2012-10-29

A Unique Aspect Of Music

Among art forms, music holds a unique place in human psychology: people appear to hold stronger opinions about music than they do any other art form.

Exhibit A: Paintings
To highlight this point, let's consider another art form: painting. There have been many "movements" throughout the history of painting, like "realism," "surrealism," "cubism," "impressionism," and so on. Most everyone - whether they realize it or not - will tend to prefer paintings from one or two of these movements over the others. Despite that fact, people generally have a positive, and for the most part highly tolerant, view of paintings in general.

True, there have been controversial paintings in the past, works of art that have stretched the limits of human tolerance for radical art. Perhaps the best example of this is the painting "Black On Black" by Ad Reinhardt, shown below.
For obvious reasons, I have chosen to post a photograph of the painting on display, rather than a mere photograph of the painting itself.

Now, among ordinary people, paintings like "Black On Black" typically elicit a response of this sort: My six-year-old nephew can paint something like that! He should be a famous artist, haw haw haw! We all view this sort of criticism with varying degrees of concurrence. Obviously, artists will be less sympathetic to such criticism, while staunch fans of realism will be the most sympathetic.

But at any rate, even the people who levy such criticism against art of this kind view it as a passing chuckle, and quickly move on. The bottom line is that "Black On Black" does not much occupy the thoughts of anyone who dislikes it. Even those who hate it vehemently hardly think much about it.

Furthermore, stores that sell home furnishings are replete with art prints both famous and obscure, the vast majority of which is abstract art, but much of which is every other kind of art, too. People in general have a hunger for a wide variety of art, and it is not uncommon to see both a realistic painting or print and an abstract piece in the same household or office.

Exhibit B: Music
Analogous points can be made for sculpture, dancing, and most other fine art forms. However, when it comes to music, the case is entirely different.

To put it succinctly, when people love music, they love it dearly. And when they hate it, they detest it with such a passion that their distaste completely overwhelms them. A physical reaction wells up inside people when they hear deeply moving music (positive or negative), and it has a deep impact on their mood, an impact that lasts for hours on end in many cases. Sometimes the impact even lasts for days. Unlike other forms of art, music gets "stuck in a person's head," very often for days; and this can be true whether or not the person enjoys the song. As far as I can tell, only music holds this position in human psychology. It is a unique aspect of music.

Like other fine art forms, people like what they like and want to make it a regular part of their daily experiences. Unlike other art, though, people appreciate it narrowly and intolerantly. That is to say, when people dislike music, they will often not even tolerate being in the same room as the music they dislike.

Perhaps even more puzzlingly, while the layman consumer of paintings will often gravitate to those works that demand the most pure technique, the opposite is true of music. Laymen prefer simple music to complex music. Laymen prefer music that involves little technique.

I would be speculating if I attempted to explain why music is so unique in this aspect. Perhaps it is because music is an inherently social art form, and people will tend to dislike that in which they feel they cannot participate. If they can't dance to it, can't sing along with it, and can't play it themselves on an instrument at home, then perhaps they don't see a lot of value in it.

Perhaps sound itself holds a unique aspect in human psychology as an evolutionary mechanism. That is, perhaps complex, dissonant harmonic interaction is instinctively interpreted as "noise" in the human brain. And perhaps "noise" is instinctively interpreted as "danger," as in the case of a loud boom or wild roar. Meanwhile, perhaps a small number of voices resonating harmonically provides an instinctive evolutionary signal to us, since things like perfect fifths and parallel thirds can't exist in nature without peaceful cooperation among human allies.

In other words, perhaps there are rational, scientific explanations for why people react more strongly to music than they do to other art forms. And, indeed, perhaps these explanations provide insight into why people prefer the music they prefer.

The Result: Intolerance And Homogeneity
But, at any rate, the fact is that when people love music, they will love it dearly; and when they dislike it, they will hate it vehemently. The result of all this is that over time, music has become progressively more homogeneous. People - whether or not they are even musicians - hold strong opinions and personal "rules" about what makes music good versus bad. Once they have established these rules, they will mock and ridicule any piece of music that does not conform to the rules.

Rightly or wrongly, it appears that music - more than any other form of fine art - must adhere to the social order. A deviant artist whose medium is sculpting, or dance, is often seen as someone who makes something that only appeals to a small group of people (and it is true that they do). But a musician who makes music that only appeals to a small group of people is considered a ridiculous poser, a hack, an amateur, or a pretentious knob.

Puzzling though it may be, the fact remains, minority artists in the visual arts are socially rewarded even if not for their art. They are seen as people doing the necessary work of expanding the boundaries of art. Minority musicians, on the other hand, are deeply resented and ridiculed.

It is a fascinating sociological fact.