic message across. But does it really matter that Bob Dylan can’t play guitar for toffee (or any other form of confectionery)?

(2) Strong lyrics can add to a song’s greatness, but they aren’t necessary. After all, most of us can enjoy ‘world’ music without needing to know if they’re complaining about the failure of the turnip harvest. Indeed, we can actively disagree with the message of the lyrics but still love the song. Gospel is an obvious example.

(3) I don’t even think that originality is necessary. Essentially, there’s only one blues song that’s ever existed, and I love them all.

(4) A certain conciseness can help (a bit rich, given the length of this response). Too many songs outstay their welcome. But how long is a piece of string?

Erm. I notice that I still haven’t answered the question. What makes great music great?

OK. I suppose it goes back to the question that I raised near the start of this drivel. Why do people like music? I think it is a form of basic communication that pre-dates speech or thought. It’s not an intellectual pursuit (this is why so much jazz leaves me cold). It’s about human feelings - love, hate, and the failure of the turnip harvest. It’s about being human. The singer’s voice is the most important instrument (other instruments simply seek to imitate it). But it doesn’t particularly matter what they’re going on about. The medium is the message.

I think that’s why I prefer relatively simple uncluttered arrangements, free from the dehumanising effects of computers or producers. I think that is why I prefer Stax & Atlantic soul to Tamla Motown (there’s more emphasis on feelings and emotions and a more convincing impression that they’re genuine). I think that is why I don’t think about music.

That’s me done. Her heart’s still beating, but I need to clean all that blood off the walls. And I can hear the sirens getting closer. Oh God! Howard’s on his way…….

PS Howard said: "Are there any reliable starting points to fairly decide if a CD or live performance is fantastic or, to use the current vernacular, pants? Perhaps if we start at the bottom and look up." He really did. Discuss

PostPosted: Mon Feb 13, 2006 9:29 pm
by Adam Blake
Just a little testament: I've just been teaching a relative beginner how to hold down A and D on the guitar, and to illustrate I played him "Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison which consists of A and D pretty much exclusively for seven minutes. Now he's gone and the cd is still playing and, having not listened to this album for ages, I am completely incapable of taking it off or, in fact, of doing anything but listen to this wonderful music made by an impossibly precocious 22 year old Irishman nearly 40 years ago and marvel at how such a young man could capture so much truth and beauty in one place and get such inspired performances out of hardened professional session musicians.

Good music is magic. Maybe there's your criteria.

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 11:13 am
by Con Murphy
What I wouldn't give for a teacher like you, Adam. I briefly had lessons with a guy who asked me to suggest to him artists that I might like to use as a basis for learning. As I live in the capital of Philistine, I eschewed the obscure foreign-language artists in favour of names like Van the Man, Nick Drake, a bit of Richard Thompson and the odd blues player. "I don't really know any of those guys...", he said, "do you like Nickelback or Oasis?"

I'm trying to teach myself at the moment...

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 11:25 am
by howard male
Thanks for those responses guys - plenty to think about there.

Firstly, Adam. I'd not thought about that shift in journalistic thinking, but it's so true. I suppose there are one or two of the old guard left, but...

As for answering the question though, I'm afraid neither you nor the Duke come close. It amuses me the way that if an old jazz god comes out with the most blindingly obvious tautology then it is quoted as if the words had been bought down from the mountain by Moses. If it had been Wurzel Gummage who'd said, "If it sounds good, it is good", we wouldn't be discussing it's alleged wisdom. Much wiser is your quote, "We're stuck in our tastes, but it's good to keep an open mind" Or even better: "Good music is magic."

And, Gordon - where to start! It's funny that you should also quote the Duke - it must be something in the air. Either that or it's the truth insisting we take note.

I'm with you on most of your methodical and amusing approach to the problem, however I have to disagree with about the asking of such questions, 'corroding the magic'. Music is like life itself - you can dissect it and put it under the microscope but it will always remain a tantalising step away from revealing all its secrets. And so by trying and failing to demystify it, we effectively magnify it's strangeness and therefore its power over us.

Music's essence isn't so fragile as to be vulnerable to a bit of intellectual scrutiny. Quite the contrary. Actually understanding that there is an underlying geometry and mathematics to music and musical harmony actually makes music, in my opinion, the nearest we have to a clue that there might just be a God! I'll save most of my theory on this for another day (bet you can't wait!), but in a nutshell:

As we all know, music or sound is a bi-product of vibration. If we have a string which is plucked that string will produce a note. If we then halve the length of that string while still keeping it just as taut, we will get a note exactly an octave higher. A string two-thirds of the length will produce a note a perfect fifth higher. As Adam said - it's like magic. It is magic: musical harmony comes directly from mathematical harmony. Music - that irrational, emotions-packed, passion-arousing noise - has a direct relationship with the cold, rational, abstract world of numbers.

Musical harmony, which was thought to be a discovery or even an invention of man, has been found had a direct relationship to a pre-existing - for that matter, an always existent - system of mathematical laws. Just as 1 + 1 = 2, even on the other side of the Universe, so the harmonics of music existed long before we'd even crawled out of the primeval slime. I find this truly thought provoking, and it hardly diminishes the mystery.

Three years ago I went to see Stella Chiweshe one Sunday lunchtime at The Bread and Roses in Clapham. While I was waiting for some friends to arrive I was reading the book which first arroused my curiosity about the overlap of mathematics and music. Stella eventually came on just as I'd got to a page which explained how the first organ - a single piped affair made in about 270 BC with pressurised water used to push air out to make sound - had not been invented to make music, but to imitate bird song.

Believe it or not, after a few songs, Stella asks everyone in the room to make bird noises to create an ambient backdrop to the delightful melody she then picked out on the mbira for the next five minutes or so. So there we were, a room full of single piped organs, forcing out absurd bird noises, with astonished and amused pub regulars looking into the back room of their local to see what an earth was going on.

Ol' Worzel

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 11:36 am
by Aunt Sally
howard male wrote:If it had been Wurzel Gummage who'd said, "If it sounds good, it is good", we wouldn't be discussing it's alleged wisdom.


Oh, I don't know, I've spent my whole life living by his dictum "let's have a cup of tea and a slice of cake."

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 1:25 pm
by howard male
I grant you - there is certainly more practical wisdom in Wurzel's words than in the Duke's. And this was a 'man' with several heads, so he was bound to be able to put a different spin on things.

I'm a believer?

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 1:29 pm
by Gordon Neill
Gosh. I never guessed when I asked about the length of a piece of string just how relevant that question was!

But I still don't go for this intellectualisation of music. Picking up on my brief Star Trek allusion, I think this is just the approach that Mr Spock would take, breaking music down into mathematics and formulae. But would that make his songs better than Pigmeat Terry's?

Interestingly, Howard suggests that the underlying geometry and mathematics to music and musical harmony could be proof of the existence of a God (of course, it could be suggested that the Bay City Rollers simply prove that there is a Satan, but let's not dwell on that). I would have thought that music and religion are similar, in the sense that they defy rational 'proofs'. You either believe or you don't.

Um, it wasn't a spooky coincidence that I mentioned Duke Ellington. I was misquoting Adam quoting the Duke. And, call me narrow-minded, but I don't think that the musical opinions of Wurzel Gummage would be as valid. The quote might be descibed as a 'blindingly obvious tautology'. I would have thought 'a simple truth' would be nearer the mark.

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 2:03 pm
by Con Murphy
howard male wrote:Quite the contrary. Actually understanding that there is an underlying geometry and mathematics to music and musical harmony actually makes music, in my opinion, the nearest we have to a clue that there might just be a God!


Heavy stuff. I'm more inclined to think the opposite, that a god has nothing to do with maths or geometry as they are just human abstractions created entirely in order for us to make sense of the world we live in. Music is a part of the world and therefore fits into the laws we create to describe that world. I'd better stop thinking any more about that, because my brain might explode.

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 2:57 pm
by howard male
It is indeed heavy stuff, Con.

It is mind numbingly hard to put across what I'm getting at but let's just say, for example, that the ragged, arbitrary delineation of a coastline or a cloud is a random manifestation of the natural world contingent on weather conditions, gradual global warming or whatever. But a string exactly divided into equal sections making a harmonic sound only at those points, is both a reflection of a mathematical truth and the sound of music! The sound of music is a human, spiritual truth.

And man didn't create the exactitude of mathematics he only invented the symbols (1, 4, 8 +, =, %) to represent those exactitude's: as I said before: two apples plus another two apples would still equal four apples, even if there was no one around to then make a pie out of them.

It requires intelligence and emotions to both create and appreciate music, yet the resonance of a string and it's harmonic sub-divisions existed long before mankind. In fact one could go further and say that the abstract rules of musical harmony have always existed.

The question I'm asking is how or why does something which is essentially a bi-product of abstract mathematics have a direct effect on our emotional core by making us happy, sad or even angry?

Good old Pythagoras even took the not unreasonable jump of speculating that music was an earthly manifestation of the structure of the universe. He wasn't the only one. I remember reading once that when an earthquake struck in ancient China it would produce a scrambling to musical instruments to check their tuning in case their was a misalignment between earthly music and its cosmic equivalent. Music of the spheres indeed.

And the difference between God and music, Gordon, as far as I see it, is that music definitely does exist! Most of the human race clearly sees (or hears) music as some kind of bridge to God, and all I'm saying is there seems to be good rational, as well as irrational, reasons for that.

PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2006 1:42 am
by Adam Blake
So Howard, do you, like, er, dig Mozart and J. S Bach?? Poor old Wolfgang was a God-given genius who instinctively understood structural perfection in musical harmony and could apply it to his work apparently completely effortlessly. I find it all a bit too perfect for me, but it's just a matter of aesthetics, i.e taste...
J.S. Bach arrived at the same territory through many years of painstaking slog and toil, but his "Art Of Fugue" has got to be the most perfect synthesis of music and mathematics. And, of course, he did it all for God.
Sorry if you know all this stuff but it is directly relevant to what you were saying about maths.
If you go to what seems to be the other extreme - say, African tribal music - you still find oodles of mathematics in the intricate sub-division of polyrhythms, and the shifting grid of their accumulative effect. Even Indian music which seems to be one long endless line is actually a whole series of ever increasingly complicated rhythmical abstractions.
Rock'n'roll is maths too: at the risk of getting too musoid the essence of what makes "Jeepster" rock like that is the juxtaposition of heavily accented triplets over straight fours - a trick that Chuck Berry was master of.

Anyway, I like your "music proves God's existence" rap. Bring it on!

PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2006 11:25 am
by howard male
I'm afraid I'm mostly of the Nick Hornby school of thought when it comes to classical music, Adam. In '31 Songs' he likened it to music which simply perfumes a room.

I'm sure such dismissivenness makes you recoil in horror. But it comes back to taste and conditioning again. I did have an obsessive phase on Sibelius at Art School and I remain open to conversion, if I was suddenly exposed to some classical music which surprised me in the right way, but...

Talking of remaining open to conversion, that's my actual position on God - I am an entertainer of the possibility and nothing more.
And finally, I don't think any of us should shy away from writing stuff because we think others might know it already. After all this is not just a two-way conversations and someone might be interested in what we have to say, even if the person we are directly bantering with thinks we are just pointing out the blindingly obvious.

Not the case here though, I hasten to add. Your last posting was fascinating, and no I didn't know a good 75% of what you had to say. Some people on this forum think I am over analytical about music but the fact is I don't have the technical knowledge to go into some of the areas you cover - I was always an intuitive musician, just picking up stuff by listening to records, following chord diagrams, and reading drum machine manuals. So it's all good, as the young people say!

Mozart and Charlie Parker

PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2006 12:22 pm
by Adam Blake
Fair do's: But if you ARE interested in music-meets-maths I'd check out some J.S.Bach. The Brandenburg Concertos are probably the most famous and they are a bit "room perfume" if you're not into the Baroque thang. But the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for solo violin are most definitely not! Nor are the unaccompanied 'cello suites. Utterly sublime music - very much like eavesdropping on a conversation with God. "The Art Of Fugue" is, as I say, the most mathematical, similarly "The Musical Offering". I wouldn't start with these, they are very austere, but they represent the culmination of a lifetime's diligent study of harmony and counterpoint.

As for Mozart - well it's all as perfect as a Charlie Parker alto sax solo - IF you like that kind of thing! I could never take it myself but as I get older I find my resistance weakening. He was a freak of nature (like Parker!) and I'm very fond of him. I think both he and Parker were Tourette's Syndrome sufferers - benignly amoral, scatologically obsessed, gifted beyond comprehension. The "Amadeus" movie is a great way of humanizing that whole 18th C. musical scene. Very entertaining and informative. It's true that Mozart was disturbingly into pissing and shitting and farting jokes, never drafted his manuscripts (just writing down what was already complete in his head - "taking dictation from God"), that he was completely incapable of managing his career, even when he had the best gigs going he threw it all away by working for peanuts for the wrong crowd. He was dead at 35, Like Parker, drunk, penniless and up to his eyeballs in debt.
Whew! Rock and roll...

PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2006 10:59 pm
by howard male
Well I never. I just caught Armando Ianucci on Radio 3 delivering a lecture called 'Such Good Taste' which addressed some of the same points I've tried to raise here. Not only that, but his prime target was Mozart. He confessed (confession being the right word in the context of Radio 3) how dull he found the man's work despite concerted attempts to enjoy his music over the years. He went on to say that he'd cornered many a music fan and classical musician on the subject expecting to be chastised for his ignorance, only to find them confess in hushed tones that they too were unmoved by much of Mozart's oeuvre.

The gist of Ianucci's argument was that our tastes are dictated to us, to degree that most of us would find it hard to acknowledge, by the critical canon and it's susceptibility to the vagaries of fashion. And by our desire not to stand out in the crowd as the one person whose 'got it wrong.'

I have to say I totally agree. For example, on this forum none of us would have a problem confessing to a love of Marley, Dylan, Ali Farka Toure, or Amadou & Mariam, or a hatred of the Bay City Rollers (personally Gordon, I think thou doth protest too much!) but who would admit to a liking for early Partridge Family or Neil Diamond?

And Mr Diamond is a good case study. For he is currently going through a critical reappraisal and suddenly established musicians are coming out of the shadows to say what a fine singer and songwriter he is. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the fact that Rick Rubin is lining him up as the next Johnny Cash-cow could it? Rubin has just de-cheesed the grizzled old crooner, recorded 12 stripped-down songs, and the only trick he missed was he didn't think to call it 'Diamond in the Rough'. But at least if you've always loved Neil at least you can now say so.

But anyway, Adam - Mozart might have behaved very rock n' roll, but he sure doesn't sound it! And I can say that now, knowing I'm not the lone voice of decent - 250 years after the event, the critical backlash has started!