Are Musical Items Intrinsically Musical?

18 November, 2006
If musical taste is subjective, then perhaps music is not intrinsically musical. But we often talk about our subjective judgements as if they were objective, or at least independent of the beholder. If musicality as a property of musical items is intrinsic in the sense of being consistently inter-subjective, this has important consequences for music science.

Is Anything Intrinsically What It Is?

It is human nature to ascribe properties to entities without regard to the subjectivity of those properties. For example:

Sometimes we talk about these properties in a way that acknowledges their dependence on our perception of those properties, e.g.:

But even then, the properties of the things that have the properties are described without any explicit reference to dependence on the identity of the perceiver. In other words, we say "She looks so beautiful" rather than "She looks so beautiful to me". Ancient wisdom tells us that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", but we normally talk about beauty without explicit reference to the beholder.

By not referring to the beholder when talking about "beauty", we are implying that beauty is an intrinsic property of the person or object who is judged beautiful. Thus a beautiful woman is considered to be intrinsically beautiful just like a tall woman is considered to be intrinsically tall, even though tallness can be measured objectively with a measuring tape whereas the measurement of beauty is a function of internal aesthetic response.

One reason we tend to discuss subjective properties of people and things as if they were intrinsic is that very often different observers do agree on what is beautiful – or delicious, or annoying, or "nice". These judgements are obviously subjective, but they are sufficiently inter-subjective that we can discuss them without reference to any particular observer, because we know (or at least expect) that the same judgement will be made by different observers.

At the same time, there are situations where agreements about subjective judgement are less consistent. Food that is a delicacy to one person can be disgusting to another. What is "annoying" to one person can be "interesting" to another.

We must also consider the effects of culture on subjective judgements. Judgements that are universally inter-subjective within one culture may not be so when observers from different cultures are asked for their opinion. For example, people may consider the most beautiful members of their own race to be more beautiful than the most beautiful individuals belonging to other races. And the favourite food of one culture may be less tempting to those of a second culture, especially when members of the second culture are told which animal species it is derived from (and which part thereof).

The Evolutionary Biology of Subjective Judgements

Questions about subjective judgement have direct relevance to the study of evolutionary psychology. The evolutionary psychologist assumes that all the judgements that we make, whether objective or subjective, have some adaptive relevance, i.e. they represent an attempt by the observer's brain to calculate some information about a person or thing being observed which is relevant to the survival and reproductive success of the observer.

If a particular judgement is consistently inter-subjective across all beholders (or at least most beholders), then this suggests that the outcome of this judgement is genetically determined, and that if environmental experience does contribute to the development of the judgement, then it does so in a way which produces a similar result for most environments that a person is likely to grow up in.

If a judgement can be shown to be dependent on culture or other aspects of environment, then the issue is less clear cut. Even if the judgement is culturally dependent, the purpose of the judgement may be largely independent of culture. For example, the notion of beauty may be relative to the average appearance of people living in the society you grow up in, in which case your sense of beauty will be dependent on your racial background. But there is still strong agreement about beauty judgements across races, as some characteristics contribute to beauty independently of racial variation – for example having clear spotless skin helps you to be more beautiful no matter what race you belong to. And although the judgement of beauty may depend on the ethnic circumstances of the beholder, the purpose of that judgement is essentially the same no matter what culture or ethnic group you belong to, i.e. for a man judging the beauty of a woman, beauty implies youthfulness, health (including absence of congenital disease) and not being already pregnant, all of which add up to a judgement about suitability as a long-term marriage partner and future mother of one's children. (Not that we are consciously aware of this evolutionary logic.)

In some cases a judgement is dependent on culture because the purpose of the judgement is intrinsically relative to culture. One example is the judgement about whether or not a sentence is grammatical, as the grammar of a language is defined by the collective grammatical knowledge of all the speakers of the language. The process by which a child develops a sense of grammaticality has evolved to model the grammar defined by other people's sense of grammar, because the whole point of judgements about grammaticality is to facilitate communication with other speakers of the same language.

A less extreme example of cultural dependence is that of morality (a subject which I have discussed at length elsewhere). With morality we have a strong sense that it should be objective, even though received opinion among moral philosophers is that a purely objective basic for morality has not been found and probably cannot be found. And even though each of us has the feeling of our own internal sense of right and wrong which is independent of anyone else's sense of right and wrong, it is very likely that the development of that sense depends on exposure to other people's moral beliefs during our lifetimes.

We should not be too surprised to discover that the development of our personal sense of morality is affected by the morality of the society that we live in, since the main reason for morality is to provide a common system for judging what is or isn't acceptable behaviour. If a person's moral code is unrelated to the morality of surrounding society, that person is going to have great difficulty in their daily interactions with other people.

Application to Music

So, how does music fit into this spectrum of perceptions which are subjective, inter-subjective or objective? Can the musicality of music be considered to be intrinsic?

Our appreciation of music is obviously subjective, yet we talk about the quality of music as though it was inter-subjective, i.e. as if we expected others to agree with our statements about which music is good and which music isn't good. And we talk about music this way even though we know that different people can have significantly different tastes in music.

Musical taste is at least partly determined by culture. Musical items from other musical cultures typically sound "foreign" to us, and although they may still sound recognisably musical, we generally don't develop a taste for listening to music too different from that of our own culture. (It must be pointed out that much modern "foreign" music is heavily based on modern Western musical concepts of the diatonic scale and rhythms formed from simple regular beats and syncopation, in which case it isn't really all that "foreign", and it is not so hard for Western listeners to learn to appreciate it.)

Even considering variations in musical taste within a single culture, there is strong evidence for a dependence of musical taste on exposure, and especially exposure that occurs before early adulthood. This appears to account for the lack of interest that much of the older generation has for "modern" pop and rock music. There seems to have been a particular discontinuity in the 50's and 60's, which gave rise to a corresponding generation gap between the musical tastes of middle aged parents and those of their teenage children. As that discontinuity has receded into the past, the "gap" has disappeared, and there is not so much difference these days between the musical tastes of parents and children.

Culture-Dependence Does Not Necessarily Rule Out Intrinsicality

Evidence for cultural determination of musical taste is often taken to imply that musicality is not an intrinsic property of music. Judgements about music are considered to be less like judgements about food or beauty, where cross-cultural overlap is readily observed, and more like judgements about grammaticality, which are obviously extremely relative to the language being spoken.

But I think that there is a tendency to too readily dismiss the possibility that musicality is an intrinsic property.

Definition of Intrinsic Musicality: Maximum Musicality

One way to define musicality as an intrinsic property of musical items is to define the intrinsical musicality of a musical item to be the maximum musicality of that item with respect to any beholder.

For a variation of this definition which protects us from "rogue" (and possibly dishonest) judgements of musicality by untrustworthy or unusual individuals, we can add the requirement that the item is judged to be musical by some minimum number of listeners.

From the point of view of someone working in the commercial music industry, this definition makes a lot of sense. If one person very much likes a particular item of music, it is very likely that there will be a large number of other people who also like it.

The definition also has the important property that it doesn't allow any item of supposed music to be deemed musical. Indeed, common experience in the music industry is that hits are very hard to find. If we get so much new popular music appearing on radio on television, it is not because new music is easy to find, rather it is because there are so many people trying to find it (and lots of money going to those who do find it).

Musicality of Music and the Musicality of Musicians

One reason to believe that musicality is an intrinsic property of music is the very notion of musical skill. There is often more agreement about who is the best musician than there is about which music is the best music. But the only meaningful criterion for a musician being "good" is their ability to make "good" music, which is the same thing as saying that they maximise the musicality of the music that they are performing. In other words, if we cannot judge music to be intrinsically good music, it doesn't make sense to judge performers as being intrinsically good performers.

The Implications of Intrinsic Musicality

If the musicality of each musical item is an intrinsic property of that item, and not just a consequence of its relationship to other musical items, then this suggests that musicality has some external meaning, independent of the existence of music.

According to this paper (which I take to be fairly representative of the current state of "music science"), the two "standard" theories of music are the sexual selection theory and the group cohesion theory. Both of these theories appear to define music as something done for "its own sake". Neither theory particularly requires musicality to be intrinsic, because neither theory requires the music or the musicality of the music to have any external meaning. In the sexual selection theory, the guy sings what the girl wants to hear, and the girl wants to hear it because that's what the guys sing and that's what all the other girls want to hear. In the group cohesion theory, the important thing about the music is that everyone performs and enjoys the same music as everyone else.

Proponents of these theories are therefore not too concerned about intrinsicality, although if musicality happens to be intrinsic, that doesn't bother them either. Features determined by sexual selection may or may not have cultural components – for example, sexually selected features such as coloured markings on male birds are genetically determined, whereas bird songs (which are at least partly sexually selected for) can be "cultural" in the sense that the song a bird sings is learned from other members of its own species (and in a few cases from members of other species).

If musicality is not intrinsic, then none of the many features or aspects of music is of any particular significance, because their existence can be explained by saying that they became self-sustaining for cultural reasons. But if music is intrinsic, then every single one of those aspects must have its own intrinsic significance, and if musicality has an external meaning, every individual aspect of musicality must have an external meaning of its own which contributes to the overall external meaning.

In other words, if musicality is intrinsic, then there are a lot of things that have to be explained. So while the proponents of non-intrinsicality may seem more "sophisticated", i.e. sophisticated enough to realise that what seems objective may really be subjective and culturally determined, their sophistication also gives them an easy way out, because they no longer have to explain all those features of music which would otherwise need explaining.