Aesthetics Blog Music Musicology

Aesthetics: Considerations For the Determination of Musical Value

Stecker (2003, pp.322-323) calls for further research to uncover an evaluative model, where “various prima facie considerations are all relevant to, but do not entail, a particular assessment”. He mentions how assessment based on these considerations “is one of the unsolved problems, not only in the epistemology of aesthetic value judgements, but in ethics and the general theory of value”. I posit four criteria which can be used in order to determine the value of a musical work (see Figure 1): Complexity, Originality, Affect, Biography. These criteria can be used as a methodology for an evaluative listener, or a society seeking critical engagement with evaluating works. The criteria are not mutually exclusive, nor are they hierarchical. However, they are sufficiently unique in character, despite significant overlap, to allocate each to a separate category. These four categories can be subsumed by a further criterion, Context. This is due to each of the four metrics being reliant on the inherent contextual subjectivity of the listener in question. These values generate visible societal results: commercial success, the proclivity to inspire, the works canonised by our society and the works taught in our educational facilities. Thus, the importance of outlining a set of values engaging both cognitive and emotional levels on which to perceive a work is vital. This essay provides a brief outline of some of the issues to consider when assessing musical value. Further study may deal with each criterion in further depth and provide case studies of the evaluation of specific musical works.

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The field of neuroaesthetics has done much to illuminate the neural mechanisms responsible for aesthetic appreciation. This field of study can be used to comprehend the challenges of empirical value judgements in the face of the subjectivity of the listener. Understanding the contextual factors associated with the listener is key to parameterise the field of discussion. Pearce (2018), notes how musical syntax is statistically learned in the mind of the listener through exposure to all their previously encountered music. The syntactical understandings are highly specific to the individual’s prior musical experience and are contingent on their musical culture (Salimpoor et al., 2013, p.65). An individual then uses their syntactical understanding to generate “probabilistic predictions” to predict the direction of unencountered music (Pearce, 2018, p.379). This can be done on both a micro-level (note-to-note, phrase-to-phrase) and a macro-level (larger structure) of a work (Salimpoor et al., 2015, p.87). Thus, a database of musical pathways can be said to be established within the mind of the individual. This creates expectation of musical pathways within the individual in relation to their previously acquired syntactical comprehension. These concepts lend credence to Levinson’s (1997, cited by Davies, 2003, p.508) theory of ‘concatenationism’, dealing with the “connections” between, and “implications” of, musical events.

Violation or confirmation of musical expectations causes psychophysiological responses such as a dopaminergic response, pupillary dilation (Gringas et al., 2015, p.6), skin conductance changes and “differential hemodynamic responses” based on “whether the events were better than expected” (Salimpoor, 2018, p.87). Thus, these violated or confirmed expectations produce pleasure (Salimpoor et al., 2015, p.86). Miles et al. (2017, p.11) posits a “Hybrid-surprise Hypothesis”, based on a mediation between Absolute-Surprise (pleasure derived through unexpected events) and Contrastive-Surprise (juxtaposition of unexpected events and subsequent expected events producing a favourable response) Hypotheses. Therefore, a balance of subjectively expected and unexpected events throughout a song, or other musical work, allows maximal stimulation for the listener.

Musical expectation in itself can release dopamine because the neurotransmitter is thought “to be involved in anticipation of a reward, when a desired item is craved” (Salimpoor et al., 2013, p.69). Bharucha (1994, cited by Salimpoor, 2013, p.70) attests to the differences in anticipation experienced between heard and unheard music. He used the terms “veridical” to refer to the anticipation of a known part of the work which induces pleasure, and “schematic” to refer to the anticipation when listening to an unknown work produced through syntactical understanding of all music previously encountered. Upon repeated exposure, a musical work can become more rewarding due to “the predictive factor” becoming enhanced (Salimpoor et al., 2013, p.71). However, when a work has been heard too frequently, the work becomes too predictable, inhibiting the release of dopamine (Schultz, 1998, quoted from Salimpoor et al., 2013, p.71). This may explain why when a work is heard too often, or when it is overly predictable (to our ears) to begin with, it may not be as pleasurable (p.71). Further to this, Williams (2005, p.217) found that “music training differentially affected focus of attention to complexity”. Both melodic and harmonic focus increased with greater musical training in Williams’ study. This would be in line with previous concepts mentioned. If an individual had been exposed to, assimilated and understood semantic and syntactical structures of Western music, then their probabilistic prediction error when listening to more complex music will be lower (Salimpoor, 2016). DeBellis (1995, cited by Curries, 2003, p.711) notes how an individual who can hear a diminished fifth can understand the voice-leading rules associated therein “has undergone an enrichment of her perceptual experience”. Therefore, the musical training of the listener can affect their experience and perceptual capacities when listening to music. However, that does not necessarily mean that their perceptual experiences of music are more valuable than the uninitiated.

Furthermore, memory associations play a substantial role in pleasure derived from music (Graham, 1995, p.147). This may explain attachment to music of a person’s youth (Salimpoor et al., 2013, p.68). Positive connections between youthful memories and a musical work or genre may produce a favourable response to that music. Or perhaps it is akin to developing a ‘mother-tongue’, where the statistically learned harmonic directionality, or even “spectral features” such as “timbre of instruments or voices” may account for the “generational similarities in music preference” (Salimpoor et al., 2015, p.89). The association of music and memories is purely contingent on the prior experiences of the listener in relation to the work in question or works of a similar nature. Personalised memory associations are not immanent in the music or within the power of the composer to intentionally produce. Musical communication between composer and listener is limited in the sense that music may “prompt ideas and thoughts but cannot constrain them in any particular direction” (Graham, 1995, p.148). Therefore, we may say that a work can produce an objectively valuable response from the listener, but the type of response experienced is subjective to that listener. The experience of a listener is real, but the ability of a work to convey a specific response to all listeners is not. Thusly, the evaluative listener must consider a range of variables when determining the value of a musical work, engaging with both intrinsic and extrinsic elements of the work.

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Complexity can operate on both quantitative and qualitative levels. We may empirically measure the rate of harmonic surprise (Miles, et al., 2017, p.3), instrumental forces required, notes per second or rhythmic ananisochrony (Pearce, 2018, p.387). However, these intrinsic complexities may not be representative of perceived complexity on the part of the listener. For example, an orchestration by Ravel may subjectively sound simple; however, the level of expertise required in order to create an orchestration which appears to be effortless may be vast indeed. This subjectivity remains on the part of the perception from the listener rather than the quantitative, intrinsic elements of the music itself.

We may consider complexity to be a work’s imperviousness to being ‘worn-out’ through repeated listening. Pearce (2018, p.386) notes how “more complex musical examples are more difficult to hold in memory for later recognition” which may be attributed to being “stylistically unusual”. Thus, IDyOM’s (see Pearce, 2018) prediction models could be used as a tool to measure musical complexity, through how stylistically unusual the work is.

Pease et al. (2018, p.85) highlights the importance of interpretation, or musicality, in performance of musical works. The difference in enjoyment between listening to a MIDI computer performance and a human performance may be due to the relative complexity levels, defined by multifractality, of the two performances. Pease’s study showed a MIDI performance produced a narrow multifractal distribution, against the “significantly broader” multifractal distribution of the human performance (p.85). The “musicality” of the human performance, such as rubato, intonation, articulation, dynamics etc., “are likely a better match to the brain’s complexity”, that of 1/f-noise. As Pease et al. states (2018, p.83), “the computer can provide the heart of the music, but only a human can make the heart beat”.

So why should Complexity be a virtue for a work? Sexual selection theory would propose that artistic expression is a “fitness indicator” (Dutton, 2003, p.701). Conceiving complex abstract concepts is attractive to a potential mate as “virtuosity, craftsmanship, and the skilful overcoming of difficulties are intrinsic to art as display” (p.701). Humans are unique in the sense of obtaining “pleasure from certain abstract stimuli that do not seem to have a clear survival value” (Salimpoor et al., 2013, p.63). It may be posited that the composers or performers who display the highest achievements of complexity within a domain are shown to be a fit mate and thus desirable. This may be due to their ability to engage with abstract phenomena, perhaps indicating “intelligence, creativity … the ability to learn difficult skills, and lots of free time” (Miller, 2000, cited by Dutton, 2003, p.701).

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Margaret Boden (1990, cited by Currie, 2003, p.708) defines creativity as “the transformation of the principles that organize a conceptual space”. However, Currie rebuts Boden by stating that the radical transformation instigated by Schoenberg, is not comparable to the arguably more moderate compositional transformations by Mozart. Furthermore, Novitz (1999, cited by Currie, 2003, p.708) notes that creativity can exist without knowledge “of the conceptual spaces that have constrained people’s previous efforts”. Novitz favours the linkage of creativity with recombination; however, there still exists the unclear distinction between what would constitute “creative and uncreative recombination” (Currie, 2003, p.708). There is a clear association between creativity and originality, that of “the production of something that is in some significant sense new or unique” (Alperson, 2003, p.246). Further to this, the unique artwork is therefore uninterchangeable and irreplaceable both in the response it may generate within the listener, and its ontological addition to the body of musical works that exist (Stecker, 2003, p.309).

Levinson (2003, p.9) notes that Originality is deemed as an artistic property and is “not directly perceivable in works in the manner of aesthetic properties”. Thus, Levinson highlights the contextual factors which dictate a work’s Originality. However, originality may be measured in some sense by the work’s proclivity to violate expectations based on the contemporaneous music in which it was composed. For example, using IDyOM, one could create a computational model which covers all of the piano sonatas by Clementi, Haydn, Ditters Von Dittersdorf, Hummel, Vanhal and Mozart, to see the prediction error (originality) of a piano sonata from Beethoven. This would provide some idea as to the originality of a Beethoven piano sonata in relation to the aforementioned composers. IDyOM could empirically demonstrate the degree to which Beethoven innovated on existing conventions, at least in relation to the categories under measurement by IDyOM, e.g. harmony, melody, metricity.

Why is Originality desirable? Schopenhauer (1844, p.158) is famously quoted as saying “The man of talent is like the marksman who hits a mark the others cannot hit; the man of genius is like the marksman who hits a mark they cannot even see”. Monteverdi, Haydn, Schoenberg, The Beatles, Metallica were all seminal musicians. They can all be said to have been original to the extent of expanding and advancing their contemporaneous musical syntax, whether that is through unique uses of harmony, orchestration, arrangement or structure. They were trendsetters and, in some cases, created genres. They inspired future composers simply through having created the genres / tonality which may be composed in. We may conclude that Originality is a valuable asset for a musical work, at the very least in a contextual and historical sense. This is due to our musical landscape and heritage being shaped and transformed due to their output. Originality is tied up with Biography and Complexity in the sense of taking historical importance via influence, due to the intrinsic violation or confirmation of the expectations of the time.

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Knowledge of the circumstances under which a piece was composed or the history of its reception and participation in our musical heritage can greatly enhance our appreciation, or emotional arousal, of that work. We need only think of Bach’s Musical Offering, Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, where the notes are enhanced through understanding of where, why or how those notes were composed. Davies (2003, p.510) suggests that a work “can be appreciated fully only in terms of its genre and music-historical location”. This is a position Davies coined as ‘contextualism’; “the identity of musical works depends on aspects of the context in which the sound structure is created, and not solely on its pure form” (p.493). Therefore, contextualism is an acknowledgement that the identity of the work is contingent on contextual factors rather than purely formalistic, intrinsic identity present in the work itself. A result of this is the relative value of a forgery, and the original artwork (Davies, 2003, p.173). More broadly, biographical preconditions such as economic, social and institutional conditions “affect virtually every aspect of creation in art” (Alperson, 2003, p.255). Therefore, knowledge of the Biography of the work and composer in question, will tie in with the wider social structures which they were situated within.

Associated with this, is the notion of the ‘function’ of the work. Stecker (2003, p.322) highlights the idea that understanding why a work was composed, whether for a coronation, church service or for pedagogy, may provide a metric in which to compare the relative failure or success of works. However, a work initially composed for one function may fulfil purposes outside of that function. Pieces initially composed for their pedagogical value may function beyond that as works of great Affect and as artworks in themselves, such as Mozart’s piano sonatas. For art to hold a non-functional position, is in fact to hold a position, that of being created for a non-functional purpose, appreciation for its own sake (Levinson, 2003, pp.5-6).

I posit a metric which mediates between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism. A musician’s intention does not automatically generate a successfully realised version of that intention (Livingston, 2003, p.281). However, understanding an artist’s intention narrows the field of interpretation and allows evaluation as to the success of the intention of the composer. For example, programme music is more easily understood when the programmatic aspects of the work are revealed. One may say that the listener’s perception aligns more closely with the composer’s intention when pictorial imagery or language of which the music represents is made explicit. However, the position of hypothetical intentionalism is salient in the manner of weighting the resultant artefact above the intentions of the author (Livingston, 2003, p.284). A composer’s lofty intentions should not elevate a mediocre work. This highlights the biographical, contextual utility in knowing the intention of the composer, which may cause greater pleasure, comprehension, and value on the part of the listener.

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The dialectic regarding the Affect aroused by, found in, or expressed through, art has been occurring for millennia. It may appear self-evident to claim that one of the metrics which should be considered when evaluating a work is the propensity of that work to arouse an emotional response within the listener. Expression Theory holds “the value of art lies at least largely in the value of its expression of the emotion” (Neill, 2003, p.422). This expression may be on the part of the artist, the work being “the embodiment or articulation of the artist’s emotion”, on the part of the audience the work’s “evocation or arousal of emotion in the audience” or the work itself “symbolizing or representing emotion” (Neill, 2003, pp.422-423).

Arousal Theory claims that a work of art is defined by “its expressive properties” and a work is only said to have expressed a feeling if that feeling has been aroused in the audience (Neill, 2003, p.425). Failure to arouse the emotions within the audience is failure on the part of the work, or on the part of the audience to understand the work. But, if we are to judge a work purely based on its ability to arouse the emotions, then this raises the issue of popularity. If a song has reached no. 1 status in the charts, in part due to its propensity to arouse positive emotions within a large audience, is the song more valuable than no. 100? Perhaps we could say it is, due to it having a great Affect on a large amount of people, but only in the sense of having more Affect. Indeed, Miles’ et al. (2017, p.1) study showed that “chords of songs in the top quartile of the Billboard chart [1958-1991] showed greater average surprise than those in the bottom quartile” and “the different sections within top-quartile songs varied more in their average surprise than the sections within bottom-quartile songs”. Therefore, if ‘harmonic surprise’ measured was the violation of expectations, and the violation of expectations arouses emotions (Salimpoor, 2015), this may be one factor as to why some songs achieve success.

Acknowledging the Affect of a work may deal with Gordon Graham’s (1995) quandary of comparing the relative merits of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Paul McCartney’s Blackbird. We may agree with Graham in asserting that some of the difference between the two pieces lies in their “relative complexity” (p.140). But, greater complexity does not necessarily lead to greater pleasure on the part of the listener. A large-scale symphonic work may demand “a great deal from us in the way of concentrated attention”, whereas “simple harmonies with a catchy tune are usually far easier to enjoy” (p.140). With my value categories determined in a non-hierarchical way, perhaps a hypothesis could be considered of, ‘Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is more valuable in the category of Complexity and Paul McCartney’s Blackbird is more valuable in the category of Affect’. This may be tested through the metrics of Complexity and Affect outlined in the first section of my essay.

The Context of the listener is the perceptual lens through which musical pleasure may be derived. Neuroaesthetics has increased our objective understanding of the subjective response of the listener in relation to musical stimuli. This may be through violation or confirmation of expectations (probabilistic prediction) based on a culturally and individually acquired musical syntax. Positive or negative memory associations of life experience and music can impact our enjoyment of a work. When determining the value of a work, we must consider the Complexity, Originality, Biography and Affect of the work. These categories influence the value judgements placed on music using a methodology combining cognitive and emotional aesthetic experiences. It is my hope that these metrics may be used for an impartial value judgement when determining which composers to study or composers to canonise, and will create a method in which to appreciate music holistically.


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By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.