A thesis advanced in our songwriting episode was that we appreciate music by “identifying” with it. There are a few possible meanings of this I wanted to explore, especially in light of the charge that the ethic outlined in our discussion was too specific to rock ‘n’ roll, what with its emphasis on real human action (no electronic drums or pitch correction) and “authenticity,” which is supposed to distinguish rock from mere pop, even if both sound exactly the same.
The background for our discussion of identification was Schopenhauer’s account, which is very weird and specific to Schopenhauer (we are will, music channels the will, so music channels something in us) but which seems like it can be harmlessly generalized to ignore his metaphysics: Aspects of music reflect aspects of our biology. However, it’s easy for the “identification” part of this to disappear in this move, and I don’t think think that identification is actually a good shorthand explanation for why music affects us biologically. Yes, I can say that music copies certain patterns also present in our biology—my heart beats, my blood pumps, there’s a rhythm when I walk and a cadence when I speak—so maybe we can explain why music affects us by saying that the rhythm and melody in music resonate with these internal rhythms and cadences (the case for melody here is weaker than that for rhythm). But music also soothes us and energizes us, meaning that (in the first of those cases) there’s an agitation in us that the music not only doesn’t reflect, but it actively counteracts. So, there’s a biological reaction to the music, a physical interaction with it, but it’s not imitative.
But even if we don’t enjoy music primarily because it imitates us, another part of the account was that we imitate it. It makes rhythms, we bounce along. It makes melodies, we sing or at least hum along (perhaps subliminally). This is to say that music can be infectious; melodies are memes. This precise description wouldn’t account for why one might like music that’s too complex to follow. On the other hand, I think it’s often used in some form or other as an argument for why complex music is no good, or isn’t even music—it doesn’t do the “job” that music is supposed to do (to make us imitate it).
A simpler sense of identification brought up in the discussion is that a singer “speaks for you.” Now, of course, a pundit could speak for you too, or a filmmaker, comedian, or writer. So, that’s not a specifically musical explanation. But “speaking” in music may not actually involve words. It could reflect a style: the person’s clothes or choice of charity events or attitude could make the person speak for you. What’s interesting is how something like a guitar tone or style of synth arrangement comes to communicate an attitude. Would Keith Richards’s guitar come across as sneering and raucous if the Rolling Stones only put out instrumentals and you didn’t know what they looked like and never heard them speak? Clearly, there are elements of biological resonance to an instrumental style, but they come to us delivered in a package, and it’s difficult to separate them out. It’s easiest to do so for me with jazz, where I didn’t know much about players like Miles Davis when originally listening to it. But I knew album names (e.g., Birth of the Cool) had a context for jazz in general. We seldom simply hear, and I think when we do, we don’t have a hook to get a handle on it, a hermeneutic strategy. We don’t know whether this is new or old, whether this is original or a hacky imitation, whether this is an artist we need pay attention to or not.
As my son was discovering his own music at age 12 or so, I was somewhat disgusted that his chief source of music seemed to be (following some of his peers’ guidance) some kind of community surrounding a webcomic. The music was seemingly put together using templates in GarageBand, with no humans playing instruments involved, or lyric writing, or any of the other elements I found important. Well, now (at age 15) he’s better educated and likes the (young person versions of the) kind of music I like, but that’s just to say that he’s been indoctrinated in rock ‘n’ roll. Even before that though, his interest in the music was rational from the identification perspective, in that you’ve got a group of people who all like the same web comic and share their electronic music, which mirrors their experience playing video games with cheesy, everlasting electronic scores. They focus on the melodies involved and perceive these as coming from people like them.
OK, now that the senses and sources of identification are laid out before us, what do you think of the theory? Identification does partly explain why in pop music people gravitate to certain artists, but there’s something shallow about that. If you like music by someone of the same race, sex, age, and economic background, why would you not like similar-sounding music by someone who’s not like that? Wouldn’t it in fact be beneficial for you as a person to get outside of your box and understand the “other’s” perspective? (For a rock interview really reflecting this insight, listen to Marc Maron talking to Dan Zanes.)
One of the “middle ground” types of identification (between the identification with a singer and Schopenhauerian grooving to the beat) mentioned in our discussion (by Wes) is being able to picture the band doing their thing. This is a very common musician’s concern: guitarists (and aficionados) feel resonance seeing or hearing a guitarist doing fancy things (and would not approve of my punching in so often when I record my few lead guitar parts, so that I need only play one phrase at a time). They (arguably) identify with the performer and are drawn to air-guitar along. But as with identification with a lyrical point of view, this concern is obviously specific to certain kinds of music. I’ve personally always thought that musicians overestimate the interest that regular people will have in the movements of their fingers, that it’s much better to think from the audience’s point of view, which does not typically care how the sound is generated, only that it’s a cool sound.
When The Jonathan Segel Trio (that’s Victor on bass) plays an hour-long jam instrumental set, the adventure is first and foremost their own, and the best way to appreciate it is to put yourselves more or less in the band with them, to step alongside and discover the improvisational landscapes as they do. But it’s hard to identify in that way, to let go of yourself and be absorbed, and it might help to have some of the music theory under your belt that they do to be able to follow it properly. That kind of music is called “self-indulgent” by many, as opposed to something actually designed to entertain (improvisation, being not designed beforehand, certainly can’t be designed with this in mind). “Entertainment” sounds so debasing, like “mere pop,” but there’s nothing inherently least-common-denominator about trying to take the perspective of the audience and paying attention to how the end result sounds rather than in how you as a musician feel in producing it.
To give a version of my standard general closing argument: Art can try to do a lot of things, and to appreciate art, you have to figure out its standards. Wabi-sabi is a great point to bring up in defending more spontaneous productions against studio perfectionism, but that’s just to argue that “imperfect” art is a legitimate communicative option, not that perfectionism itself doesn’t also constitute a legitimate and perfectly enjoyable aim. However, one can’t just react to this multiplicity of possible aesthetics by saying “I like everything.” That’s just stoned open-mindedness. You have to earn the connections you make to the different arts through active engagement and practice. In some cases, that practice was part of your upbringing, and so didn’t feel like any conscious attempt to appreciate anything. As adults, with our tastes more solidified, we have to work harder to expand our horizons, and this goes as much for artworks as it does for appreciating new philosophical points of view.
Image credit. That GIF came from here. I don’t understand it.