On Music Appreciation – III – Facet Types

By | July 19, 2009

This is the third in a series of posts about music appreciation. In previous posts, I argued that:

  1. Explaining our preferences with ‘taste’ doesn’t help a lot. All it really does is hide their complexities and protect us from the challenge of having to explain ourselves.
  2. Preferences are better explained using ‘facets’ of appreciation that each captures a different way that music might stimulate us. This by no means eliminates subjectivity, but providese a vocabulary, we can use to more easily understand and talk about preferences.  In particular, we become able to describe different people’s taste as differences in the priority or content of the facets they use.

So, what are some example facets? Here’s a list of the ones I’ve been able to identify so far:

  • Structure – The simplest facet is that of musical structure. It’s obvious to every listener that different styles of music have different structures to them, and it seems that, likewise, different listeners have different affinity for different structural elements. Some listeners like complex layered melody, while others prefer simple, accessible tunes. I’m no expert in music theory; my point is that musical structure plays a role in defining our preferences, and that there is no universal agreement on what makes for ‘good’ musical structure (excluding, perhaps, chaos and discordance). Here are some structural elements I commonly consider when trying to explain my own preferences:
    • Harmony
    • Melody
    • Beat & Percussion
    • Complexity
    • Tone
  • Nostalgia – There is some music that I like simply because it reminds me of a particular time, place, or event in my past. This facet is extremely subjective, and often difficult to explain in other ways. For me, examples of this are the Phantom of the Opera (which I listened to a lot when I was about 10), remixes of the music from old Commodore 64 games, and music like Shriekback, Sisters of Mercy, and Headless Chickens, all of which remind me of parties. Depending on the emotional character of my response, nostalgia might cause me to really like a piece of music, or really hate it.
  • Milieu – Similarly to nostalgia, some music evokes a particular setting, or place, or environment, and gains emotional significance from this that affects appreciation for it. The difference is that the association is not based strongly on a particular past experience. For example, one might appreciate music that evokes a particular historical period, or music that is ‘science-fictiony’. This is less subjective than nostalgia, but still quite so.
  • Emotional – Music very often evokes particular emotional responses that are not associated with any particular memory or milieu, but are the result of the music’s style, key, tempo, use of motifs and so forth. This form of emotional response to music seems the least subjective; for example, people can often agree easily on whether music is sombre, cheerful, or inspirational.
  • Utility – A lot of people seem to appreciate music that is good for some particular purpose. This might be music that’s good to code to (for me, that’d be Jeroen Tel, Machinae Supremacy, and similar stuff), music that’s relaxing, music that’s good to dance to, or even music that’s good to garden to (Vangelis’ Soil Festivities).
  • Skill Display – Some music is attractive because of the performer’s skill. This occurs often when there is strong emphasis on a solo performer, such as in violin concertos, jazz, and some prog rock. I also get this feeling when I watch group performances where, in addition to their skill in playing their instruments, the performers exhibit great skill in coordinating their performance. For some people, there’s a point at which displays of skill shift from awesome to pretentious, but to some extent, I think virtuosity is a fairly universal facet of apprecation. Incidentally, in his cluster definition of art, Dutton identifies skill display as one of its key features (see my previous post).
  • Fellow Musicians – I’m not particularly skilled in any instrument, but I know that players of an instrument can appreciate music using that instrument on a level that non-players cannot, because they can consider in more detail the skills and techniques that the performer is using. Fellow musicians might also appreciate music because of the joy it gives them when they perform it themselves. For example, I particularly enjoy music that I can sing to.
  • Social – Music often plays important social roles. It might signal membership of some group, it might be linked with particular social or cultural phenomena (birthday songs, carols, Auld Lang Syne), it might have some ritual meaning (hymns), or it might be a way of establishing group solidarity (anthems). This can apply to groups of any size, from nations to couples (“it’s our song!!”, she exclaimed).
  • Novelty – Novelty definitely affects appreciation. Songs can get old over time, and there’s a definte good feeling associated with discovering a new band. That said, there’s a point where nostalgia takes over, and old songs are revived (80s music!). While I enjoy finding new music, I think this facet isn’t as important to me as it is to others; I’d usually rather let other people go searching, then ask for their recommendations.
  • Narrative – Music, like much other art, can tell a story, and appreciation of that story affects appreciation of the music overall. Narrative might be overt, dominating and structuring the music (musicals), it might be more abstract, where the relationship between the narrative and music is less clear (movie adaptations and medleys), or it might be subtle, where the narrative is embodied in the structure of the music and not made explicit (The Firebird, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade).
  • Lyrics – Music often has lyrics, and these can significantly affect appreciation, not at the level of narrative, but at that of words and phrases. Depending on the topic, lyrics are often unimportant to me, particularly given the normal topics of love, sex, and betrayal. Lyrics that are political or philosophical, though, seem better able to grab my attention. One good example is ‘Amused to Death‘ by Roger Waters.

Obviously, this list isn’t exclusive, nor does it correspond to anything empirical – it’s almost entirely a product of introspection, with much inspiration from talking to others about their preferences over the years. I’m simply trying to build a vocabulary of ways in which we can think about our preferences for music so that I can avoid having to talk in simple terms of taste.

I’d be particularly interested to hear suggestions for other facets if you’ve got them..

As mentioned in my first post, I doubt any of this is original, but this doesn’t concern me. In fact, I’d be really interested to see research looking at this sort of thing – I’d be particularly interested in seeing, for example, some sort of data analysis performed on responses given by listeners trying to explain their reaction to particular pieces of music.

In my next, and probably last, post on this topic, I want to talk about the why of all of this – why I find preferences interesting to discuss, and why I get driven insane by people taking my desire for analysis of taste as being somehow critical of them.