Philosophy - Thomas Becker Music Official

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by Thomas Becker

This text was originally published in year 2003, and was last updated in 2008. It contains some ideas I had at that time. I don't know if I still agree with everything, but perhaps you will find some interesting concepts.


What we define as music is a mental content generated by the ears and the brain, responding to certain stimuli, both external and internal. In particular the stimuli external to the minds (of the listeners and musicians) are of vibrational kind (vibrating air and musical instruments, which move the auditory system), and are useful for the communication of musical content, but are substantially different from it (in other words, music is inside us, not outside). Being each individual unique, cerebrally and psychologically, each one has its own particular way to respond to the external and internal stimuli, having thus a more or less different experience from the listening of a same musical material. It's not possible to express objective and absolute judgements about a tune, not existing a reference version of it; in a way there are as many versions as there are listeners (musicians included).


I think that what we call music, and its beauty (or ugliness), exist only in the subjectivity (this means in the minds) of the listeners and of the musicians (which are listeners themselves, also during composition and performance).
In my opinion, the "sonic" vibrations external to us (e.g. those caused by an orchestra), being only air (or other material) in movement, don't have anything in common essentially with the sounds we hear in our subjectivity, which we define as "music". Music is in my opinion generated by the brain from external and internal stimuli, and since aesthetic sensations are in my opinion based on our mental musical content (so not on the stimuli which cause it, which are more distant), I think that also beauty (or ugliness) is inside our mind and not outside.

The fact that when listening to music one has the impression that the sounds are outside of us (except sometimes when using headphones), is in my opinion a kind of mental illusion.
I'll make a parallelism to try to clarify my idea: let's think about a cinema screen; it's a flat surface, but when watching a film projection one has an impression of depth (pseudo-three-dimensionality), as if there would be something beyond (behind) the screen. But we see only the flat screen. In a similar way, changing point of view, I think that we see images (and hear sounds), perceiving them as if we would see (and hear) them directly outside of us (in a three-dimensional space), while in reality we are observing (and listening) only contents of our mind (the screen). This contents are indeed caused by external (but also internal) stimuli, which are in the outer environment, but don't reflect it exactly (as in this case the sounds which we hear internally, which are simple matter in vibration outside the minds of the listeners and musicians).
This kind of illusion cannot in my opinion be avoided, because it depends on the profound functioning of our brain, but one can be aware of it.


I think furthermore that each music piece gives rise to different sensations in each listener (musicians included), and in each listener at different listens, and thus that each individual has his own particular (and changing) aesthetic sense.
With "aesthetic sense" I mean the way to perceive something as "nice" or "ugly", in varying degrees. To make a parallelism, I intend it a bit like the sense of taste, which can give perception of something as "good" or "bad", also here in varying degrees.
To be different I think is not only the aesthetic sense, but also the various impressions that one has of the various elements of a tune, impressions which I don't consider to be necessarily bound to a nice-ugly binomial.

Why do I believe this? My ideas were perhaps born empirically (i.e. through experience):
I hear expressing, from different persons, comments (on aesthetics and on own listening impressions) about a single tune which can be very different. I have moreover experimented on myself (getting later response also from other persons), that the way of perceiving a single tune, by a single person, varies over time.

If the aesthetic sensations (as explained above) and the impressions (for the same reason) don't refer directly to something external to the listeners and musicians (air and instruments in vibration, which are nonetheless useful by serving the musician to communicate, to evoke), but refer directly to their mental content, this indicates to me that the way of perceiving a tune depends on the biological structures (and if you want also the psychological and spiritual structures) of the listener and the musician (ears, brain, etc.), in their configuration at the moment of listening (or composition, or performance), which create that mental content (responding to external and internal stimuli).
I think, I believe you'll agree from your experience, that sometimes also the environment (perceived at a visual level, temperature level, social level, etc.) in which the listening takes place, has a certain influence on the listening. But also here I think that the biological and psychological structure of the listener (or musician) enters into play, which creates the mental representations of the environment (and the sensations bound to it), responding to the external stimuli (visual, social, etc.), influencing in turn also the musical perception.
Excluding chance, which in addition to not knowing if it exists, I believe would make the listening chaotic, something which seems not to happen to me (and anyway I think it wouldn't deny my discourse, having chance probably a scarce importance in this case), I think that the human biological and psychological structure, and the listening environment, are the determining factors in musical perception (if you know others, please let me know).

My idea that each individual has its own particular way of perceiving music, I think I can demonstrate it like this: being several persons at the same time and place listening to music, it can happen that some of them have very different listening experiences (judging from their comments and reactions). Being their objective listening environment very similar, this can't in my opinion justify this discrepancies. I explain this difference determined for the major part by a diversity of biological and psychological structure (the only factors remaining), which determines their aesthetic sense and the impressions which they have of a tune, making different for this listeners the way to perceive music (and the environment).
Thus, generalizing, it is in my opinion very improbable that two or more persons can have identical listening experiences of a tune, being very improbable the existence of two identical human beings (even only in the structures interested by the musical listening), even at different moments (I exclude also twins, which can be very similar in appearance, but which are in my opinion however cerebrally and psychologically different, having lived different experiences).
I think that also for a single individual it is very improbable to have identical listening experiences -- in different moments -- of a single tune, being he subject (I think you'll agree) to continuous changes, and he is never the same as he has been in the past (and I think that also the most "little" experiences can modify something cerebrally, maybe often of little importance, but however in my opinion enough to make my reasoning valid).

Thus, when two persons discuss about the value of a tune, I think they are (in a way) speaking of two different "tunes" (intended each one as a succession of sonic mental perceptions delimited in time), as each of them has perceived them. I think that after having written a piece, if it gets listened by 50 persons, in a way I have caused the generation of 50 different tunes. This means also that for a musician (composer and/or performer) it is practically impossible to transmit his music to his listeners exactly as he hears it himself. It's also true though, I believe it from my experiences (of listening, and confrontation with other persons), that between different listeners (musicians included) there can be similarities in their aestheric sense and listening impressions -- yes, we are all different, but from another point of view we are all humans -- thus a tune can touch them similarly in certain aspects. Thus, when I compose, I compose according to my taste, but have the hope to find people who are near me musically.

I personally think that when the major part of the people, or even all of them, judge something (e.g. from an aesthetic point of view) in the same way, it is not suitable to use the term "objective". I rather prefer to use the term "shared". For example, if a tune is liked by everybody (or better said, everyone gets pleasure from the musical perception caused by certain groups of external vibrational stimuli), I wouldn't say that it is objectively nice, for the reasons which I have exposed in this present text, but would rather say that all the listeners share a same positive sensation/impression of it (or better said, they all share a positive response to those vibrational stimuli).

I specify that with objective I mean "related to the object, intrinsic and concrete characteristic of it". While with subjective I mean "related to the conscious mind, present inside the mind and not outside" (this are my definitions).
I personally consider to be objective also that which is subjective perception, so namely content of our mind. That because our sensations, emotions, etc., are in my opinion concretely present in our mind, and we make direct experience of them. I'll make an example to clarify (this apparently strange idea): the sensation of warmness is present only mentally, thus it is subjective, but it is an intrinsic and concrete characteristic of that mental content, of which we have direct experience, thus it is objective at the same time.

I usually take into consideration in the same way the point of view of each one (except in the case of technically experts, who know when a tune "works" or not, or also if it has problems at compositional or sonic level), because I don't believe that there's the one who is able to listen better; I believe that each one listens to what his (unique and particular) brain proposes, and there is no objective beauty or ugliness, that could be picked, out of the minds. I think that if somebody likes something, in his subjectivity, it is nonsense to tell him that in some way he is wrong in taking pleasure from it -- or vice versa.

I add some curiosities regarding aesthetic sense, which I discovered and which other persons have confirmed, and which you perhaps didn't notice (like me before): often, when listening to a tune for the first times, it doesn't tell me much; let's say it can seem "flat" and little interesting to me. At subsequent listens I begin to like it, and I can even like it a lot. Sometimes it happens that I like a tune, and then discover that I had already listened to it, a fact that I didn't notice during that last listen (perhaps I had listened to it long time before, but this happened also in a matter of a few days). It seems to me thus that repeated listens of a tune can make us like it, perhaps mostly melodically.
I'm not saying this is an absolute rule, but this happens to me (at least currently) often. Then, maybe, judging from the vague remembrances of listening experiences which I have from my own infancy (but I'm far from certain), this could be different for children; it could be that a child, listening to an unknown tune, could find it nice and stirring already from the first listen, if this contains some musical elements which are a novelty for him, and thus impress him particularly.


I sometimes hear people replying to my ideas exposed here above, that if the beauty of a tune is subjective, there's still its quality to take in consideration, which should be something objective, intrinsic of a given music (if my interpretation of this idea is correct). I refer to the definitions of "objective" and "subjective" of which I write above.
With "quality" -- seems to me -- are usually intended such things as (remaining in the music field) a good touch, a good expressivity, a good sound, a good technique, complexity, depth, and perhaps more.
I think, first of all, that the discourse from before is valid here, too, namely that what we perceive and call music is a mental content, and consequently also quality should be, as it refers directly to that mental content.

But in my opinion, quality is not only confined in the minds, but it is neither a real perception. In my opinion, it is nothing more than an abstract concept to define the presence of certain aesthetic sensations (at least in the case of music). I think in fact, that something which gets judged as being of "good quality", is judged this way because it is liked under certain aspects. To indicate touch, expressivity, sound, technique (etc.) as being of "good quality", means in my opinion that there's something about this categories, or to their effects, which is liked (it is nice, at least for who affirms it), or vice versa. For example, I think that saying that a guitarist has a good touch for vibrato, doesn't mean that his vibrato has such a thing as "good quality" in itself (where should it be located?), or in the perception which I have of it, but rather that I like the sound which is caused by his touch. If we wouldn't like the sound, we wouldn't say that he has a good vibrato, I think. It seems to me, thus, that the concept of quality (at least in music) is to lead back to aesthetic sensations (and consequently to the first part of my discourse).

There's anyhow to add that perhaps the concept of quality is less affected by differences in judgement bound to aesthetic sense. If a musical piece, in his whole, can easily be liked or disliked depending on the tastes of the listeners, the judgements about his quality (subjective as explained above) perhaps are more easily shared. Thus -- for example -- an high-level production, of an important band, will be hardly perceived as of low level from a sonic point of view. Or oppositely, a dissonant recording with un-tuned instruments, will be hardly perceived as pleasant.

Some words in particular for the concept of "complexity", with a question to pose to oneself: when does complexity begin, and when does simplicity? My answer is that, missing an objective border, both categories come to fall. These can be anyhow useful to communicate in the everyday life, with the awareness that it's the case of subjective and relative human concepts, in a way invented.
Furthermore, and I think that this counts also for other concepts (e.g. for those of originality and traditionality), I believe that it is no absolute rule that complexity (as subjective concept) is better than simplicity (still as subjective concept). In my opinion it is a matter of culture and personal preferences. It's arbitrary to prefer the one or the other.


The central idea ot this writing of mine (which initially moved me to do it) is the surpassing of the illusion in attributing elements which are solely mental, to the external environment. The sounds of which I speak in this writing, but also the colours, the tastes, the smells, the pains, and other concepts like big and small, tall and short, good and bad, complex and simple, warm and cold, and so on, are in my opinion present only mentally, some as sensations of which we have direct experience, and some others as concepts which are abstract, subjective and relative.
As conscious beings, we are in direct contact with our consciousness, where perceptions of different kinds "arise". Since our consciousness has the characteristic of displaying the sensorial perceptions in a three-dimensional space, it's perhaps for this reason that it seems -- illusionary -- obvious that what we perceive sensorially is outside of us exactly as it appears to us.
Probably it is not possible and neither necessary to avoid this illusion, not necessary because it anyway seems functional, but perhaps it's a good thing to be aware of it.

Thanks for the useful feedback to Federico "Parsec" Cito, and Gianfranco Panighini.

© 2024 Thomas Becker   -   Version 2024.02

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