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IMO, for each individual the appreciation of each composer is relative/subjective. Taking a group of classical music lovers (optionally through the ages) one can derive an average appreciation for composers that appears to be objective, but is in the end nothing more than averaged subjective opinions. When doing this, usually the "big three" end up on top, but that does not mean that their music is demonstrably objectively better than the rest.
 

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...but is in the end nothing more than averaged subjective opinions. When doing this, usually the "big three" end up on top, but that does not mean that their music is demonstrably objectively better than the rest.
I tend to agree with you, but... Year after year, in group after group, the "big three" remain the big three. What, then, does it mean?
 

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Just that on average more people prefer their music (within the subset of classical music listeners) than that of other composers. If you want to define that as best or greatest, you can. But I don't think it is an objective criterion.
 
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IMO, for each individual the appreciation of each composer is relative/subjective. Taking a group of classical music lovers (optionally through the ages) one can derive an average appreciation for composers that appears to be objective, but is in the end nothing more than averaged subjective opinions. When doing this, usually the "big three" end up on top, but that does not mean that their music is demonstrably objectively better than the rest.
You're right that it does not mean their music is 'objectively' better than the rest - and yet there is a 'subjective consensus'. So what is it that the big three have in common that causes this phenomenon? It can't just be coincidence. You might expect a much wider range of composers to come top of the polls if our tastes were all different and the appeal of composers merely subjective - yet this does not happen.
 

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I don't see why the sum of individuals' preferences regarding composers can't be regarded as an objective criterion, especially when those preferences tend to be repeated by different groups of individuals over time.

In the world of paintings, if one painting sells for $500,000 and another at $250 at the same public auction, I'm prepared to accept that this proves that the more expensive one is of higher quality in objective terms than the other. It's not a question of personal taste.

It's much the same principle with other forms of art, that the market can usually provide an objective measure of an item's worth relative to others, whether it's by auction or by popular vote.
 

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I agree with Art Rock that aggregate opinion, however consistent, can never be considered an objective judgment. I can imagine the day when Beethoven, for instance, is much discounted, pleading over-earnestly the arguments of an antique and irrelevant age.

Just let me be dead then.
 

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In the world of paintings, if one painting sells for $500,000 and another at $250 at the same public auction, I'm prepared to accept that this proves that the more expensive one is of higher quality in objective terms than the other. It's not a question of personal taste.
If popularity or market value becomes the "objective" measure of quality, we are on a very slippery slope indeed.
 
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It's much the same principle with other forms of art, that the market can usually provide an objective measure of an item's worth relative to others, whether it's by auction or by popular vote.
I'm not sure this is so. The minute you attach monetary value, you begin an additional layer of potential distortion.

Music is not an artefact in the way that a painting is - although the manuscript could be so.
 

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I agree with Art Rock that aggregate opinion, however consistent, can never be considered an objective judgment. I can imagine the day when Beethoven, for instance, is much discounted, pleading over-earnestly the arguments of an antique and irrelevant age.

Just let me be dead then.
I'm not clear what criteria you use to judge greatness among composers, and whether you consider that any of them are quantifiable.

Do you recommend that other listeners might find your criteria to be useful in their own assessments? If you do, does this not of itself impart a perceived objective value, by virtue that you recommend them for wider use.

Why do you consider that aggregate opinion can never be considered an objective judgment? For example, in the context of a public auction for certain types of art a set of prices is determined. These prices are based on the summation of individual opinions across the relevant market of buyers and sellers, but the result is an objectively determined set of prices that reflect relative valuations of the works on offer.
 

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Why do you consider that aggregate opinion can never be considered an objective judgment? For example, in the context of a public auction for certain types of art a set of prices is determined. These prices are based on the summation of individual opinions across the relevant market of buyers and sellers, but the result is an objectively determined set of prices that reflect relative valuations of the works on offer.
I have no problem with aggregate opinion, or a number of other criteria being considered objective judgments. Personally, I can still be intrigued by opinion polls. I can also be intrigued by discussions among the musically well-educated (or among the well-trained) as to the merits of certain composers.

My point is that regardless of these "objective" ways of looking at things, what matters to me is my own subjective experience. Reading about the superiority of Beethoven to Brahms, lets say, in general TC-member-opinion, or in analysis of his compositional originality, or his influence on other composers, does not make me suddenly be thrilled by more passages in Beethoven's music than I am by Brahms'. Nothing changes in my own experience from these polls and discussions. It can't and it shouldn't be expected to.

The only way any of this would matter would be that, as a result of a TC poll or a debate over composer-value on the part of TC members, suddenly my access to the music of the composers I happen to prefer would be curtailed or cut off. There is no danger of that. So, I'm not affected by any of it. I don't really care.

Though I don't like to use the word "greatest" when referring to either music or musicians, because of the implications of superiority (or, more to the point - inferiority), I guess you could say that rated on a scale of most-moving moments to least-moving moments, I have my own personal scale of greatness. It's my own and I would never insist that it also be yours.
 

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Several responders have now opined that the auction house or the polling booth, sensu lato, can tell us about greatness, quality, etc., in the arts, or at least help us select what to "value" the more and the less? I am impressed with this argument: Let the bidding begin! I have long advocated for something like this in selecting candidates for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: When did Captain Beefheart move more units than Journey? Draw bigger audiences? Yet Beefheart is in and Journey is out (I love Journey).

As I recall, Gramophone polling almost always shows Rach 2 as Número Uno. Unless we define group subjectivity as a form of objectivity, then it's still subjectivity, group or no. Yes?
 

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@ Vesteralen

I agree largely with what you say.

Like you, as far as composers are concerned, what matters to me is my own subjective experience, which happens to be broadly in line with the results of polls up to a certain point. I suspect, somewhat cynically perhaps, that some people who have a completely different set of preferences are those who are most inclined to deny that the results of aggregate opinion can have any objective legitimacy.

One must ask why some composers are more popular than others are, and tend to remain so down the ages. I suggest this is because generations of music lovers recognise intuitively that those composers (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach et al) produced very fine works in respect of a variety of factors they deem to be relevant.

I accept that many of these factors cannot be measured with any certainty. However, it would throw the baby out with the bathwater to reject completely the notion that various objective considerations underlie these preferences. This seems to be the position of some here, and in other similar discussions I have seen elsewhere.

I maintain that an alternative way (albeit an imperfect one) of discovering the strength of the underlying forces is by observing consumer preferences in the form of things like polls, CD purchasing behaviour, concert attendance, and even the number of composer specific threads in classical music forums. The striking fact is that they all tend to point in the same direction, so it is extremely unlikely in my opinion that the revealed preferences do not mirror the underlying objective considerations, if only they could be measured. I fully accept that such preferences are, in principle, subject to change over time, but this doesn't worry me.
 

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Genoveva, your argument, I think, boils down to: Beethoven (for example) is the best composer because he is the most popular composer. And he is the most popular composer because he is the best composer. The corollary to this is that if someone thinks that not-Beethoven is the best composer, they must be wrong; everybody knows that Beethoven is the best composer because the polling says so.

I think the only information that can be gleaned from polls and auctions in the arts are the raw data:"Studies show that Beethoven is most popular composer." If somebody added: "Therefore, Beethoven is (must be) the best composer.", there would be furrowed brows indeed all around.
 

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One must ask why some composers are more popular than others are, and tend to remain so down the ages. I suggest this is because generations of music lovers recognise intuitively that those composers (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach et al) produced very fine works in respect of a variety of factors they deem to be relevant.

I accept that many of these factors cannot be measured with any certainty. However, it would throw the baby out with the bathwater to reject completely the notion that various objective considerations underlie these preferences. This seems to be the position of some here, and in other similar discussions I have seen elsewhere.
I think it is evident that, the larger the sampling, the more likely the list will come close to perceived wisdom. Why?

My guess is that there are two reasons - 1) The backgrounds and motives of the respondents can not be controlled. In any large sampling, there are bound to be a lot of people with very, very limited experience and whose personal knowledge comes from a relatively small sampling of probably well-known works and whose opinion is greatly shaped by what is closer to general knowledge in the field of classical music. 2) Extremes tend to get weeded out the larger the test group. Put simply, fewer people will pick Rameau and Lully or Ligeti and Penderecki as the two greatest composers than will pick Beethoven, Bach and Mozart as third, fourth and fifth.

Polls are useful because they largely reflect a combination of perceived wisdom and more objectively analyzed qualitative factors. (Edit - Please note the second phrase here. I would never argue that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are not great composers - even in a non-subjective sense.)

For me - it's what other people think or feel. That's great. I like other people. But, I live in my own head. My perception is my reality when it comes to "greatness", as it is for every other person for whom the most important consideration is the emotional impact music has on oneself.

There are people who are more concerned with factors other than emotional impact. That's okay with me. Personally, I think they are missing out on something great. But, I can't control that, and I don't really want to.
 

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The Rach 2 clearly triggers more pleasurable neurophysiological responses in the minds of Gramophone voters than any/all other candidates. Also, the balance between expectations confirmed and those thwarted/surprised is optimal in the Rach 2, again releasing endorphins in the brains of more auditors. The sources of our positive feelings triggered by music have been and are being densely studied and theorized for many decades now. In another thread I referenced the pioneering work of Leonard Meyer, whose classic Emotion and Meaning in Music helped define the field of study in terms of information theory and hierarchies of expectation. And there are continuing studies of the effects of music on the limbic system, etc. A whole lot is known about why/how we like what we do. But in the end, it comes down to numbers. If the Rach 2 is Number One; if Beethoven is voted Best Composer, it is because both elicit the most favorable responses in the brains of a group of listeners. But does this actually mean anything? I don't think so. I prefer to state that I like this or that; I prefer this or that. I'll try to explain why, if asked, but I eschew all talk of good, better, great, no good. It may be that I prefer Prokofiev and Brahms to your favorites, and maybe Prokofiev and Brahms don't trigger as many pleasure responses in as many people as do Beethoven and whomever; don't fit under the center of the bell curve as does Beethoven (or whomever), but it still is just a popularity contest, not an assessment of any intrinsic property that has any relevance beyond itself.
 
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The Rach 2 clearly triggers more pleasurable neurophysiological responses in the minds of Gramophone voters than any/all other candidates.
So there we have it: an objective criteria (if confirmed). Let me stress the indefinite article. It still doesn't confer 'greatness', but it does offer an insight into why some music appears so regularly at the top of lists.

But does this actually mean anything? I don't think so.
You may not think so, but I do. It means at least what you've already stated it to mean, and that's worth something.

it still is just a popularity contest, not an assessment of any intrinsic property that has any relevance beyond itself.
Well I suppose it depends what you mean by 'intrinsic property'. If we're back to musical elements (melody, rhythm, timbre, tempo etc) as opposed to musical impacts (the stimulation of an emotional or intellectual response, for example) perhaps not. But if the music intrinsically causes the 'neurophysiological response' - and it's not an extra-musical cause ("this makes me sad because it reminds me of...") then you have an intrinsic property, don't you?

It seems perverse to come up with a plausible explanation for why that Rach comes top and then say, "Ah, but it doesn't mean anything."
 

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But what meaningful statement can we make beyond that more people like Rach 2? Is Rach 2 better than Rach 3? Is it better than Prokofiev 3? How can I be persuaded to care? Should I rethink my preferences; follow the herd, change my brain? I'll even happily agree that the neurophysiology provides an "objective" criterion, but therefore, what? I am all for more studies and theorizing, but at the end of the day, all we can do is assert, with proof, that more people like A than B. Beyond getting more people to like itself--persuading a larger audience than B--is A better than B in any other, measurable, way?
 

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But what meaningful statement can we make beyond that more people like Rach 2? Is Rach 2 better than Rach 3? Is it better than Prokofiev 3? How can I be persuaded to care? Should I rethink my preferences; follow the herd, change my brain? I'll even happily agree that the neurophysiology provides an "objective" criterion, but therefore, what? I am all for more studies and theorizing, but at the end of the day, all we can do is assert, with proof, that more people like A than B. Beyond getting more people to like itself--persuading a larger audience than B--is A better than B in any other, measurable, way?
That's why they call it personal choice. The difference between 'subjectivity' and 'objectivity' is akin to the difference between sanity and insanity.
 
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