On Music Appreciation – II – Facets

By | April 7, 2009

In my last post, I talked about the meaningless of taste as a way of describing our preferences. In this post, I’m going to sketch out a scheme that I tend to use in describing preferences.

There are many ways in which a given piece of music might be appreciated. Examples include virtuosity, technical characteristics, emotional reaction, nostalgia, or even lyrics. Some of our appreciation is based on the objective properties of the music; other times on our subjective interpretation, and still others on partially objective criteria; that is, criteria that are objective within a group or other frame of reference such as a particular aesthetic.

I like to think of these as distinct modes of appreciation and, for the purposes of this discussion, will call them facets. Thinking about appreciation in terms of facets brings out the following observations:

  • A particular person doesn’t necessarily employ the same facets appreciating the time. Instead, different pieces of music might stimulate them through different facets, as might, perhaps, the same piece of music, depending on mood.
  • Just because two people like a song doesn’t mean they like it for the same reasons; they might employ completely different facets in appreciating it and there may be no other correlation between their overall preferences. This implies that merely knowing which songs someone likes is less useful than understanding their reasons for liking them, particularly if we want to assess whether two people share similar taste or predict how someone will react to new music.
  • Not everyone has access to all facets as some facets require particular skills, knowledge, or experience. This implies that we can learn to improve our powers of appreciation, and that some people have more diverse means of appreciation at their disposal than others; in this sense, they could be said to have more sophisticated taste.
  • Though some facets rely on objective properties, appreciation always involves some degree of subjectivity. For example, though we can objectively identify the technical characteristics of a piece, our appreciation becomes subjective when we interpret and judge the piece using those characteristics. One objection to this might be the argument that we react viscerally to certain stimuli in particular ways. This is objective in a sense, but only inasmuch as all humans share similarly structured meat-brains – an alien wouldn’t necessarily agree that these facets are objective. The key point here is that the nature of the audience always plays a role in appreciation.
  • Some facets are extremely specific, relating to particular experiences or contexts. For example, there are certain pieces of music that appeal to me because they remind me of particular times during my childhood and no one else shares that exact same appreciation, though if the music was part of a particular zeitgeist, they may share similar appreciations. Nostalgic facets make it virtually impossible for two people share exactly the same taste
  • To those who do not know which facets we employ, our preferences appear arbitrary and entirely personal. My sense is that this is the origin of the idea of taste as criticized in my last post. Certainly, we all recognize a certain amount of consistency and reason in our own preferences even if we are not necessarily able to articulate it, so why can’t we assume this of others?

That’s all for now – in my next post on this topic, I’ll build a rough taxonomy of different facet types.