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What is "Profundity"?--Revisited!

34157 Views 1660 Replies 36 Participants Last post by  Luchesi
Back in 2016, we had a wonderful exchange of views on the nature of profundity in the arts. The whole objectivist/subjectivist thang was aired as part of the discussion, as was the linked Understanding versus Appreciating a work. These topics have a life of their own, but I enjoyed this thread very much and trust that others might also. Just my opinion. But just try the first page....

See 4chamberedklavier's post below for link to old thread.
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But nobody has written "Bach's artistic greatness is an objective fact in the sense that it exists independently of human perception", so I'm not sure what the point is?

I would also like to point out that the only way we arrive at "objective facts" is through "human perception", so to then claim that these facts exists regardless of human perception seems to put you in a bit of an epistemological pickle.
You're right, but I think we must assume we're talking about humans and the human world of experience.
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Not everyone is presented with the findings of science, though a good scientifically-oriented writer or teacher can provide the material for such understanding. Unhappily, certain ideologies render some incapable of accepting scientific proofs. I thought this up while getting my second COVID booster and wondering if the Earth was really only 6,000 years old.
A very few people are privy to a good musical education. What's been yours?
Regardless of my liking for polls, I've attempted to rough out 5 different positions. You are welcome to suggest ways to improve on the wording, and on the number of positions.

  1. Extreme subjective: All music is of equal merit because all evaluations of music depend on subjective responses, not on any inherent attributes of the music. I do not rank music, I merely listen to it and enjoy what I will.
  2. Subjective: All music is of equal merit because all evaluations of music depend on subjective responses, not on any inherent attributes of the music. But I nevertheless evaluate what I enjoy and in doing so, rank some musical works higher than others.
  3. Balanced: Can see both sides of the argument, but remain uncommitted to either.
  4. Objective: Not all music is of equal merit. The test of time has clearly established that some composers have created works that can be shown to be ‘great’. However, it’s not clear what the inherent attributes of that music are that make it ‘great’.
  5. Extreme Objective: Not all music is of equal merit. The test of time has clearly established that some composers have created works that can be shown, by reference to inherent attributes in them, to be not only great, but superior to others. The merit of such works is evident, regardless of whether it is evident to all.
Thanks for the effort to make this list.

According to your list I see that I’m an extreme objectivist. I'm the same in science and the arts.

If someone isn't going to use the objective facts that they can see in scores in their lives, for a deeper appreciation of the achievements, for their continuing education, for an enduring interest far into their retirement years, then I would say that they’re content to be a subjectivist. I understand that very few people who can devote the time to learn the technical side of music. It’s a pity. They don't know what they're missing … and it's the same in all the fields of science. The more you know the more you might be interested, in fact you might end up completely fascinated (changing your life, now that everything’s at a press of a button).

Of course I understand that there are other ways to appreciate things in the sciences and the arts. But nobody has said why I should care about other people's opinions. I'm a research meteorologist and if someone with very little idea about meteorology has a very strong opinion about something I just handle them with kid gloves. I'm not rude, I'm very understanding, as it were. If they want help, I help.

There's no difference for me in music, I don't know much about painting or architecture (my son's an architect) or dance etc..
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So what's your point? Are you saying there's a fundamental difference between how the Queen of the Night aria, for example, is popular, and how Pachelbel's canon is?
Yes, the aria is an important part of an opera, and the way the canon is played it's a pleasing progression with a pleasing melody, like a good song. I'm much more impressed by the variations I've played for years, than what people generally like about the piece .
I've studied music theory quite a bit, including in music school. I know the difference between diatonic and modal harmony. I know what a half-diminished 7th chord is, and the difference between a rondo, a minuet and a scherzo. I know what a fugue is and how it differs from a canon. I've played in orchestras, bands and chamber music groups and sung in choruses. I can read scores, including orchestral scores. In fact, I can sight sing rather well, or at least could when I was in practice. I could play for you the entire first movement exposition of the Brahms violin concerto or Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet from memory right now, and I don't even play the violin.
But I am a subjectivist. Go figure.
Interesting. How would you describe yourself as a subjectivist? Do your likes and dislikes change every year, every decade? Are you somehow swayed by other people's opinions, likes and dislikes?
You think polls can help you?
What do you base your likes and dislikes upon (in the scores), if you can say?

I’ve been told I’m weird. I look at a 3-D weather diagram/profile (not the TV weather displays) and I'm fascinated by it, as if I was looking at a score, because it's out there in all its beauty and it's moving, having effects, it’s coming at us or going away. It's very very real. Vibrant, real life experiencing, which can all be reduced to objective facts, because we fully understand the mechanisms. No one's opinions make it better or worse.
Well I looked across TC and found a thread discussing this exact point.

At least one member makes a case for Bach being the greatest, and not on a purely subjective basis.
As an extreme objectionist myself, I think the achievements of Bach and Mozart and Schubert and Beethoven and Chopin and Brahms etc. were mostly all different. As happened in the other arts. Is this a contradiction? I don't see why it would be. The effectiveness on us humans is the relevant measure for me, and each composer/artist could use the tools available to them to create the artistically constrained ambiguity which stirs, enlivens/excites us (due to our long natural history).
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No. It's just that I understand that Mozart and Beethoven, and Chopin and Schumann, and Debussy and Stravinsky, etc., all are masters of specific styles. And as impressively complex and sophisticated as those styles may be, and as much skill as those composers showed in mastering them, there is no objectively verifiable validity to them or to any style. Other very different styles are possible, and indeed do exist, and there is no objective way to establish the superiority of one over another. Art, and aesthetics generally, is not a science.
Styles are good for effectiveness, as long as the creator understands enough about his intended audience, of their time, or the near future.

IIRC according Bernstein, aesthetics is a 'science', but I'm not going to try to defend a statement which he probably intended as merely a teachable moment.
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Why "imposition"? Of course some criteria are assumed in any question of quality. The first place to look is to the nature of the object and the intentions it embodies, with the assumpion that things that succeed in being what they're evidently intended to be are better than things that fail. Someone whose subjectivism extends to all values (including the non-aesthetic) can (and at some point probably will) argue that success is not intrinsically superior to failure, since "superior" assumes...well, you know. That's when I roll my eyes and find something more rewarding to do. In fact I think there's another singer face-off happening on the opera forum right now. Those present delightful opportunities to compare subjective impressions of individual singers while using others' objective knowledge of singing to increase and refine our own.
"Those present delightful opportunities to compare subjective impressions of individual singers while using others' objective knowledge of singing to increase and refine our own."

This is the same in any topic, art or science or basketball. Does anyone disagree with this?

I still have questions. And I'm no longer so sure of myself. Is it just that teachers have different goals with objective facts/material than music fans..
Just a second - you're mixing your judgements. Keep separate the concepts of mastery and superiority: they are not the same, and it's where confusion arises about what subjectivists/objectivists think.

Here's a question that hasn't been answered (I don't think) by an extreme objectivist: how can Luchesi tell from comparing scores which music is the greater? It might not be an important point in the overall thrust of this debate, but he does put it as his first point in declaring his extreme objectivity.
It's endlessly rewarding to look at the sequential development of Mozart's piano concertos, Haydn piano sonatas and Schubert's. Beethoven's Early, Middle, Late periods, the maturing Chopin, early Brahms -> mature Brahms. The scores are a world of exploration for me, but how much can be experienced with just listening... How would we confidently know the trends and differences by just listening? Maybe some people can (but not directly and not all the time (there are clever early works too of course. What are the telltale clues?)). Listening's never been enough for me. I want specifics and to see what the composer did everywhere to reach his goals of expressiveness and effectiveness. It can be a very attractive game, if I'm thinking in those terms (musicians are at play all the time, heh ).

Some young teenagers eat it up, thoroughly enjoying the challenge. They take it apart, they play the examples, they imitate, they feel the power. 'Not very many, sadly.
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More ear training, maybe? I memorize the music I learn before serious work on it begins. I don't keep looking at the scores. And I learn as much or more from listening to recordings as I do from the scores.
Yes, I need more and more experience playing by ear. I've always been below average. Our violinist plays so well by ear, but none of the rest of us. I get easily confused without the look of the score to guide me, it's very limiting for me. Bill Evans could 'listen' far ahead. I try to remember that..

I can fake anything familiar, playing along, but it's not very satisfying. As a warm up I improvise through the fifths and the fourths for 15 minutes, until I feel comfortable. There's some good things, but I'm not good at it.

In recent decades I will sit down and play though 10 works or old standards, and then try to play them back from memory. I don't do very well. It's difficult to explain, because I used to have large works memorized note for note. They come back quickly when I pull out the books. I've just become quite lazy, little time for dry memorizing anymore. I tell myself that a poor memory adds to the mystery, so I content myself with that..
I think a strong positive indicator of Bach's view of key-mashing--forearm and all--would be if he himself engaged in it. And what is "too sure"? How sure are you of Bach's possible endorsement of it? I think my "sure" about Bach is on firmer ground than your cannot be too sure. Is the above quote a struggling to say something rather than let my simple post go unchallenged? We know the answer to that question.
I think he meant that Bach would learn the power of modern techniques. He would be up with the cutting edge of such 'progress'.
dissident would say we don't know Bach's possible thinking about such things.
Yes, we can't, but a musician of recent years would know about voice clustering and its uses for effectiveness.

I've wondered whether JsB was as religious as we read. What about math? What did he know about the wider world? We can't know.
Was I raised by wolves? Yes, emphatically so--I am Mowgli reborn. Yes, I just emerged from the tree line, the first primate on the human line to do so. Yes, my belief in my being an autonomous agent is both rock steady and justified.
Was I raised by wolves? Yes, emphatically so--I am Mowgli reborn. Yes, I just emerged from the tree line, the first primate on the human line to do so. Yes, my belief in my being an autonomous agent is both rock steady and justified.
I think your view of this is 'justified' for rare persons liek you, because even when I was growing up we weren't pressured to be constantly concerned about an education TOWARD getting a 'good' job. We had a more well-rounded time of it. Kids today are more tightly scheduled and the rest of their time seems to involve being glued to one flickering screen or another. Where's the time for personal creativity and old-fashioned play and exploring outside? Nature and environment and sciences are all from book-learning. No natural activities to reinforce such interests (including musical explorations).

It was a 'new world' for kids after about the late 1980s (computing was everywhere), and a much nastier one in my view..
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Either way, it was a great post, because you've managed to put your finger on some of the underlying premises behind broad proclamations such as, Bach is the greatest, or Bach is a bore. And when you succeed in doing that, suddenly it becomes clear why neither statement is provable or objectively and universally true.
I don't get why you say that. Everything in music starts with the objective facts in the scores. Whether the works are worth learning, studying, performing --- or analyzing for clarity, the benefits of reduction, for comparing, for a deeper appreciation.
If in here we're only thinking about adult, non-musicians, then I understand such unimportant generalizations. And IMV, surely everyone can use common sense about subjectivity and objectivity.
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The only objective facts of a score are the pitches, durations, articulation markings, and tempo indications (although all but metronome markings are open to a variety of correct interpretations; and even with tempo markings there is the assumption that the tempo does not stay rigid until the next indication and there will always be some fluctuation).

Although musical notation is a flexible system that offers a good representation of the music, it does not do this perfectly, and in some ways is only an approximation of what the composer hears in his mind's ear, especially concerning rhythm.

There is a wide range of ways to interpret the score, including approaches to analyzing it. Performers have a certain amount of leeway in how they decide on how to play a score which is why every recording of a Beethoven sonata will have differences, sometimes huge differences.

The act of interpreting and analyzing a score is a subjective process.
Good points. I'll have to think about it some more. Thanks.

But again I’m caught up about looking at two scores, or two song sheets, for example. One is bubblegum pop and one is an old standard like Someone to Watch Over Me. We see immediately the difference in complexity, the composer's skill with notes and surprises in the harmonic progressions, an excellent middle section for added effectiveness. The other song is 3 or 4 chords, very predictable, repetitive, a little above a nursery song. For it to be recorded and then a hit, it must have an experienced producer, must have some catchy appeal, a simple, pounding rhythm helps and the right blend of sounds for the arrangement. But I’m comparing just the objective facts in the song sheets.

We can say that some people might prefer the light stuff, I guess, but I don’t know why that has any relevance. Do they want music or something else? Some people obviously prefer romance novels to Tolstoy. Do they want literature or something else? And why should anyone else care about where they are, personally? How is that constructive?

Now compare the old standard with a late sonata by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and on we continue through the later worlds of CM.
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Scruton is entitled to his view - an entirely subjective one of course. Other philosophers offer different views. How many should we try trading?

From Of the Standard of Taste by David Hume

(Hume 1757, 136)
Hume was a long time ago. A great thinker, yes. Then I think, a 12 yr old youngster knows more about our universe and our emergence here, including some of the factors during our long brain (intellectual) development (as music is concerned), than anyone back then. How was he misguided by the assumptions and guesses of his time? I don’t know enough about him, and we probably can’t know..

But I totally agree that seeing beauty is so very subjective! To me, it’s of little logical use in a debate like this.

Instead of finding ‘beauty’ for all the various life paths and emotional temperaments, how about finding works worthy of study, learning music as a language young so that it’s part of your life, decade after decade, all leading to deeper appreciations, for when you need it all much later. The effort in learning the language and the principles of analysis pays back rewards many times over, week after week, over the many many years.

Posters will get tired of hearing this view from me, but the creeping relativism is so sad to me. Like it’s harmless?, or required by civilized society?. As an educator, why not elevate the great works (in all the arts, sorta like we do in science), and then let the youngsters tear down the statues and criticize it all AFTER they’re prepared to do so (like we criticize Aristotle and Newton after we know enough). This is the way it was in the early half of the 1900s, I believe.
I think we’re going very wrong.. but I suspect we won’t be turning the ship around, and all I can do is watch the results, confirming my fears.
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Since beauty, something of which we all have a clear idea, is subjective; profundity is even more obviously subjective since the very idea of profundity in music is vague.

Who decides what are "the great works" and why they are great?

Something I was told a long, long, time ago still resonates with me: the best teachers do not teach a student what to think but how to think, as well as inspire a student to cultivate independent and critical thinking.
Very possibly there are more modern teaching techniques, but I use hero worship. In other words I try to elevate Beethoven Bach and Mozart to super hero status, so that the children have some guidance and maybe the memory will grow with them. It's simple and straightforward and directed, it speaks their language from the Top Ape syndrome origins.

There's little problem that they will become indoctrinated, because they wiggle and squirm just like all youngsters, resisting whatever an old person will tell them. I tell them someday you'll find something wrong here and there and you'll make your own list of the big guys. Start a list whenever you think you're ready..

Youngsters will seek out big meaningful ideas and topics (maybe it’s unconscious) , because they are naturally motivated to be efficient with their attentions and grow up fast, learning and taking on responsibilities etc.
Did anyone in here have musical heroes growing up, in your preteens, or had that concept already faded away?
I'm afraid you are taking this discussion in a political direction not allowed here. Who decides whether something is among these "great works" of art worthy of being elevated in the eyes of our children? Do they include the works of Maya Angelou? Ralph Ellison? Harper Lee? Some seem to think these works should be banned from school libraries, much less "elevated". What about the music of Robert Johnson, Huddie Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Miles Davis and John Coltrane? Where you are getting stuck is in your refusal to acknowledge the profound difference between art and science. Shakespeare is not Newton. Nor is Bach.
The big names kids might've heard of, and would set them apart, if they're into that sort of thing.
The kids play simple pieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin.
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