Something funny happened to me on my way to holiday bliss.

I was at my parents’, and we were receiving guests, members from my extended family. We were all sitting in the living room, sipping tea and nibbling away at Christmas treats. Conversation waned from the anecdotal to the trivial. At some point, my mother put on Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations in the background: I happily let my soul escape into Gould’s bravura performance, while my body stayed with the small talk.

I must admit, the music was a little too virtuosic for the occasion. Even at low volume. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what came next…

“hey, can we stop that and put some music on?…”

…flipped in my dad, nonplussed, who until then had been sitting quiet and nodding to the stories.

Needless to say, I got flustered. To explain…

First my disbelief: my father’s statement. To him, this music was clearly antagonistic noise. In other words, beyond the actual situation, he did not consider this stuff music. Oh holy of holies, how can Glenn Gould be considered noise, even if unsuited for the occasion!

Then my gut reaction: personalizing this. You know, like: Glenn Gould is an artist of stature. You can hear it immediately when you listen to his recordings, especially the Goldberg Variations. I’m an artist, and I believe serious, committed artists are pretty important to society. Glenn Gould is just such a person. Therefore, this kind of dismissal goes to the core of my personality.


so what does your dad listen to?

If this seems unfairly harsh, I did opt for the broader view of things.

It goes like this: my father actually does like music. At least certain kinds of music. Specifically:

  • music that relaxes you – but does not “transport” or get overly passionate
  • music that successfully blends into the background – keep it subtly below the radar, at low volumes
  • easy-listening genres – nothing experimental or brashly sensual, please

In many respects, I’m a lot like my father. For example, volume: I despise loud music (notable exception, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). It’s nice also to have music that suits the situation. Plus: I worship quiet as much as he does. But I had a question to answer: how can “something of preeminent value” be summarily dismissed? What’s behind that?

And I’ve seen my dad in enough situations with music to know it’s not just… the situation.

I say Plato you say Hölderlin

The answer: incompatible world-views. About music. About art and the social value of artists.

My point: beyond debates about individual tastes, we all have philosophies of music we subscribe to, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Knowing a little bit about philosophy, I’ll venture my dad has a “platonic” view of the role of music and artists. And it seems I have a “diametrically opposed” viewpoint. We’ll call my world-view “romantic”.

For the sake of oversimplification ;-).

To explain: while Plato‘s views of music, taken in historical context, represent a rejection of bardic storytelling-as-knowledge, modern social engineers have sought justification for their views in his arguments.

Why social engineers? Well, for one, Plato has a prescriptive vision for the arts. You use this particular musical mode, dance and declaim your verse in such-and-such way, and your music is morally justified. Because it keeps the passions in check. Anything that arouses the passions is immoral because it destabilizes man’s “inner order”. More importantly for the social engineers, because of its emotional appeal, music properly harnessed can be a tool for maintaining social order.

You know, like Muzak. Or Mozart.

The Romantic viewpoint, by contrast, expounds a philosophy of music which posits man’s expressive needs as its core doctrine. Beginning in 18th century German revolutionary thought, the romantic creed has since become the common conception of what artists are supposed to be: complicated, hypersensitive, gifted and sometimes tragic figures, who “live through their art” .

Example: Beethoven, a deaf composer!

The romantic creed is certainly better known than the platonic viewpoint. If you’ve ever heard heard someone say “I do xyz to express something deeply personal”, you’re talking to someone who, consciously or not, has a romantic take on life and art. In fact, this philosophy is what motivates most people who call themselves “artists” to become artists to begin with.

Whether they’re committed or not, is entirely another matter ;-).

So in a nutshell, the platonic view: DO NOT DISTURB. The romantic view: SAY IT TO THE WORLD!

If you can convince me these viewpoints are somehow compatible, well, my dad and I would certainly like to hear from you. For the moment, I’m just going to hide in my headphones and take in Handel’s Messiah, from Jesus’ point of view.

And wait for dad to turn down the volume ;-).

2 thoughts on “why your music is somebody else’s noise

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