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Regarding excellence of taste - as far as I can see, there are two separate things we need to distinguish: awareness, and preference. Let's use literature because it's easier for me to illustrate the difference.

I do not enjoy 1984, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451 very much because too many details are meaningless, too much of the dialogue is unnatural, no symbolism is extensively developed, the moral of the story is too obvious, there is not much intertextuality, and the wordplay is not clever. They all have a lot of insight into the modern world and effectively call attention to extremely important problems, but those aspects of the novels are not so important to me. A different person with a similar awareness of literary devices could enjoy them enormously, simply by having different preferences. For example, I'd guess that Isaac Asimov was at least as well aware as I am of the flaws of The Mists of Avalon, and that I'm roughly as familiar with its virtues as he was, but he enjoyed it and I didn't, because that work's particular set of virtues pushed his buttons and not mine, while its particular set of flaws pushed mine and not his.

As an example in the other direction, The Lord of the Flies has a number of problems that I recognize - constant violations of the laws of nature - but I like it very much because it is loaded with extensively developed symbolism - even allegory! - constant allusions to Paradise Lost, relatively few insignificant details, and the moral of the story is easily missed unless you read fairly carefully. Readers who demand physical plausibility and moral clarity will not enjoy it as much as I do, even if they have exactly the same awareness.

So there are four really good, maybe even great works of literature. If someone is about as aware of such things as I am, we can disagree about the novels, enjoy them differentially, and have very rewarding conversations about them. I mention those four because I have had such conversations with people whose insight into literature is at least as penetrating as mine: we generally see the same stuff, but we feel differently about it. We have different tastes, but no one's tastes are superior or inferior. Great conversations, the world moves along swimmingly.

I can imagine a reader with a strong dislike of vulgar humor and moral ambiguity, who really loves stories about reasonable characters who overcome their emotions and behave rationally, or stories where an unambiguously good character defeats an unambiguously bad character; a reader indifferent to symbolism and puns, who doesn't enjoy comparing and contrasting scenes or characters to each other, or puzzling out political/religious implications of a story, or analyzing scenes from minor characters' points of view. Such a reader could understand Shakespeare as well as I do, and yet not enjoy his most famous works. I haven't met such a person yet, but I can imagine one. Her awareness could be equal to or greater than mine, but we'd have very different tastes.

But I've often talked to people who read Catcher in the Rye without being aware of, say, the fact that Holden losing the foils in the subway probably signifies something, or who like Chronicle of a Death Foretold without being aware that the fallibility of memory is a major theme. It's not that they don't like the kind of thing that Salinger or Garcia Marquez are doing in the books; they're just unaware of them. They have a right to their opinion, and I won't try to convert them, but I'm not going to seek them out for conversations about literature, because I see that they don't have a lot to offer. (Of course if I somehow met my younger self, I wouldn't talk to him about literature either, unless he were in a mood to listen relatively quietly.) Even when they like the books, I suppose it's good that they got some pleasure, but clearly I enjoyed them at a deeper level.

When someone reads, unaware of the kinds of things I've been discussing, we could be critical of that person's reading ability, whether they agree with me or not - though it wouldn't be polite conversation, and I wouldn't expect people to like me if I made a point of doing so. So there can be greater and lesser insights into works of art, but matters of taste are a different issue.

It would be bad enough to publicly flaunt my awareness of literary devices and language, visibly "turning my nose up" at people who for whatever reason haven't been able to educate themselves about such things; it would be even worse to pretend that my particular, arbitrary preferences are inherently superior to anyone who disagrees with me about the merits of a work.

In other words: having greater insight into a work of art is admirable, and though it is undeniable that some people don't have as much insight as others, it's not good conversation and anyone who makes a habit of pointing out their superior insight (even if they actually do have it) should expect to make enemies rather than friends. And insulting someone merely for having different tastes is even worse.

All this translates fairly straightforwardly into the realm of music. I'm not aware that the drummer hasn't played a measure exactly the same way all night, someone else is: he undeniably has insight that I don't. Two people both aware of that, one who thinks it's amazing and another who thinks it's excessive showboating: different preferences. Neither of them are wrong.

Unless they start insulting each other over it: then both of them are wrong.

Fortunately, that's uncommon in my experience. Like probably many people on this site, I'm blessed to have a fair number of friends who are professional musicians, composers, scholars, or work in the music industry. They all know far, far more than I do about music. They sometimes tell me about something that they think (usually correctly) that I haven't heard in the music, but they've never insulted me (and I certainly haven't insulted them) for liking something they didn't, or not liking something that they did.

I'm trying to think of the last time that happened to me in real life (as opposed to the internet). Not as good-natured teasing, but as actual personal condemnation for different musical tastes. I really can't remember any specific instance, but I'm sure it must have happened sometimes in early high school. The grunge rock guys, the rap guys, the country music guys, the top-40 guys - someone must have said something sometime about the Christian rock I was into back then. By my third or fourth year, I remember when I first got into Yanni, and a few of my friends were visibly skeptical, but none of them took an insulting tone about it, and at least one converted.

But for some reason it happens on the internet all the time.

Updated Oct-29-2015 at 03:29 by science



  1. science's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by science View Post
    I'd guess that subconsciously you are without a doubt aware of many aspects of the structure of the music. You sort-of "know" what the key is; even if you can't identify it (i.e. can't say "this is in the key of C major") and even if you don't know what a key or a I chord is, you can feel whether or not a particular chord is the I chord of the key.

    A lot of elementary music theory, in my humble opinion at least, is basically explaining what we subconsciously know about music. It's fairly directly analogous to grammar: just as few listeners think about keys or chords, few native English speakers consciously think about "countable" or "uncountable" nouns, but we all subconsciously know what they are, and the study of grammar amounts to a conscious exploration of what we know subconsciously.

    But if you'll let me continue the analogy with language (at some point it has to break down, and I hope it hasn't done so already), there are some things of which I doubt anyone can be subconsciously aware: a well-crafted extended metaphor, for example. If an author or a speaker constructs such a metaphor over the course of several sentences, there are two possibilities: either you are consciously aware of it (even if you miss some aspect of it), or you are not aware of it at all. (Or so I'd guess.) That might be going on with musical structure. You'll not (I'd guess) feel that a composer is re-using a theme from the first movement in the coda of the final movement. I'd guess there is no subconscious awareness of it. You are either consciously aware of it, or not.

    This gets us to one of the great debates raging on the board right now. There is a kind of expertise in listening, or reading. If you study (say) plot structure, or musical structure, you'll become more aware of things going on in a novel or a symphony. That is undeniable. Sometimes that awareness will lead to a greater appreciation of a work, and other times it will lead you to a criticism that a less-aware reader/listener wouldn't appreciate. Right there we've crossed a fine line: the awareness is objective - the work either does or does not have a certain structure, but the evaluation of that structure as good or bad is at best intersubjective, if not outright subjective.

    So what should you do? With this question we obviously find ourselves in the realm of "ought" rather than the realm of "is." There is, as far as I can tell, no moral obligation for any of us to make ourselves aware of things like extended metaphors or keys and chords. People with such knowledge have no moral superiority to people without it - snobbery is as it ever has been the dung of male domesticated ungulates. But if you want to know more about it, it's a hobby approximately as rewarding as any other. And if you want to create works that impress people with that kind of consciousness - if you have the ambition to be a highly respected author or composer or performer or critic - then that kind of knowledge is required. Like almost any field, there is kind of expertise in music, and you probably can't fool the experts as to whether you possess it.
    I'll come back later to clean this up....
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  2. Sid James's Avatar
    ...Like probably many people on this site, I'm blessed to have a fair number of friends who are professional musicians, composers, scholars, or work in the music industry. They all know far, far more than I do about music. They sometimes tell me about something that they think (usually correctly) that I haven't heard in the music, but they've never insulted me (and I certainly haven't insulted them) for liking something they didn't, or not liking something that they did...
    I have similar experience. Problem with the internet is, the cloak of anonymity. It can cover many behaviours that in real life we find anti-social and downright rude. In other words, poor communication. Often I may agree to a large extent about a poster's opinion on this forum, but I find their delivery apalling. So it cancels out the message. I end up leaving with a bitter taste in my mouth. So lose-lose situation. Better to put one's point in as neutral or objective tone/way as possible. If I get a bit emotional, it's fine, but if I get too emotional, it can be a minus. This striving for neutral tone does not necessarily, or at all, have to effect the actual content of your opinion.
    Likes science liked this post
    Updated Mar-26-2012 at 02:36 by Sid James