17 January 2017

Pop or Classical - Where does beauty lie?

“Music is Emotion.  I think most of us can agree with that”.  So begins an article reporting on research into “Music-Evoked Sadness”.  The original research was published in 2014 by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch of the Department of Educational Sciences and Psychology of the Freie Universität of Berlin.  (You can read their paper here Music and Sadness).  I find this a fascinating topic and one I might be tempted to return to in some detail at another time.  But what pulled me up short was the opening of the article which directed me to the original research paper.  That article was by Lian Xiao Ling from Sydney, who was, to be fair, seeking to address parents’ fears about their children’s’ listening habits; “If your teenage child is constantly listening to emo songs or minor key symphonies, you may not have an immediate cause to worry”. 

Lian also declared that “whether you’re listening to classical or pop, music is created to share an emotion”, and with part of that statement I have to take issue.  Certainly pop music is.  Its whole function is to engender and share an emotion.  That is why it is so phenomenally and universally popular – all humanity experiences emotions and this common factor means that all of us are receptive to the content of pop music; it speaks, as they say, our language.

But classical music is not, and if one ever wanted to put into simplistic terms what differentiates classical and pop music, one could do a lot worse than say that the latter focuses purely on the emotion while the former focuses primarily on the intellect.  All humanity possesses an intellect, but this varies widely from person to person, being the product of a complex range of elements including culture, environment, education, heritage and so on, all of which are unique to the individual.  For that reason, while we might all have as common experience the emotions represented in a piece of pop music, our response to  a piece of classical music in infinitely more individual and complex. 

I have often argued that while any piece of music triggers an emotional response in the listener, in the world of classical music, that emotional response varies widely, because triggering an emotional response in the listener was not the original intention of the music’s creator.  For that reason, no two people really hear a single piece of classical music the same way.  I have heard different people respond to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as “indescribably sad”, “deeply moving”, “gorgeous”, “ecstatic” and “boring”, all emotional responses, but none, it would seem, intended by Barber himself who, when he wrote it, was simply exercising his skills in the technical aspects of writing for a string quartet.  These responses may differ widely and they may not be what the composer intended, but they are legitimate responses all the same, indicating that, once in the public arena, a composer no longer has control over how his music is perceived.

We perceive music according to our own emotional state, and if Barber’s music can prompt both tears and yawns, that implies fault with neither composer nor listener, but underlines the fact that classical music is NOT emotion, but it can trigger an emotional response in those who hear it.

We frequently hear it said that Bach’s music is “beautiful”.  Yes, to my way of thinking a lot of it is (and a lot of it is not).  Yet, once we make this statement as if it were inalienable fact, we are obliged to accuse those who hear the same piece of Bach and describe it as “dull”, as not recognising beauty. And that simply reveals our own failure to appreciate what Bach’s music really is.  The perception of beauty is an emotional response, and while I find my own wife and daughter to be the two most beautiful people in the world, I accept (admittedly grudgingly) that others may disagree, pointing to their own (to my way of thinking) hideous wives and grotesque daughters as finer examples of beauty.  On top of that, the beauty I identify in my wife and daughter is derived as much from my individual knowledge of their inner beings as from their superficial appearance.  Certain people are beautiful to our eyes, but on closer acquaintance, we realise they are ugly to our intellects; and that, perhaps, is a parallel for our difference of approach to pop and to classical music.

Dealing only in emotion, there is no need for pop music to involve itself in more complex issues; those will largely muddy the water and compromise the music’s original intention.  But because classical music does not deal in emotion – an emotional element is peripheral rather than central – our response is a reflection of our perceptions of those other elements.  Put it simply, if classical music for you is emotion, you are missing its whole purpose.
Music and Sadness

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