Skip

This Band Rips
April 20, 2008 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Smooth Jazz, also sometimes referred to as new adult contemporary music or instrumental pop, is generally described as a genre that utilizes instruments and improvisation traditionally associated with jazz and stylistic influences drawn from mostly R&B, but also funk and pop. Since the late 1980s and into the 1990s, it has become successful as a radio format. [source wikipedia]

The average smooth jazz track is on the "downtempo" (most widely played tracks are in the 90–105 BPM range) side, layering a lead, melody-playing instrument (saxophones, guitars, piano) over a backdrop that tends to consist of programmed rhythms and various pads and/or samples. Although many people and record companies group smooth and contemporary jazz together, both genres are slightly different in the way they serve the listener. Smooth jazz is generally considered background music, whereas "serious" jazz is seen as demanding the listener's undivided attention.

Following are some of my favorite Smooth Jazz bands and tracks. Enjoy.

Tourist in Paradise -- The Rippingtons
Together Tonight -- Brian Culbertson
Rollin -- Fourplay
Notorious -- Boney James and Rick Braun
Do You Miss Me -- Mindi Abair
Midnight in Manhattan -- Peter White and Dave Koz
Return of the Eagle -- Craig Chaquico
It's All Good -- Brian Simpson

Well, that's enough from me. Do you have any of your own favorites you'd like to add?
posted by netbros (251 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
elevator going down.
posted by auralcoral at 1:49 PM on April 20, 2008


*presses the button that ends the world*
posted by selfnoise at 1:52 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


What, no Kenny G?
posted by grouse at 1:53 PM on April 20, 2008


I wasn't aware that this sort of music actually had an audience, or distinct bands, or a "scene"... but judging from the comments on Youtube fans are actively anticipating seeing these acts in concert. Huh.

I thought that it just sort of existed, drawn from some ancient library of stoned session musician jamming and licensed to customer service call centers and the sort of malls that have faux-marble accents.

Very brave of you to post this, netbros.
posted by Spacelegoman at 1:53 PM on April 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


Musical tastes and likes evolve as we age. When I was in my twenties in the 1970s, my favorites were bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Todd Rundgren, The Who. When I was in my thirties I began migrating toward the crossover jazz scene with such favorites as Return to Forever and Spyro Gyra. Looking for something a little more mellow for background music as I've entered my fifties, Smooth Jazz fits the bill. I still have a lot of rock and roll in my collection, but what would we do without menus?

I'm not embarrassed to admit I like this music.
posted by netbros at 2:02 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Smooth jazz is not jazz.
posted by caddis at 2:03 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Actually, it has a far bigger market than "serious" jazz, many times bigger in fact.

One of the more problematic facts you will not hear mentioned much among jazz scholars is that smooth jazz has a much higher proportion of African American listeners (and purchasers) than "serious" jazz does, though the actual numbers are elusive.

Just a factor to consider if this thread is going to enter the shark infested waters of the authenticity debate around this music. I'm not taking sides, since I hate all music.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:05 PM on April 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


I don't have a problem with the authenticity, I have a problem with the saxophone playing. There's a certain "smooth jazz" way of playing that instrument that instantly triggers negative associations with me, most of which are, yes, call-center related.
posted by Spacelegoman at 2:10 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


I hate all music.

I really hope you're not serious. If you are, please explain yourself.
posted by auralcoral at 2:12 PM on April 20, 2008


fourcheesemac, it's sort of like pop music, Britany Spears and all, versus indy rock.
posted by caddis at 2:13 PM on April 20, 2008


insipidariffic!
posted by stenseng at 2:15 PM on April 20, 2008


I find the "background music" argument weird, by the way. I listen to non-smooth jazz as background music and I don't have to devote every moment to listening to it. There's plenty of quiet, lovely jazz that fits this purpose (Bill Evans, for instance). This music, on the other hand, is like a splinter in my mind, driving me mad.

I'm with Spacelegoman. This reminds me of the music they play on the ground floor of my office building, in the cafe that smells like fried ass every morning. Bad, bad associations make it hard to like this music, even if I was predisposed to it.
posted by selfnoise at 2:16 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Whenever I use the term "Smooth Jazz" to someone who's never heard of it before, rather than describe it I just say "weather Channel Music." They get it instantly.
posted by sourwookie at 2:21 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I want to like this music, I really do, but it drives me insane. I keep waiting for the vocals, but they almost never come. I do like instrumental music -- Joe Hisaishi is amazing -- but there is something about this particular sound that always feels like it is missing something.
posted by Chasuk at 2:31 PM on April 20, 2008


Hating on smooth jazz is like laughing at the retarded kid.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:33 PM on April 20, 2008 [12 favorites]


A timely post, since last month there were several articles about how Smooth Jazz is a dying radio format.

Sourwookie, you be pleased to know the above article also namechecks The Weather Channel.
posted by pfafflin at 2:34 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is the music they play in Hell.
posted by Evstar at 2:38 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


...but there is something about this particular sound that always feels like it is missing something.

That would be soul.

Smooth jazz is to music what Hallmark greeting cards are to poetry. Inoffensive pablum targeted broadly to the fat part of the demographic bell curve for which the most complimentary adjective that could possibly be applied is "nice."

I sure don't like being offended by my elevators. YellowJackets4Life.
posted by peacecorn at 2:39 PM on April 20, 2008 [5 favorites]


Last night I had hot fast sex standing up in the open air with a former Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor dancer on a rooftop just over a terrace from which the party she was hosting was clearly audible, and 40 stories over an astonishing view up the Hudson River and Manhattan's west side as the sky cleared and the full moon burned through the clouds like a summer sun through a morning haze, and the cool spring air tickled my ass hairs like a gentle and encouragingly affectionate reach-back from Nature, or Nature's God. I slept in till the afternoon, my sweet old cat by my head, when the same good woman came to me in my spacious lower Fifth Avenue apartment and we made languorous love for so long we almost missed brunch at my favorite café on University, where we got in the last order for melon and berry salad, an egg-and-croissant sandwich, iced lattes, and raspberry lemonade, and she invited me to a secret preview screening of Iron Man. A perfect welcome back from a week in Vegas with my best and oldest friends, where our venture-backed mobile-content start-up's booth was well-attended at the broadcasters' convention.

But now I have seen the Rippingtons perform "Tourist in Paradise" - if "perform" is the word I'm looking for - and I have lost my joie de vivre. Flagged as "buzzkill".
posted by Now I'm Prune Tracy! at 2:59 PM on April 20, 2008 [30 favorites]


This is the music that you hear right before the doctor tells you what's wrong with you.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 3:12 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


When I think of Smooth Jazz, I think George Benson.
posted by horsemuth at 3:19 PM on April 20, 2008


It's all relative - okay, smooth jazz sucks. But it's just a silly-straw suck compared to the hard vacuum of space known as hip-hop.
posted by gregor-e at 3:20 PM on April 20, 2008


"Smooth Jazz" to me has always been synonymous with that boring, slow station played in offices and waiting rooms.

New York's old "smooth jazz" station converted to a rock format recently.
posted by cmgonzalez at 3:21 PM on April 20, 2008


It's all relative - okay, smooth jazz sucks. But it's just a silly-straw suck compared to the hard vacuum of space known as hip-hop.

Next, can we talk about how the country music listened to by people who live in the country isn't real country music? Might as well cover all the bases.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:24 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


More than any other music, death metal included, smooth jazz makes me want to kill things. So there must be something to those nauseating sax riffs.
posted by obvious at 3:27 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I really hope you're not serious. If you are, please explain yourself.

Why? I'm not allowed to hate music? /grin

It depends what you mean by "serious," I guess. Considering I made my living as a musician for a decade, and still make it as a professor of music (sort of, it's complicated), I suppose "hate" is a provocative word. But I find it more useful to start from a position that NO music is authentic, or more authentic than any other music, and no music is a priori "worse" just because I don't like it, than from some reverent genuflection in front of the Temple of High Art or mortification at the Temple of Low Commerce.

I actually don't think music can be good or bad; you can like it or not. Big difference.

A lot of people like Smooth Jazz; who am I to say they are wrong? It's certainly better than America's Next Top Model or an appendectomy!
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:47 PM on April 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


Your favourite band zzzzz
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:48 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Bookhouse, you have it exactly right -- bluegrass is for educated people; Shania Twain for the people educated people think like bluegrass, or something along those lines to a first approximation!
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:48 PM on April 20, 2008


Actually, this is kind of pleasant. I could play this in the background while I read MetaTalk. Thanks!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:52 PM on April 20, 2008


fourcheese, i agree that qualifying different genres is a vacant act. i was just appalled that anyone could hate music.
posted by auralcoral at 3:53 PM on April 20, 2008


The first time I ever heard what eventually became known as "Smooth Jazz" was John Klemmer's Touch, which must be to Kenny G what the 13th Floor Elevators were to garage psychedelia. As a sophomore in college just getting into jazz, I liked the album at the time -- the mellow sax, the shimmering Fender Rhodes. I downloaded a couple of tracks recently just to see what I thought of "Touch" now, after total immersion in jazz for 30 years. It's not quite the music from Hell, but it's sorta like Steely Dan without the irony.
posted by digaman at 4:00 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Regarding one comment above, it is interesting that (here I'm judging from one audience shot at a PBS Kenny G concert...60 seconds of it is all I can stand...unscientific as hell) smooth jazz has such a large African-American (older, femaler) than real jazz.

And, by the way, I don't think real jazz is all that challenging and demanding as a lot of people assume. Complex and nuanced it is, but so is some heavy metal (as much as I hate to admit it).
posted by kozad at 4:04 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


it drives me insane. I keep waiting for the vocals

Here ya go.
posted by netbros at 4:10 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


But it's just a silly-straw suck compared to the hard vacuum of space known as hip-hop.

statements within threads such as this are really helping me get in touch with my inner masochist.
posted by Hat Maui at 4:24 PM on April 20, 2008


it is interesting that (here I'm judging from one audience shot at a PBS Kenny G concert...60 seconds of it is all I can stand...unscientific as hell) smooth jazz has such a large African-American (older, femaler) than real jazz.

Black people can have shallow commercial taste too. Pictures at 11.
posted by digaman at 4:28 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've heard that some people fall asleep instantly at the mere mention of smooth
posted by goatdog at 4:48 PM on April 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'm in the process of listening to all of the smooth jazz tracks in this great post of yours, in the desperate hope that I'll find at least one that I like. It's not that I hate smooth jazz, I just find it evil. Not evil like serial killer evil, or rise of the fascist state evil, but like the slow contented slide towards death when you are in second stage hypothermia and you've managed to convince yourself the struggle to survive isn't worth it anymore. Warm, fuzzy and oh so sleepy you just wait for the end, swaddled in a warm cradle of fluff.

The tough part for me is that I can't identify why I don't like smooth jazz. I like jazz, funk, some of the world music that the genres share; I can even listen to a half a minute instrumental sample, but when a whole track of smooth jazz comes along I find it harder to take than drinking a bottle of corn syrup. This upsets me, because usually if I look at almost any genre of music I can find something I love about it if I look hard enough, and looking at the audience in some of your tracks I can see they are having a good time. It's like they and you are privy to some language of downtempo contentedness that I'll never be able to hear.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:50 PM on April 20, 2008 [7 favorites]


This shit is an abomination. And yes that's opinion. But as someone who loves the music of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims, Wayne Shorter, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Tete Montoliou, George Adams, Count Basie, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Art Pepper, Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mose Allison, Cecil Taylor, Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Christian, Oscar Peterson, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy, Geri Allen, Don Friedman, Steve Kuhn, Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Amina Claudine Myers, Mary Lou Williams, Johnny Hartman, Bobby Hutcherson, Lionel Hampton, Betty Carter, Art Farmer, Kenny Barron, Stan Getz, Buddy DeFranco, Tony Scott, Don Byron, James Carter, Brad Mehldau, Tommy Flanagan, Bessie Smith, Roy Eldridge, Machito, Elvin Jones, Tito Puente, Charles Brown, Papa Jo Jones, Jaki Byard, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, John Hicks, Yusef Lateef, Pharaoh Sanders, Shirley Horn, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Jimmy Smith, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, Dave Holland, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Claude Williamson, Gerry Mulligan, Herbie Nichols, Jimmy Heath, Steve Turre, Hilton Ruiz, Albert Ayler, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Don Ellis, George Braith, David Murray, Larry Goldings, Eric Kloss, Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, Art Blakey, Sidney Bechet, James Blood Ulmer, Barney Wilen, Lonnie Smith, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Earl Hines, Nina Simone, Paul Desmond, George Cables, Harold Land, Sonny Criss, David 'Fathead' Newman, Hank Crawford, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, or for that matter Muddy Waters, James Brown, Robert Johnson, Albert Collins, George Clinton, Freddy King, Albert King, Memphis Slim, Slim Harpo, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Hubert Sumlin, Howlin Wolf, Lonnie Mack, Duane Eddie, Link Wray, Speedy West, or the Meters...

it seems necessary to point out what a shame it is that the most of "jazz" many kids will hear is this bogus smooth jazz crap--that they will hear Kenny G but not Ben Webster--just as what a shame it is that many kids will hear Britney Spears but not true geniuses of American music like Bill Monroe, Sarah Vaughan, Patsy Cline, Jimmie Rodgers, Allen Touissant, Dr. John, Chick Webb, the Carter Family or Ruth Brown.

It seems a shame that American musical education is largely nonexistant, and that the great heritage of American music and popular song that sustained American music until recently--roots/a lot of popular music/folk music--trad jazz, swing, blues, bebop, soul jazz, funk, New Orleans music, southwest country swing, bluegrass, R&B, the 50s and 60s sounds of Memphis, Detroit, Nashville, etc--is still mostly neglected as something Americans should be taught about. The wonderful thing about so much American music from 1900 to 1970 or so is that it draws on so many intertwined traditions and sounds: it's all of a piece, and it's really arguable the greatest legacy America has ever had. Even people who should know more about rock/pop usually don't--they are not taught about Nat King Cole or Doc Watson or Little Milton or John Lee Hooker or Norman Blake or even the Seeds, Sonics, Cramps or the Bakersfield Sound. I think the history of American should be taught in AMerican schools. Because the thought of someone hearing Boney James and never hearing Roland Kirk or knowing who George Gershwin is, is just pathetic.
posted by ornate insect at 4:56 PM on April 20, 2008 [21 favorites]


This is sooooo excellent as a post.

It elevates trolling to a new level, largely by 'leveling out' the distracting highs and lows from the practice, insisting on a certain restrained, easy-to-take quality of facetious irritation in the place of the previously favored absurd meltdowns and Godwinning.

In the end, who can say which is truly more sadistic?
posted by mwhybark at 5:00 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


I call sockpuppet on the clearly brilliant Prune Tracy, btw.
posted by mwhybark at 5:01 PM on April 20, 2008


And ornate insect, brother caine, in this one instance, I say: please do feed the troll.
posted by mwhybark at 5:02 PM on April 20, 2008


It's all good - Brian Simpson. I liked the 35 seconds of music 3 min 45 seconds in, but I never would've made it that far into the song without forcing myself to listen to it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:09 PM on April 20, 2008


It's not jazz music I dislike; it's the fans.

Please, smooth jazz haters, come and further reinforce the stereotype of jazz lovers are aggressive elitists.

My favourite jazz-related quote: I once heard a documentary about Joni Mitchell. he narrator describes how she became more sophisticated as she went along until at one point the session musicians could no longer figure out what she was doing. so, to quote, "They had to bring in Jazz Musicians". The 101st Airborne of the music world.
posted by GuyZero at 5:13 PM on April 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


One of the more problematic facts you will not hear mentioned much among jazz scholars is that smooth jazz has smooth jazz has a much higher proportion of African American listeners (and purchasers) than "serious" jazz does, though the actual numbers are elusive.

Other than the above mentioned PBS concert, what backs this up? (Moreover, given the smooth jazz has a higher proportion of any kind of listener than "serious" jazz does, surely the disparate numbers would stand to reason? And count me naive, but why is it problematic?)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:14 PM on April 20, 2008


A lot of people like Smooth Jazz; who am I to say they are wrong? It's certainly better than America's Next Top Model or an appendectomy!

You're just saying that because you've never had a really good appendectomy.
posted by juv3nal at 5:15 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thought this shit music got stamped out in the Hawaiian Shirts and Teva Sandals with Socks wars of '07.
posted by basicchannel at 5:16 PM on April 20, 2008


That appendectomy was smooooooth
posted by Spacelegoman at 5:22 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


chances are i will never listen to any of these songs (on purpose at least). still, if an acquaintance asked me for smooth jazz recommendations, now i have somewhere to point them. thanks!
posted by snofoam at 5:26 PM on April 20, 2008


It seems a shame that American musical education is largely nonexistant

Agreed absolutely. When I was in elementary school and junior high in the sixties, there was always at least a classroom period per day devoted to music. If you were in the school band, even more. But it's more than just teaching notes and scales, the music history is equally important.
posted by netbros at 5:26 PM on April 20, 2008


the session musicians could no longer figure out what she was doing. so, to quote, "They had to bring in Jazz Musicians"

The session musicans very often are or were jazz musicians, or rather often dabble in jazz on the side and have a wide enough background in the idioms of American popular music to be able to pick up relatively quickly what needs to be done in a given setting. What connects Glenn Miller to Charlie Mingus, or for that matter Hoagy Carmichael and Vernon Duke and Cole Porter to Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, Johnny Cash, and rhythm and blues, is just a loose but unmistakable sense of what constitutes the American musical vernacular: it's partly a certain quality and approach to rhythm and harmony that permeates a lot American music and ties it together.

I'm the oppositie of an elitist: I'm a pluralist for something I think of as the sort of bedrock ur-blues-jazz cadence that informs so much American and blues-based music: if 20th century popular music is a tree, its roots are the blues and its trunk is something like jazz-blues; it has a very large branch in old time/bluegrass/country-western; another large branch in blues and early rock etc. W/out this tree trunk, the Stones and the Beatles, both of whom I love, are impossible, for instance.
posted by ornate insect at 5:31 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


What, no Kenny G?

I moved to Seattle in 1987, and I distinctly remember the national attention Kenny G got in the late 80's. It was often coupled with the breathless "and he's from Seattle" tag. I began to cringe when thinking that Seattle was now being associated with Kenny G rather than, you know, Hendrix.

But then Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and a bunch of others came along and Seattle began forgetting ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF KENNY G.

C'mon, when do we get our "grunge" link dump???
posted by Tube at 5:37 PM on April 20, 2008


Pat Metheny on Kenny G
posted by ornate insect at 5:39 PM on April 20, 2008 [9 favorites]


Smooth Jazz is like Hotel Art. I appreciate its technical adequacy and ept inoffensiveness, but it doesn't have the power of conviction or dare risk-taking. It's too safe.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:43 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


I blame Winton Marsalis and Ken Burns. They bent the public interest all out of shape, with their over-emphasis on turn-of-the-century originary stuff and not enough on the past 4 decades, which gave us all of the inter-cultural crossovers. They ossified jazz as an obscure, inaccessible niche music and utterly ignored the better stuff of the 60's to the '00's.

It's just politics, like everywhere else, but Burns should have been more aware that he was being used.

Smooth Jazz is what you get when an audience raised on Sade, Boney James and Kenny G dosn't know any better and a generation's worth of balladeers are smoking crack in LA.
posted by vhsiv at 5:45 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wynton Marsalis, sorry.
posted by vhsiv at 5:46 PM on April 20, 2008


chances are i will never listen to any of these songs (on purpose at least). still, if an acquaintance asked me for smooth jazz recommendations, now i have somewhere to point them. thanks!

... and isn't that one of the points of MetaFilter. You're welcome. When I posted this I expected a lot of YourFavoriteBandSucksFilter, and I haven't been disappointed, but that's OK. It happens with every music thread. Not everyone likes the same thing. I'm not real crazy about rap (except for Snoop D O double G. Snoop is cool), or opera.

Most of the fans of Smooth Jazz (I prefer the name instrumental pop so it doesn't get confused with jazz jazz) are in the 35-65 age group, including myself. Many MeFites are not. Hell, when I was in my twenties I didn't like my father's music either. But it's pretty darn likely none of us here will be listening to the same music in 30 years that we do now. That's what happened with me.

Anyway, take what you need or want from this thread and leave the rest. When all is said and done, we're all just bozos on that bus.
posted by netbros at 5:48 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


vhshiv--The Burns doc might have been somewhat better, but I don't think it makes any sense to blame it (or even the often less than inspired "young lions" who followed the neoclassicist Marsalis in the straight-ahead jazz renaissance of the 80s/90s) on the waning of jazz. It's like blaming his Baseball documentary for the steroids use in baseball.

I think, as a music, the blues-jazz tradition has now gradually run its course.

There will still be some innovators, but even the rock era is more or less over in my opinion. When music changes as much as it did from the 1920s to the avant garde and psychedelia of the 1960s and loft scene of the 1970s, it makes no sense to expect a Shakespeare every decade: it was a great run, for jazz and all of popular music. I think music is re-grouping and morphing now, but the great trajectory of American popular music is largely dissipating. For better and worse. American culture as a whole has changed, and the change in music reflects that. It seems the post-American era (in terms of cultural ascendency, as well as obviously in economic influence) is upon us.

And that's ok too.
posted by ornate insect at 6:01 PM on April 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


I adore Steely Dan, Sade and Herb Alpert, all of which are commonly played on the smooth jazz station.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:14 PM on April 20, 2008


It's not jazz music I dislike; it's the fans.

See also: Parrotheads, Deadheads, Dave Matthews fratboy force, doo-wop revivals, white collar warriors that shout "LEMMY" or "MAIDEN!" and that record store clerk always driveling on about Yo La Tengo.
posted by hal9k at 6:19 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Other than the above mentioned PBS concert, what backs this up? (Moreover, given the smooth jazz has a higher proportion of any kind of listener than "serious" jazz does, surely the disparate numbers would stand to reason? And count me naive, but why is it problematic?)
posted by IndigoJones


1) Here's an interesting article that explores some of the demographics; there's also an excellent article by Christopher Washburne in a book he edited with Maiken Derno called *Bad Music* that discusses the market for Kenny G (which he describes as heavily African American).

2) It is a problem because of the long intertwined history of aesthetic racial essentialism in constructions of musical and cultural authenticity and value in American history; it's a complex subject, but the Washburne article referred to above lays out some of the territory.

The debate in this thread exemplifies the problem as well; we naturalize our ideologies as aesthetic preferences, and then exercise the judgment of taste as a judgment of social value -- if you want to we can take it back to Bourdieu's *Distinction.* There is no absolute scale of musical value, and I concur with GuyZero above that jazz fans are a lot more tightassed than most jazz *musicians* I know. Never forget that Charlie Parker loved country and western music very deeply.

Actually, country fans are about as impossible on this stuff.

See why it's easier to just hate all music as an opening gambit?
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:23 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Jess the Mess writes "I adore Steely Dan, Sade and Herb Alpert, all of which are commonly played on the smooth jazz station."

Yeah, but they also play Chuck Mangione. I like his drummer alright, but, you know ... actually, his musical pedigree is pretty amazing, but he made so much Velveeta ...

I find that as I get older my musical tastes change, but not in that sort of direction. My last roommate loved the smooth jazz station and listened to nothing else. The music was a constant backdrop. I could sort of tune it out, but it wasn't easy. I live alone now.
posted by krinklyfig at 6:29 PM on April 20, 2008


It's certainly better than America's Next Top Model or an appendectomy!

Hey, I'd rather have an a pen in back a' me than a deck in... no wait, a Model right next to me than America on top a' me... no... aww, hell. I always screw that joke up.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:35 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


fourcheesemac--it may be that "authenticity" is in anything like music or cultural activity a myth (this would be Adorno's crtitique in the "Jargon of Authenticity" against Heidegger), but then again even though it can not be quantified we do think there is something like "culture" in the world. American musical culture circa 1920 to 1970 seems to have something like an identifiable character: Bird and Bill Monroe as roughly contemporaries, share, for instance, the distinction of taking an idiom (Kansas City Swing/Jump Blues in Bird's case and country plus Appalachian old-time music in Monroe's case) and speeding up the tempos, streamlining the melodies, embellishing solos in a rococo fashion around familiar tunes (thereby creating new tunes), etc. Each brought an instrumental virtuosity and a kind of sensibility for their respective traditions that makes them similar in some regards. But then there's an even more profound link, since Monroe tells of how he heard minstrels and blues and how he attempted to get that "high lonesome" sound. Both Bird and Monroe would have been drawing from a well that includes Jimmy Rodgers, the blue yodeler and father of country, and the cowboy songs of certain popular stars like Gene Autry, etc. American music really is that melting pot we're always told about: one can hear the southwest country in the abstract expressionistic music of Ornette and bebop in the "country jazz" of Speedy West.
posted by ornate insect at 6:38 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the post, netbros.
posted by chinston at 6:43 PM on April 20, 2008


lovely thoughts, ornate insect; personally, i agree with you as far as my own tastes and interests go; i can listen to merle haggard or otis redding all day long and sometimes do.

but what we don't know when we're marinating in it is what's really going on around us or how it will seem 50 or 100 years from now. a lot of stuff we'd now judge to be the Real Thing was pop in its day. i've learned to be cautious the older i've gotten.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:00 PM on April 20, 2008


Yeah, netbros... this post, and all comments spawned by it pro and con, are all wins. I'm very glad to see this on MetaFilter, up there with the rest of them. And smooth jazz, like every other genre, has many gems in a field of rough.
posted by not_on_display at 7:06 PM on April 20, 2008


fourcheesemac--yeah it's definitely all pop; anything made in a recording studio and meant to sell records was pop. Pop just means popular music. Merel and Otis are definitely doing something like classic Americana or American Pop. And so too Dylan, Aretha, Lou Reed, etc. I guess I'm trying to describe as what I see as the Golden Era of American Pop, from about 1920 to about 1970. Its forerunners are in the swing era and it's unclear and probably unfinished end is the beginnings of arena rock or something.
posted by ornate insect at 7:07 PM on April 20, 2008


I really hope you're not serious [that you hate music]. If you are, please explain yourself.

Why? I'm not allowed to hate music? /grin

It depends what you mean by "serious," I guess. Considering I made my living as a musician for a decade, and still make it as a professor of music (sort of, it's complicated), I suppose "hate" is a provocative word. But I find it more useful to start from a position that NO music is authentic, or more authentic than any other music, and no music is a priori "worse" just because I don't like it, than from some reverent genuflection in front of the Temple of High Art or mortification at the Temple of Low Commerce.

I actually don't think music can be good or bad; you can like it or not. Big difference.


That made me want to kill myself.

It was like I asked someone if he knew the time and he gave me a lecture about Relativity.

Dude, DO YOU HATE MUSIC?

I listen to something and have a reaction. Sometimes I like what I hear; sometimes I could take it or leave it; sometimes it's mildly unpleasant; sometimes I hate it. Are you saying that you don't have gut reactions like that?

I actually don't think music can be good or bad; you can like it or not. Big difference.

Are you claiming that music (art? anything?) can't have objective aesthetic qualities -- that such a notion is absurd? If so, I agree with you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It is the case that if you take a hundred beholders and educate them in a particular way (all one hundred the same way), they will tend to find the same things appealing or unappealing. That's the closest you can get to a universal aesthetic.

It also MAY be the case that some aesthetic feelings are innate. By virtue of being human, there are certain things we necessarily like and dislike -- and that those things are the same for everyone. But, if such things exist, there's no point arguing about them, because we're already in agreement about them.
posted by grumblebee at 7:10 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


The session musicans very often are or were jazz musicians, or rather often dabble in jazz on the side and have a wide enough background...

Wow, you completely missed my point. This has nothing to do with the musicians and everything to do with the narrator of the documentary (it was a radio documentary). Regardless of the musicians the narrator made an implicit division of musicians into two groups: "regular" and "Jazz". Where Jazz musicians are capable of doing things that regular musicians can't.

It's not proof of anything but it sums up my opinions of Jazz fans pretty well: that there is an inherent belief that Jazz is somehow better than "regular" music. Jazz aficionados are, for the most part, just music bigots who like to hear the sound of themselves defending their bigotry.
posted by GuyZero at 7:36 PM on April 20, 2008


Jazz aficionados are, for the most part, just music bigots who like to hear the sound of themselves defending their bigotry.

Do you really believe this? I think it rings totally false.

I for one consider myself a jazz fan, but have gone out of my way to show in this thread how I think of jazz and the American musical tradition as inextricably linked: the Great American Songbook jazz utilized came out mostly of Tin Pan alley musicals, jazz was once America's popular music (during the big band swing era), it was dance music, and it was intimately historically bound to blues, jump blues, R&B, rock n roll, country, and the whole gamut of American popular music. The giants of jazz, like Ella and Frank Sinatra and Duke, are just really giants of American Music: no more and no less.

Maybe you've had some bad experience w/a jazz snob, but I've never found this to be the case: all the jazz fans and jazz musicians I've known have always been really inclusive and not at all elitist in any way.

My point about jazz musicians often doing studio work is also being missed by you: what I am saying is that most really good musicians who worked the gamut of popular music in recording studio sessions from 1920 to 1980 or later were well versed in jazz. That's not surprising, given that jazz is a more techically challenging idiom--and what one wants in a studio setting are folks who can site read and be adaptable. This is not a judgement call: it's juts an observation about the nature of studio work.

Maybe if you see "jazz" as continuous w/ much American popular music from Gershwin to Tom Waits and Ray Charles (David Fathead Newman was his arranger) and James Brown, rather than as a distinct genre ubntied to the main thrust of American musical history, you'll get my larger point here: jazz is just to American music what salt or butter is to cooking.
posted by ornate insect at 7:54 PM on April 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


well, i just played some of this backwards and have a sudden urge to trade my car in for a volvo, eat lots of ben and jerry's and get a job as a medical transcriptionist
posted by pyramid termite at 8:07 PM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Jazz aficionados are, for the most part, just music bigots who like to hear the sound of themselves defending their bigotry

I am a working Jazz musician who does studio work, so thanks for the pigeon-hole.
posted by sourwookie at 8:16 PM on April 20, 2008


Nothing makes me want to jump out of a moving cab faster than when the driver turns up the smooth jazz station.
posted by wensink at 8:24 PM on April 20, 2008


I am a working Jazz musician...

No kidding? So, how's the pay at Taco Bell these days?

Is joke, is joke!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:32 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


thanks for the pigeon-hole

Hey, no problem, anytime.

Seriously, OK, so that was excessive. The worst Jazz fans are like that. Apologies to the non-bigoted Jazz lovers out there. I suppose I never hear much from the non-bigoted Jazz fans as they don't turn every discussion of music into a discussion of why Jazz is just so amazing. Still, I find many Jazz fans to have a kind of otaku attitude towards it. It is something that seems much more common with jazz than other musical genres.

See also: Parrotheads, Deadheads, Dave Matthews fratboy force, doo-wop revivals, white collar warriors that shout "LEMMY" or "MAIDEN!" and that record store clerk always driveling on about Yo La Tengo.

And, in Canada, Tragically Hip fans.
posted by GuyZero at 8:34 PM on April 20, 2008


and what one wants in a studio setting are folks who can site read...

Actually,no. For example, I often read this site when I'm on a session gig, so much so that some of the studios won't even let me bring my laptop into the sessions anymore... the bandleader's counting off the tune and instead of drumming, I'm over in the corner posting a comment in some "smooth jazz" thread or something...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:37 PM on April 20, 2008


fj.at m. --well the best sight readers are blind, especially on that old standard close your eyes
posted by ornate insect at 8:46 PM on April 20, 2008


actually, this is an awesome thread thanks in large part to ornate insect. And netbros, I do believe you are sincere. Which means, I guess, if you were trolling, you win. And if you weren't you still do. So that seems kinda like a win-win, a restricted-field, if you will. Nothing to get excited about, right? ;)
posted by mwhybark at 8:47 PM on April 20, 2008


netbros, you get major props from me for your grace under fire.

My opinion on this music, and the links you posted are... about the same as the majority opinion here, but your dignified acceptance of that almost... *almost*... makes me want to give it a chance.
posted by Alex404 at 8:49 PM on April 20, 2008


Thanks guys. No troll here. Just a genuine instrumental pop listener. With ornate insect's exceptional knowledge of American music history, I imagine he knows that Russ Freeman, Craig Chaquico, Larry Carlton, Brian Culbertson, and others are, in fact, outstanding musicians.

BTW ... Kenny G, not so much. Pffft.
posted by netbros at 8:56 PM on April 20, 2008


Most of the so called "Smooth Jazz" is just too generic for my taste. Although many of the artists of that genre are very technically proficient, a lot of the music seems to be missing something.

Having said that, though, I love me some Al di Meola!
posted by mrducts at 9:25 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Saxophones and mullets always go together.
posted by autodidact at 9:32 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you can read Spanish, you might enjoy this story by Benedetti on the effects of this music in real people: Muzak
posted by Dr. Curare at 9:45 PM on April 20, 2008


On the other hand...
posted by semmi at 10:20 PM on April 20, 2008


While I share some musical likes with Mr. Ornate here, I do believe his stance is based on the idea that other music that he does not like (for example, Britney Spears or Bob James) Is Not Real Music. While he obviously has the right to believe what he likes, in reality no-ones gets to decide that and behaving as if you do strikes me as rude if not delusional.

I am not a fan of this stuff either, but it does have a lineage in stuff that I like very much - the jazz funk of the 70s. Didn't see Grover Washington Jr., Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock or Donald Byrd on Ornate's list but there is a direct line from those artists to "Smooth Jazz". So I am in not such a rush to dump on netbros taste because the qualitative differences between what he likes and what I like aren't quite so easy to pick out and my guess is many of you would think them identical.

That said, when I listen to the tracks netbros posted, I did have to wonder if time stopped for these guys about the time Yamaha released the DX7. It's like the mid 80s never ended. Not a good time for jazz/funk/fusion IMO, not much from that decade stands the test of time. But if that's what you like, good for you...

BTW, to whoever said "like Steely Dan without the irony" - you know, that's what I always think about when I listen to the instrumental breaks on Aja, the irony. Give me a break!
posted by pascal at 10:21 PM on April 20, 2008


pascal--for context, I tend to agree w/most of what Pat Metheny says about Kenny G in the link I provided. I tried to focus most of my posts on what I consider the mainline of jazz: if you reread my posts I have very little to say about smooth jazz directly. I don't deny smooth jazz is an offshoot of jazz: a treacly and to me soulless offshoot, but an offshoot nevertheless. My first post on this thread was to give props to many of the performers in the mainline of jazz who are perhaps less well known than they should be. I figured this was fair game, just as a post about Jewel's poetry would be fair game to talk about Shakespeare or Marianne Moore. I agree that it's just my opinion.
posted by ornate insect at 10:34 PM on April 20, 2008


With ornate insect's exceptional knowledge of American music history, I imagine he knows that Russ Freeman, Craig Chaquico, Larry Carlton, Brian Culbertson, and others are, in fact, outstanding musicians.

ornate insect, you have an impressive knowledge of jazz. Kudos!

What netbros mentioned above is very true. These smooth jazz people are VERY talented at what they do. Despite how they sound, they are more than proficient at playing their instruments. The problem that I've always had with smooth jazz is the studio effects. Everything sounds so processed.

I am a host of a jazz show at a university radio station. I recently came across a lady by the name of Carol Welsman and went to do an interview with her before a show. In my research I realized that much of her music could be thrown into the smooth jazz category. I hated it! Frankly, it was awful, at least to my ears. I kind of dreaded going to the show....

And the show was fantastic. Without the studio sheen, her music was wonderful. Her improvisations were delightful, her band was tight, her banter was interesting and her music was alive. What a difference between live and studio!

I've never been to a smooth jazz concert before, but I bet that these people are far more interesting in a live setting than they are in the studio.

Except for Kenny G. There is no excuse for him.

Thankfully, I have a choice as to whether I listen to this music or not. And just as importantly, I respect the fact that many of these artists have made a living at making music, whether I like it or not.
posted by ashbury at 10:38 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


OI: you think John Coltrane & Miles Davis (to give two examples from your list) are being eclipsed in the public conciousnessness by The Rippingtons? This is the playing field you are trying to level?
posted by pascal at 10:56 PM on April 20, 2008


pascal--thanks for picking up on the fact the list also contains many well known jazz masters. But it also contains a lot of lesser known ones. I would not be surprised if Kenny G has sold as many records as Trane, and certainly he's sold more than most of the figures on my list. More to the point, however, is that the radio market for smooth jazz is much bigger than the radio market for mainline jazz: the fomer is more ubiquitous than the latter. I don't want to make too fine a point of it, but I just think people should be aware of the mainline tradition as well. I genuinely apologize if my posts seemed gratuitous, harsh, rude, etc.
posted by ornate insect at 11:07 PM on April 20, 2008


My dad turned 50 and started listening to this tripe. I still don't get it.
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:17 PM on April 20, 2008


"Swing" and jazz-as-dance music was the 'smooth jazz' of the 40's...bebop arose in direct reaction to it...

Meanwhile, smooth jazz as of late has been crossing over into aping downtempo electronica sounds...and much 'lectronica proper seems sometimes indistinguishable from the smoove format...the smooth jazz station in my area even had an "acid jazz" block in the late night...
posted by bonefish at 11:44 PM on April 20, 2008


While I share some musical likes with Mr. Ornate here, I do believe his stance is based on the idea that other music that he does not like (for example, Britney Spears or Bob James) Is Not Real Music. While he obviously has the right to believe what he likes, in reality no-ones gets to decide that and behaving as if you do strikes me as rude if not delusional.

I think acts that are as cynically calculated and artificial as Britney Spears deserve this treatment, but otherwise I agree with you.

On fandom and elitism: I would identify as a jazz fan, but in my case it's a result of having started to learn to play jazz before really knowing the music very well. Ultimately it's a different experience listening to jazz with the intent to learn something from it, and it's hard to turn it off even when I'm just listening for pleasure. Unfortunately, I think that makes my experience minimally applicable, but here's my take:

"Serious" jazz has pretty much been in extreme intellectual mode since the 50s. People put a lot of work into intellectual music, and it becomes easy to think that it's better than any other kind. This is wrong. For my part I tend to think of intellectual music and popular music as different arts, using different mediums and serving different purposes. I love them both! I play bluegrass with a few friends, but half the time we just end up playing Steve Earle and Jerry Jeff Walker tunes.

That stuff means every bit as much to me as jazz does, but I think they satisfy different parts of me. Life without either would be very sad, so I have a hard time understanding people who refuse to listen to anything outside of the academic sphere of interest. I also think that the opposite position from that is a lot more understandable -- intellectual music just isn't worthwhile to people who aren't significantly involved with the play or study of music (or at least, it's been this way since around 1880).

As for the people who don't understand but still listen to "art" music, I can't help but think that a lot of them are in denial about the enjoyment they get from it. To be honest, I was in that position for a while as a teenager. I wanted to listen to intellectual things for the sake of their being intellectual. I'm glad to realize how misguided I was.
posted by invitapriore at 11:57 PM on April 20, 2008


invitapriore--most jazz is not really intellectual music, and even much of what seems at first glance to be intellectual in the late modern avant garde phase of jazz is often a hybrid rooted as much if not more in the feeling of spirituals (re: Albert Ayeler) or earlier jazz as it is in European modernism. "Free jazz" like bop often has parts where the improviser will quote and borrow from show tunes or more familiar popular music.

I am thoroughly against the notion of "intellectual" music: that element is far less pronounced than the "feeling" is, in even some of the more out-there music.

Let me say this as clearly as I can: the mainline of American music is a hybrid that stems from such things as ragtime, marching band music, field hollers, blues, gospel, and old-timey music: if thinking of American music as a whole, one can no more seperate "Delta blues" from "Tin Pan Alley" from "foxtrot swing" from "honky tonks" or "jigs and reels." Seen as a whole, American popular music is a remarkably diverse and syncretic affair, but it shares (especially from say 1920 to 1970) an unmistakable unity of personality and character. Like bootlegging, blue devils, or the wild west, American popular music was born from the brothels, speakeasies, and gambling halls of the between war peiod.

Certain musicians typify this, and perhaps it's best to think of certain pivitol figures like Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, George Gershwin, Bessie Smith, Hank Williams, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Coleman Hawkins, as simply belonging to the golden era of American popular music--and not as jazz, country, Broadway musical, blues, etc.

I think some people are willfully wanting to associate my comments with elitism, when I've gone out of my way to show why I think the history of American music and the history of the jazz-blues tradition cannot be seperated in any meaningful way.
posted by ornate insect at 12:26 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


ornate insect: you're right, I oversimplified a bit. I don't agree with you that modern jazz isn't an intellectual music, but I do agree that it is more than that. It roots are still in blues and the American song, but it is in large part the domain of theorist/players now; look at Chick Corea, or, hell, Coltrane. There's no lack of feeling in that type of playing, but it's a matter of turning some sort of abstract exploration into an emotional experience. Players of popular music, whatever that is, largely aren't looking to challenge the boundaries of their vocabulary, because it doesn't serve their intent. Anyway, I don't think intellectual music has to be emotionless.
posted by invitapriore at 12:39 AM on April 21, 2008


invitapriore-yeah I agree. I'm also trying to tease out why there are these connections between all kinds of music--between Levon Helm, Percy Sledge, the Butthole Surfers, Carl Perkins, Etta James, Iggy, Graham Parsons, Janis, Andrew Hill and Sly Stone. I think there's a reason Cecil Taylor (or Lennie Tristano or Jimmy Giuffre) does not sound as "intellectualized" as certain European composers, or Ayler does not sound mechanical like Stockhausen. I think the great rush of music is "feeling:" autnomous, and in the case of much classic popular music it's just an ineffable thing. The fact is the word "jazz" gets in the way: jazz is just feeling, and it's like a great Kudzu vine of feeling that tends to wrap around all the other familair idioms of American music. Strictly speaking it does not exist. Check out Rufus Harley, the jazz bagpipes player, to grasp what I'm after here: there is way more active polyglot hybridization in the history of American popular music than these labels let on (Ellington did a polka suite for christ's sake). The first "out" stuff was Coleman Hawkins doing "Queer Notions" in the 1920s (I think?) and then "Picasso." Also Red Norvo's "Octopus" and Boyd Rayburn's stuff. American music was getting weird and mixed up before these labels were even codified.
posted by ornate insect at 12:56 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


This reminds me that my call is important and that I will be speaking to a sales representative just as soon as the next one becomes available.
posted by chillmost at 12:59 AM on April 21, 2008


As for the people who don't understand but still listen to "art" music, I can't help but think that a lot of them are in denial about the enjoyment they get from it.

I think you're completely wrong about art music - I think most people who listen to it are simply incapable of being tickled by the bland, colourless and flavourless music that's most of what you hear on the radio these days.

It's quite often that the art music I listen to moves me so much that tears literally roll down my cheeks. Does your cool jazz make you weep, or even laugh?


I started listening to that first song - it wasn't too bad until the whole band kicked in - but then, man, that's the most Godawful crap I ever heard, do you really listen to that?! How can these people make that music?! How can they call it jazz?!?

Jazz is jism, my friend, and this soft jazz has all the jizz taken out of it. It's like eating mayonnaise with a spoon right from the jar, it's simply astonishingly bad. I had to put on some of the noisy Boredoms music I could find (SUPER YOU from SUPER AE) to clean my palate.


Soft jazz to music is as soap opera is to drama, but much, much worse.

I love Miles and cool jazz and Brubeck who is considered pretty square these days and I thought I could like this but it is a horror and should be swept off the face of the earth. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd round all the smooth jazz musicians up and send them to some deserted island, erase or destroy all their recordings, and use drugs and hypnosis to eradicate all traces of their memory from human consciousness.


I wanted to listen to intellectual things for the sake of their being intellectual. I'm glad to realize how misguided I was.

What's misguided about that? I think trying to do intellectual things for that very reason is laudable, much better than the current ethos in this culture of doing mindless things just for the sake of their being mindless. What's wrong with trying to aspire to better things anyway?

I'm sorry your older self got lost. I sympathize with him or her much more. Perhaps you just didn't catch on? There is a lot to be heard, and there are things that are noise to the uninitiated but a banquet of delights to the educated palate.

I'm sure you'd hate what I'm listening to (the Boredoms song "7-->(Boriginal)" from Super Roots 7, sirens, washing fractured flanged guitar sounds that somehow lead you into this terrific anthemic rocker with that fantastic Boredoms drum section), take it from me that I do hear a great deal of stark, primitive beauty.

Listening to those gurgling guitars dive bombing over those two diminutive but powerful drummers, oh baby, it's my heaven on earth, but I would rip my ears out and slowly push them into my own rectum with my tongue rather than listen to another moment of that smooth jazz.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:00 AM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


This isn't about not "liking" the music. I don't like hip hop in general, but it has a soul, it's one I don't entirely like but it undeniably exists. Smooth jazz has no soul, it's the Stepford Wife of music. It's like one of those lifesize Japanese sex dolls, without the sex.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:12 AM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


(((lupus_yonderboy--thanks for injecting some eclecticism. Apropos of nothing I too am eclectic: don't care for Throbbing Gristle, really like Giancinto Scelsi; dislike James Taylor, but think Fleetwood Mac's Rumors is great; Captain Beefheart I adore; am bored by Radiohead. Love X and the Germs; think the No Wave NYC bands were overrated. One of my main musical loves and interests is actually Brazilian music. And I like Bach, Satie, Debussy; although I respect Cage I confess he leaves me a bit cold. Ives I've tried, and some of it I do like. Lucinda Williams is brilliant. etc etc.)))
posted by ornate insect at 1:14 AM on April 21, 2008


lupus_yonderboy: I feel it was misguided because I stopped there, without understanding it as more than noise. Now that I do get to enjoy that music (I think) more fully, having done that seems silly.

I don't think we actually feel different about anything.
posted by invitapriore at 1:55 AM on April 21, 2008


This stuff is so weird. It's like shadow boxing, or zombie music. Take the Tourist In Paradise video: Mullet man in the blue shirt is bounding around and grimacing and emoting like this is high-octane high-emotion passion, and then his saxophone goes doo do dee doo dum de dum de dum.

It's like seeing a huge, sweating, shaking Pavarotti sucking in huge draughts of air, quivering under the strain, and then releasing an almighty ... hum-along-a-disney
posted by bonaldi at 3:04 AM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


grumblebee, don't kill yourself -- it's just a philosophical stance!
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:55 AM on April 21, 2008


It also MAY be the case that some aesthetic feelings are innate. By virtue of being human, there are certain things we necessarily like and dislike -- and that those things are the same for everyone. But, if such things exist, there's no point arguing about them, because we're already in agreement about them -grumblebee

Indeed, and to the extent our "aesthetic" response is innate, it must respond to very general properties of something like "music." There is no way our innate response distinguishes between genres or entails particular (social) discourses of musical or experiential authenticity. People *love* smooth jazz, and others hate it. Who are we to say someone else should not love the music they love? Or hate the music they hate?

I've spent most of my life thinking and writing about these questions, so it's a complicated subject for me. Of course I "love" music; I'm a musician, and a music scholar. Saying "I hate music" is a rhetorical point; no one challenges you if you say "I love all music." But few people actually *do* love (or even know, which would be impossible actually) "all" music.

So, as a scholar, my stance is to suspend my own aesthetic response to music in order to have an open mind about other people's aesthetic response. And to admit my own tastes are profoundly socially constructed, as are everyone's tastes, with reference to factors that have nothing at all to do with the sound structure of "the music" as such. It's those factors that interest me.

I recommend a wonderful book by philosopher Kathleen Higgins called *The Music of Our Lives,* which explores these questions insightfully. Higgins is a Nietzsche specialist who trained in classical philosophical aesthetics and had developed a strong interest in musical aesthetics a la Goodman, Langer, Meyer, etc. when she fell in love with Hindustani ("North Indian classical") music. The book is a sustained exploration of her own experience crossing a cultural and musical boundary line with the tools of Western musical-philosophical aesthetics, which she finds woefully inadequate to the task.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:47 AM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


And I will add, from the ethnomusicological point of view, many of the world's traditional musics are not "intended" to elicit an aesthetic response, just as are many of the world's modern, mass mediated musics. People do much more with music than listen to it from an aesthetic stance. Music that disappears into the background, does not disturb the "listening" mind with masses of new information, that renders a high level of structural redundancy or timbral integration, that does not require attending to a referential text, that stimulates entrainment or bodily engagement without disturbing one's attention to other tasks -- all of this has a long history in human cultural evolution. It's a western, modern habit of mind to rank musics in terms of their "aesthetic" qualities as worthy or not of esteem.

I have news for some of you: Bach wrote a lot of what was "background" music in his time; so did Haydn; Jelly Roll Morton was playing background music for customers at a whorehouse. Latterly, we backwards construct these musicians as great artists and listen reverently to their music in darkened theaters with perfect acoustics and few distractions. And to us, that's what this music becomes: framed as "art."
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:53 AM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


we backwards construct these musicians as great artists

Um, that's an overreach. And having many friends who are professional musicians, I don't know a one of 'em who would sit there at the piano thinking to his or herself, "Yup, I'm just a background musician" -- even if they're tinkling away in a shopping mall. More like they're thinking, "I know this quote from The Way You Look Tonight in the middle of Beautiful Love would blow minds, if any of these schmucks were listening."
posted by digaman at 5:16 AM on April 21, 2008


You didn't know Bach; in his day he was effectively a servant of the church or a monarch, depending on when in his career (and occasionally both). And what a musician thinks while making music does not equal what the music means socially. I'm sure Bach had his "if any of these schmucks were listening" moments too.

So I don't think it's overreach. Bach *was* a great artist, but in a very different sense than we now think of him, in his own time. That's my point: we assimilate the vast diversity of human musical effort to the present, western worldview at our peril.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:22 AM on April 21, 2008


PS -- I have been a professional "background" musician, in the sense that I played Top 40/GB for a living for years as a lead guitarist. Sometimes I was really into my art and didn't care if anyone was listening, and gave it my all ripping out a solo on a Journey song that made me cringe to listen to in any other context. A lot of the time I was thinking, :"I wonder if they'll feed us, will my girlfriend still be awake when I get home, when do we get to take a break and smoke a spliff? etc" while my hands were doing their assigned job. I composed whole chapters of my dissertation in my head while playing Garth Brooks songs for people who didn't see me as any more than part of the furniture. Yet I played well (enough to make a living) and sometimes gave it my all for the sheer fun of doing so, even with crappy music. (Heck, I can even sing without paying attention to what I am doing after al those years of being a human jukebox.)

My argument is against assuming all musical experience can be assessed on a single scale of value and significance, naturalized as "aesthetic judgment." I'm not saying there is no great music, or bad music, within any given social construction of goodness and badness.

Heck, there's a whole lot of human expressive culture that is *neither* music nor language nor dance, but some mixture of the three (or more) that many of us would not recognize as "music."
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:28 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Take the example of Navajo curing ceremonies, such as the one described in McAlleser's 1954 classic *EnemyWay Music.*

This is, according to McAllester and his Navajo consultants, in no way "aesthetic" musical experience. It is a precise healing tool, and medicine men must master long, complex ceremonial song sequences *note for note perfect,* or if they screw it up the whole ceremony is a failure and the healing will not happen. You can't improvise; you can't be creative; you have to do it just right for reasons that have nothing to do with taking pleasure in the sound, ideologically speaking (and the Navajo, of course, also have music for aesthetic pleasure.)

Is it music? Most of us, upon hearing the EnemyWay songs, would say yes. In fact, a lot of people listen to music like this "as music," for aesthetic pleasure. It's been repurposed as "traditional music," as opposed to, say, "traditional medicine," which is largely what it is. But that would not make sense in the traditional context, where aesthetic pleasure is beside the point entirely.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:34 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Musical tastes and likes evolve as we age.

All things evolve over time; for me the musical journey has built out rather than up. I still like the occasional Beach Boys or more-than-occasional Beatles song, as well as music that's new to me, like Gypsy Kings or Sia, or maybe a little tango.

Looking for something a little more mellow for background music as I've entered my fifties, Smooth Jazz fits the bill. I still have a lot of rock and roll in my collection, but what would we do without menus?

We're of the same vintage, but to me, smooth jazz is just part of the whole smorgasbord of aural entertainment, though I have to admit it has become a smaller part of the picture for me as time goes on. I liken it to pop or elevator music. In that vein, I've discovered that there is really some great music behind what is labeled "beautiful music." That if you go back to the original recordings of the 1920s to '40s, you can find music that's fine in the background and foreground. Think Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for much of smooth jazz. Yeah, it works in the background, but crank it up and what do you get? Just louder background music.

I seek out music that challenges me to think about what I'm hearing. Good background music for me is something by Zero 7, or old school Cuban jazz (thanks to Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club), or the aforementioned Duke Ellington.
posted by SteveInMaine at 5:52 AM on April 21, 2008




Smooth jazz killed jazz as a viable art form.

Go to a jazz club now and you'll mostly see guys over 40 trying to impress their dates (who don't really like jazz anyway). Or you could wind up in one of those avant-garde "experimentalist" places where you'll mostly see the same over-40 guys, only this time without the dates.

Smooth jazz is the vultures and worms that feast on the decaying corpse of jazz. And there really isn't much left for them to pick at anymore.

Jazz Fusion was the beginning of the end - it was Jazz's last go at relevance before throwing in the towel. Fusion was when all the bad things started to happen - synths started creeping in, proggy elements started popping up (hel-loo Chick Corea!), and you even had icons like Miles Davis doing shit like covering Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time."

The problem with fusion was that they were trying to apply jazz stylings to modern pop music - unfortunately, at the time, modern pop music sucked a whole lot. Smooth Jazz was the next logical step after fusion - "Hey, instead of imitating boring music, why don't we just bypass the middleman and make our own boring music!"

After smooth jazz came about, I think everyone just gave up on jazz. At a certain point - let's say the late 70s and early 80s - I think that lots of would-be jazz musicians looked at the current state of jazz and said, "This is lame!" and then went into another art form. This is why nobody makes new jazz and why jazz is dead as a popular art form.

Smooth Jazz is devoid of any value, except that it gives verizon something to play you while you're on hold for 20 minutes waiting for customer service.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:28 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can help it. When I hear "smooth jazz" I think cashmir sweaters, dockers and efficiently executed sex. I smell eucalyptus with a hint of orange and Jovan musk. I see mauve drapes, woks and International Male Pirate shirts. Sorry.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:32 AM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


SteveInMaine: Unfortunately, I can't say the same for much of smooth jazz. Yeah, it works in the background, but crank it up and what do you get? Just louder background music.


And somehow, by conditioning the public to the "lite fm" radio stations, and then creating a genre that sounds very much the same but with the occasional guitar lick or vocal excised, we've created an ambient sound the likes of which Brian Eno couldn't have anticipated, that disappears at any volume.
posted by mikeh at 8:48 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Saxophones and mullets always go together.

Hilarious! Back before I knew the name of this kind of music, my friends and I just used to call it "mullet jazz." As in, "Definitely some jazz mulletry going on, dude."
posted by Afroblanco at 8:56 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I smell eucalyptus with a hint of orange and Jovan musk.
posted by jquinby at 9:35 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


This shit sucks. That said, Brubeck and Bob James have their brilliant moments, and don't deserve in any way to be lumped in with this dreck.
posted by stenseng at 10:16 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Most of the fans of Smooth Jazz (I prefer the name instrumental pop so it doesn't get confused with jazz jazz) are in the 35-65 age group, including myself. Many MeFites are not.

I'm well inside the 35-65 age group, and I'm definitely not a fan of smooth jazz. Just another data point, I guess, but your musical taste doesn't have to turn to mush as you get older.
posted by klausness at 10:17 AM on April 21, 2008


That's my point: we assimilate the vast diversity of human musical effort to the present, western worldview at our peril.

...And talk about it until (we) drop rather than seek out, listen, and recognize new, not yet assimilated music making.
posted by semmi at 11:33 AM on April 21, 2008


I'm well inside the 35-65 age group, and I'm definitely not a fan of smooth jazz.

I only said what I did about that age group to mean there are few twentysomethings and seventysomethings who like intrumental pop (although there's an 18 year old kid who works with me who loves this stuff ... he's always borrowing my CDs), not that everyone within 35-65 likes it.

It's obviously OK not to like this music. Doesn't bother me. There are those, though, who may like it, and may find some of the links useful.
posted by netbros at 11:38 AM on April 21, 2008


This thread has been interesting, to say the least.

I'll add that I don't know much about smooth jazz, but if you find anything by Hubert Laws, Larry Coryell, or see Ron Carter's name on any CTI Records release from the '70s, you really need to pick it up.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:05 PM on April 21, 2008


And talk about it until (we) drop rather than seek out, listen, and recognize new, not yet assimilated music making.

Speak for yourself!
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:42 PM on April 21, 2008


Afroblanco: since jazz fusion evolved in the late 60s and early 1970s, which parts of the "modern pop music" from that time do you think most contributed to fusion's boringness? Marvin Gaye? Stevie Wonder? Jimi Hendrix? Led Zep? Abba? I am genuinely curious.

(BTW, a number of people have referenced Pat Metheny's views on the subject - but have any of you listened to any of his recent efforts? That is some ghastly, saccharine shit right there. The guy had his moments, for sure, but they have not been recent.)
posted by pascal at 1:13 PM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


And talk about it until (we) drop rather than seek out, listen, and recognize new, not yet assimilated music making.

Speak for yourself!
posted by fourcheesemac


It's hard over the noise you're making.
posted by semmi at 1:40 PM on April 21, 2008


I'm sorry, that was a knee-jerk reaction for your comment to speak for myself, when obviously that's what I was doing: speaking for myself, expressing my annoyance with the state of affairs where jazz musicians, as artists of originality in general, are pushed into the background by the categorizing and interpreting chatter of critics, reviewers, producers, and educators, the whole shebang of merchandisers who hype success and make themselves a better living and more prestigious positions than most creative and independent musicians have.
posted by semmi at 2:36 PM on April 21, 2008


Yeah, well, semmi, I still think you can go stick your apology and its rationalization up your ass, actually. Unlike you, I suspect, I've *been* one of those "creative and independent musicians," and I'm an anthropologist in my current life who works closely with Native American music and musicians, about which I suspect you and many of the self-proclaimed experts on "unassimilated" music in this thread know very little despite your proclaimed erudition and sophisticated taste for the non-commercial (as if "jazz" has ever been anything but a commercial, professional music).

So if my "chatter" is too "noisy" for you to hear your music over, go listen to you pure, precious, authentic, "unassimilated" (whatever the heck that means, from an ethnomusicological point of view it's meaningless) music, and maybe avoid jumping in to a discussion forum on the internet where we're trading words, and not riffs or demos. Or go make some yourself. Even here, it's actually not hard to "speak for yourself," no matter what I say. You type, you post, simple. No one is shouting anyone else down in this thread that I noticed, certainly not me. I've been nothing but civil and thoughtful in my posts in this thread, even if my ideas have been (apparently, to my surprise) provocative.

What some of you are saying is that people who like smooth jazz (or whatever) must be dupes, morons, or fools. Well, someone thinks the same thing about you no matter what music *you* like. "Jazz" was music for uncultured morons, from the point of view of enlightened and sophisticated people, for much of the 20th century.

People treat music like its a measure of moral rectitude; that's the fucking problem here. I didn't defend smooth jazz specifically, just called out the idea that musical taste equals moral value. I know an elderly African American man who loves smooth jazz; he's a wonderful guy, not an idiot; he worked hard his whole life and he finds smooth jazz relaxing in his retirement from a career as a custodian at a university. You aren't better than him because you prefer Ornette Coleman or Bjork to George Benson or whatever. And you music isn't better than his music because you have sophisticated tastes as a result of growing up better off than him.

It's just music. Same as anyone else's music.

Bunch of fucking snobs, really.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:08 PM on April 21, 2008 [21 favorites]


PS -- sorry to crap in the thread, netbros; it was a brave and interesting post and much of the discussion was interesting.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:12 PM on April 21, 2008


"Fuzak"
posted by setver at 6:02 PM on April 21, 2008


No prob f c m. I thought that was a great comment.
posted by netbros at 6:48 PM on April 21, 2008


Yeah, well I return to apologize to semmi for blowing my cool at his/her comment; I have a quick temper on this issue in particular because of my line of work (thank gawd we aren't discussing country music, or things might get really intense).

After a lifetime in music, I no longer believe musical value can be discerned from sound alone; the question for me is what music does for people, and in that respect, I start from the a priori position that all musics are equal examples of the human faculty for Music - just as linguists view all dialects and languages as functionally equal variations on Language. And I profoundly distrust claims that some musical style is "better" than some other musical style on "objective" grounds, because there is simply no scientific reason to say that or think that if you know the breadth of the world's musical styles well at all. I see class privilege and racial essentialism behind many claims to authenticity; in this respect I was deeply influenced by my reading of Pierre Bourdieu's *Distinction,* which showed (in a chapter on "Aristocracy of Taste") that, at least in France in the 1970s, you could predict someone's *exact* income, occupation, and education level from the way they defended their specific taste in music, down to matching favorite pieces (and least favorite ones) from the classical, light classical, and pop repertoires to specific very narrow social categories. On the other hand, Keil and Craft and Cavicchi, in *My Music,* show how there really is no absolute predictor of what music some individual person will love - personal taste seems very highly mediated by very specific experiences, at least in the US in the 90s (when My Music was published, based on an extended community study in Buffalo). Between the two lies the vast field of social mediations of taste.

In my experience as a musician (35 years) and an anthropologist who focuses on music (20 years), I've learned to separate personal judgments of taste in music from social judgments of moral or economic value. It's a very useful heuristic when confronted by all the innuendo and outright prejudice that people hide behind "objective" statements about musical value.

I don't personally "like" smooth jazz; I don't think I've listened to it consciously in years before I hit the links on this thread, and it still doesn't do much for me. So what? I bet there's music I love that you don't. And given my line of work, I can almost always trump almost anyone with some example of something more esoteric than anything you've ever heard, but again, so what? Just because I can say "I like New Guinea funerary ritual lament," or "I'm a passionate devotee of Thai court music," doesn't mean squat either. AMong ethnomusicologists, the same game is played (my music is more rare/unassimilated/esoteric than your music) with equally stupid results, just a weirder and more hard-to-find repertoire.

Humans have been "assimilating" each other's musics, languages, and cultures since the dawn of culture. There are no "unassimilated" musics. In the rhythmic patterns of the hunter/gatherer Aka ("Pygmy") people's utterly brilliant polyphony you can hear the same staggered groove that you can hear in many other African musics, in the clave of Latin musics, and in much modern jazz that has an often unacknowledged Latin/Caribbean ancestry (New Orleans ain't Kansas City). Humans have also been exchanging music as a commodity, using it as a healing tool, and using it to do things other than listen intently for structural or performative excellence forever -- work songs, funeral songs, personal songs that can be exchanged or given away, etc -- these are found in every culture. Not all music in all places at all times is meant to be listened to intently in a darkened, silenced room. Much music is meant to be sung or heard while your mind or hands are occupied with other things; arguably, that is a basic, maybe MORE important function of music in human culture than "aesthetic pleasure" (which is a relatively modern formal concept, actually, not found in all cultures as a formal concept, though surely a universal aspect of experience). "Elevator music" is not different than other forms of "work song," in my opinion, in the functions it serves (not that I am calling Smooth Jazz elevator music, mind you).

People who truly "love" music -- as I do, despite my quip above about an a priori stance of "hating" it, which I hope I've made clear is a philosophical position that challenges the naturalization of musical "love" as aesthetic pleasure alone -- should respect that other people love music in their own ways, for their own reasons, and that is what has given us such a wondrous diversity of human musical styles and techniques. Music is play, music is religion, music is pleasure, music is dance, music is work, music is commerce, music is meditation, music is passing the time, music is coordinating actions... and yes, music is "art" in some cases. But we fail to recognize a bigoted history of European racism and classism when we apply the "art vs not art" standard to music generally; as I said earlier, in the 1930s, most people thought of "jazz" (then including such masters as Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong) as "primitive" music for stupid people with no aesthetic value other than when transformed (as "primitive" sound) by classical composers (or white men, like Paul Whiteman, more generally) into symphonic, written music. They failed to grasp that improvisation was the basis of the art of jazz because improvisation had been systematically devalued in western "art" music for the prior 100-200 years. And of course because black people played it. And indeed, because it was commercial music, associated with the trivial pursuits of whoring and drinking and dancing.

80 years on we have jazz as "America's classical music" (but only *some* jazz, mind you), performed at Lincoln Center, subsidized by the state, and represented widely in academic music curricula and scholarship. And it's hip hop and smooth jazz and country that are the meaningless, worthless, primitive, commercial crap that only morons could like. Listen to Wynton Marsalis bash hip hop some day and see what that does to your thinking about what makes "Jazz" great music. Meanwhile, "real" jazz has a shrinking, mostly middle-to-upper-class, mostly white, mostly male audience that almost does not buy records any longer, while it has lost its connections to dance, to the broader African American community and its experiences, or to social justice movements. It's become "art." At a huge cost in vitality. And relevance. There's still a ton of great music being made, but fewer and fewer people actually care about it because (a lot of) jazz has moved into the Master's house and set up shop.

There are, of course, many movements within jazz to push back against this; but alone among them Smooth Jazz actually has a wide audience. Rather than dismissing that audience, maybe the question ought to be how to reconnect the broader field of jazz performance *back* to that audience, which assuredly will not happen as long as you tell people they are dumb for liking whatever version of jazz (or music generally) they do.

Anyway, sorry semmi -- mutually shared passion for music = intense debate.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:45 AM on April 22, 2008 [171 favorites]


Marsalis, typically:

"Wynton Marsalis is 10 minutes into an angry denunciation of hip-hop and he's just hitting his stride. "I call it 'ghetto minstrelsy'," he says. "Old school minstrels used to say they were 'real darkies from the real plantation'. Hip-hop substitutes the plantation for the streets. Now you have to say that you're from the streets, you shot some brothers, you went to jail. Rappers have to display the correct pathology. Rap has become a safari for people who get their thrills from watching African-American people debase themselves, men dressing in gold, calling themselves stupid names like Ludacris or 50 Cent, spending money on expensive fluff, using language like 'bitch' and 'ho' and 'nigger'".... "[Sampling] just shows you that the drummer has been replaced by a loop. The drum - the central instrument in African-American music, the sound of freedom - has been replaced by a repetitive loop. What does that tell you about hip-hop's respect for African-American tradition?"

Chuck D says:

"Jazz and hip-hop are very similar forms of expression," he said. "Just like the blues, jazz and hip-hop are forms of 'code music,' which have their own language and culture. The big difference between the two is really just the eras in which they were formed. Billie Holiday and Ludacris are more alike than you might think. It's really about different ways of vocalizing."

I'm with Chuck D on this one!
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:05 AM on April 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


f c m, I asked jessamyn to add your comment to the MeFi sidebar. She did.
posted by netbros at 5:45 AM on April 22, 2008


Well done, netbros, thanks jessamyn (for sidebarring) and thanks to fourcheesemac for taking the time to articulate your points so well.

Smoooooove!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:18 AM on April 22, 2008


fourcheesemac - It's a good argument, but I don't accept your premise that only complete relativism lays claim to objectivity. There are truly qualitative differences between smooth jazz and dixieland or bop, as well as differences in context. You wouldn't say that Renoir and Warhol are on the same artistic level, would you? Creation for mass consumption and creation for creation's sake are two very different motives that have two very different qualitative outcomes.
posted by The White Hat at 7:41 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


And I profoundly distrust claims that some musical style is "better" than some other musical style on "objective" grounds, because there is simply no scientific reason to say that or think that if you know the breadth of the world's musical styles well at all.

I say that Reggaeton sucks because it all sounds like the same song. Same shitty beat, same shitty rapping in Spanish. I kid you not - I lived in the Lower East Side for a year, and for the first month or so I thought all my neighbors listened to the same band, and that they only had one popular song.

So there - I'll put forward "endless repetition of a theme without any real variation" as an objective criteria for suck.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:41 AM on April 22, 2008


(I'd also list this as the same reason that I hate house music)
posted by Afroblanco at 7:53 AM on April 22, 2008


(okay, my last two comments are stupid. please disregard)
posted by Afroblanco at 8:26 AM on April 22, 2008


The White Hat: Creation for mass consumption and creation for creation's sake are two very different motives that have two very different qualitative outcomes.

Afroblanco: I'll put forward "endless repetition of a theme without any real variation" as an objective criteria for suck.


Both of these judgements are based on a very narrow definition of music: a sound object devoid of performative context. Of course, this is a dominant definition of music in much of Europe, the US, and places where Western culture has had a strong influence. (I'm unaware of any non-Western cultures where music is 'reified' as such, even in classical traditions that feature music notation and transmission of composed music.) "Endless repetition of theme" would probably really suck if you valued music that developed thematically along the lines of a 19th-century German symphony or a Beach Boys song, but it is a vital component of ritual music intended to induce trance-like states or facilitate the performance of certain dance forms. The qualitative difference between "popular" culture and "high" culture seems pretty obsolete at this point, too. Even in Western classical music, our great treasures like Mozart's Symphony No. 40 were intended to please the ear and attract a big audience. (Mozart was a total hustler: writing the music, planning concerts, selling tickets, etc. No. 40 debuted at a casino, after all.) It's doubtful that Bach worried much about creation for creation's sake while cranking out a cantata a week for several years.

In most the world, the value of music is in its context and musical sound outside of that context often makes little sense. Since the value of music is personal, it's unobjectionable to have musical preferences, but these judgments can't be asserted as objective.

On preview: Your comments aren't stupid, Afroblanco. Everybody feels that way about some kind of music once in a while.
posted by imposster at 8:40 AM on April 22, 2008


Man, I'd never have bothered with this thread (smooth jazz, wtf—no offense to nebros or anyone else, of course, but it's not my cup of tea) if I hadn't seen a bunch of favorites for fourcheesemac's comment (I just added one) and read the whole thing—what a great discussion! Many thanks to the true lovers of music here (notably fcm, flapjax, and ornate insect, who's impressed me faster than just about any newcomer I can remember since the late lamented EB—please don't flame out, OI!), and boo to the people who feel compelled to sneer at various kinds of music and/or the people who love them (and "smooth jazz killed jazz" is just a silly idea, sorry). If it sounds good, it is good!
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on April 22, 2008


It would be useful to the discussion to emphasize that a given piece of music isn't just a sound that pleases certain people and not others. Art renders emotions, dispositions, and ways of thinking, obviously, many so remote from more tangible matters that they can't be described. Giving music its due as something with meaning (though highly abstract, ineffable even), I think it's instructive to see if some of the statements in this thread would work with literature: "all types of writing are equal examples of the human faculty for Writing," for instance. In my opinion, to apply that statement to Shakespeare and Nora Roberts illustrates and strengthens both the (quasi-)realist and relativist cases, in different ways: almost any person who can understand both at the level intended will acknowledge Shakespeare's work as the greater accomplishment in some sense, yet you couldn't easily find an objective standard to back that up.

So I take a kind of half-baked view that has resemblances to both sides--I don't think there's concrete value involved, but I do think it's possible to judge music on levels deeper than taste. The fact that someone enjoys, e.g., pop country rather than modern classical, can say something subtle about their outlook that goes deeper than aesthetics.
posted by abcde at 10:26 AM on April 22, 2008


I came in to make an offhand remark about Andreas Vollenweider and got caught up in a group hug.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:52 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's really interesting to read this thread side-by-side with the current thread on heavy metal. Interesting similarities.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:31 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's a good argument, but I don't accept your premise that only complete relativism lays claim to objectivity. There are truly qualitative differences between smooth jazz and dixieland or bop, as well as differences in context.

Language games, I think. I am not arguing for "relativism" vis a vis aesthetics in particular, but vis a vis the "purpose" of music more broadly, which may or may not be aesthetic. Even so, there is a difference between "qualitative" differences and "value." And differences in "context" are exactly what I am emphasizing over differences in "qualitative" form.

This is an ancient philosophical question, but the only world in which there is absolute beauty is a world in which there is perfect consensus on what is beautiful. One might argue for some general cognitive principles underlying aesthetic experience or the perception of musical form (a preference for balanced assymetry, perhaps, or the old groaner about the relative universality of tonal structure at a very abstract level). But there will never be an objective way to tell if one kind of music is "better" than another kind of music, because the obvious rejoinder is "for whom, in what context?"

Music is a human activity (possibly shared with a few other species to some extent, but we don't know for sure). It doesn't pre-exist human activity; it won't outlast human activity. Some evolutionary scientists (most notably Stephen Pinker) see music as entirely derivative of other more basic adaptations, as an accident of evolution, as a completely epiphenomenal faculty that could disappear with no consequences for our species, a kind of precipitate of language or other cognitive faculties. I disagree profoundly with that, in part because I don't see the line between music and language as nearly so clear as much modern linguistics presumes.

Like all objects of scientific inquiry that emerge from a human lifeworld and would not exist without one, there is no way to achieve perfect "objectivity" with respect to musical experience. We are always judging someone's musical experience when we judge music, and such judgments are value-laden, always, as well. We can fake "objectivity" by reducing music to notes, to a score, to text, to a recording; but that's not "music." There is no "jazz" without slavery; there is no music that does not emerge from a particular human experience, a particular cultural context.

I am not saying your aesthetic preference is not real, not experienced by you as "objective," because in fact I think the broader faculty for aesthetic pleasure and recognition only works by converting between objective sound and subjective values, naturalizing very specific cultural configurations of taste and value. I am saying that you cannot speak for the aesthetic experience of others "objectively." You can objectify it all you want: the fans of smooth jazz are middle aged, mostly working-class, whatever. Or smooth jazz does not have the swing or drive of "real jazz" or lacks extended improvisational forms, or uses a reduced harmonic vocabulary compared to BeBop.

And actually, I *would* say Warhol and Renoir are on the same artistic level, where "level" means that some significant number of people value the work of each aesthetically (and certainly commercially) over the work of the other. I know people who would buy a Warhol over a Renoir, don't you? Who find Renoir archaic and literal, but Warhol modern and critical?

If "level" means "technique," I challenge the assertion in a different way. Many great technicians make "banal" art, actually (some of our most technically "talented" visual artists work in television advertising these days, for example). Technical mastery has no independent meaning, no obvious natural "scale." I know musicians who can play the hell out of a stratocaster, speed and precision and original melodic ideas aplenty; and then I think of Snooks Eaglin or Albert King and hear a different kind of technical mastery, all about voicing and the proper placement of a few repeated notes so they are just right. And to me, Snooks is by far the greater player than Yngve Malmsteem, let's say, but nowhere near the "technician" Malmsteen is.

Cultures develop the technical repertoires adequate to their own aesthetic (and other functional) needs from art -- as Boas famously argued in *Primitive Art,* where he laid down the marker about this stuff: all people have art, all cultures have aesthetics, form is always subordinate to function in the development of artistic cultures. The simplest things -- a Zuni pot -- can be judged among the most technically accomplished and beautiful things in the world by one culture (American art collectors), and judged a useful and well made cooking implement by another (Zunis). Whether or not "aesthetic" value is named or cognitively abstracted, form always abstracts from function, and can (often does) lend itself to new or emergent functions too.

I am not saying you can't be moved by beauty; I am questioning what basis any of us have for saying that someone else cannot be so moved by something else without having an inferior experience to yours.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:51 PM on April 22, 2008 [10 favorites]


I wish to be clear that my argument is the basis for a critical and scientific view of music, one with all the ancillary benefits of listening for pleasure or enlightenment with an open mind and open ears, not a prescription for fixing the way we normally engage with music as socially situated subjects with formed musical and cultural values and identities.

For example, we do not hear "technique" out of context, normally, but it's useful to learn to do so (and try to fill in the proper contexts) if you want to explore the world's diverse musics; I've taught classes of students to appreciate Arabic art music, which has required them *learning* to hear quarter tone pitch differences as systematic and organized, not accidental or "out of tune" or a chance product of heterophonic musical texture. These students cannot hear the technical mastery of a master 'Ud improviser or a great singer of Q'asidah until they learn to listen outside of their culturally conditioned aesthetic framework, which if course is possible to do (much more so than making sense of a foreign language's grammar, indeed, telling us something about where the differences -- in reference, in redundancy of form -- between music and language lie).

In no way would I be implying -- as some here are taking my thoughts -- that *within* a given cultural context (including the shared context of global culture, an increasingly important one) one could not make (or people do not make) absolute judgments of quality, or that this is somehow an automatically unjust or ideologically deceptive activity. We yearn to categorize, to understand, to appreciate the organized sounds we encounter in our lifeworlds. We judge and other and differentiate musics using a scale of aesthetic value that is rooted in scales of social value that are not always simply hierarchical, but historic and institutional and valuable to our particular culture. We "conserve" (in conservatories) musics we deem to be especially representative of the values of our past. We would not be human if we did not do so.

In other words, you aren't (automatically) a bad person for judging Shakespeare a greater writer than Stephen King, if you do, or Dizzy Gillespie a greater musician than Kenny G; nor are you simply judging other people when you do so. (This is why my "snobs" comment above was wrong, besides being rude.) You *are* judging musical form, but against a grid of experience that formed your ears and sensibilities from the moment your parents put the Beatles on the stereo to quiet you in your crib, or your mother sang an old ballad to comfort you on her breast. We're *enmeshed* in values and aesthetic discriminations as cultural subjects and music lovers, and our experience of music would be impoverished and meaningless if we did not experience values when we listened to music (or attended to any other artistic expression).

You can no more help it than you can help speaking in complete sentences (allowing for oral features like ellipsis), for not unrelated reasons. But a linguist cannot be a language partisan; she cannot hear African American Vernacular English as "lazy" or "ungrammatical," and still do linguistics, which posits that what languages have in common supersedes their differences at an explanatory level, and which presumes that all normally socialized humans speak equally grammatical versions of Language by nature. By nature, mind you.

Our taste-obsessed music culture, however, (speaking of the cosmopolitan west, but global culture to some extent) is premised on the idea that only some people are "talented" at music, and presumes that "making music" is a specialized, professional activity which is not analogous to Language in its generalized distribution as a faculty, or the natural basis of its universality. I dispute that too: I think it's a product of stratified society and a terrible approach to music education in the west which streams musically "talented" children into something that all children deserve, regardless of potential competence at the highest levels. I was a "musical" child, and was immersed in music as a result. Every child deserves (I think needs) that; and what the science seems to show us is that it doesn't really matter *what* kind of music you are immersed in as a child to reap the known cognitive benefits (and social benefits) of actually participating in music directly, even if "only" by listening to it. (The "Mozart Effect" might as well be called "The Kenny G" effect, because there is no basis for thinking Mozart, or classical music, confers any greater developmental benefit than any other kind of music; none at all.)

That's why I observed above that most jazz musicians I know are a lot less uptight about the boundaries around jazz than jazz fans who are not musicians can get (not a perfect correlation, but generally true for my musical experience in other genres too). Actually making music puts you in touch with the universality of music, the pleasures it offers on multiple functional levels, the uses to which it can be put; I think it's the idea that human musical experience can be limited to the passive act of "listening" to other people make music (increasingly at another place, in another moment) that is in fact the source of an obsession with aesthetic value as an abstracted property of sound structure that can be "heard" directly in music.

Consider: If you dance as a primary response to music, you have totally different standards for excellence and beauty in the musical performance to which you dance than people who listen. We seem well evolved to engage and entrain to music with our bodies, and playing music is an act of bodily coordination, with others in many cases, a form of dance in its own right. By those standards, Louis Jordan is the greatest jazz bandleader of the 20th century, perhaps, and Dizzy Gillespie is a very distinguished also ran. Just hypothetical, mind you. To make a point. Not dissing Diz.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:45 PM on April 22, 2008 [14 favorites]


I don't accept your premise that only complete relativism lays claim to objectivity. There are truly qualitative differences between smooth jazz and dixieland or bop, as well as differences in context.

This sounds like you're saying Relativism can't be true because there are varying levels of quality. Which is basically saying that Relativism can't be true because it's false.

You wouldn't say that Renoir and Warhol are on the same artistic level, would you?

What is the Objective criteria for favoring Renoir over Warhole? The former has better technique? See the word "better" in that last sentence? How is that not a subjective term? You can define better as "more confident brushstrokes" or "come complex use of color" or whatever, but why do those criteria make a work better? It's arbitrary.

I think Shakespeare is way better than John Grisham. Why? For many reasons, but one is that Shakespeare's command of metaphor is far superior to Grisham's. But why does that make him better than Grisham. Why aren't no metaphors better? Why are simple ones better than Shakespeare's ornate ones? Shakespeare's are better -- to me and to many people -- because we were raised with certain values.

In order to argue for objective aesthetics, you have to suggest those values are innate. People NATURALLY prefer complex, ornate metaphors to simple ones. I DO believe there MAY be some innate aesthetics, but no one (yet) knows if there are for sure or what they are (if they exist). Even if they do exist, ornate metophors might not be one of them. It seems more likely that valuing them is a cultural trait. Which means its relative (except maybe within that culture).

Creation for mass consumption and creation for creation's sake are two very different motives that have two very different qualitative outcomes.

A very strong claim. Can you back it up? "Backing it up" doesn't mean pointing to "Gilligan's Island" or Brittany Spears and saying, "See!" First of all, many people like Gilligan and Brittany. It's not a good argument to say "artistic" works are better than commercial ones and then, as proof, to point to commercial ones and claim they're bad. That's like saying "commercial works are worse because they're obviously worse." That's not an argument. That's an opinion.

Second, Bach and Shakespeare wrote for mass consumption. And I can think of TONS of works created for "creation's sake" which are crap -- at least via judgement by my (relative) aesthetics.
posted by grumblebee at 1:48 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


fourcheesemac, I would definitely subscribe to your newsletter. And if you write a book about this stuff, I will buy it (when I can afford to buy books again).
posted by languagehat at 3:23 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


In summary:

Taste wars are boring.
posted by tkchrist at 4:26 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


LOL, thanks LanguageHat, from one author to another; I have written a book that is, indirectly about this stuff, though it's about a specific musical culture; I'm working on a Native American project that's more applied than theoretical for the next few years, but I do have a general theoretical book pretty much about this argument planned for my true old geezer years, as a textbook for those who dare to claim music a place for music among the social sciences, and not just the humanities.

But indeed there is already a book that presages much of what I'm saying in beautiful, succinct ways I can only dream about emulating: John Blacking's 1973 *How Musical Is Man?* (and also his late work, *A Common Sense View of All Music.* Chris Small's *Musicking* is also a good place to plumb the arguments I'm making, as is is the aforementioned *The Music of Our Lives* by Kathleen Higgins, who is a truly smart philosopher who really gets music.

Thanks for the nice words; the admiration is mutual, of course.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:27 PM on April 22, 2008 [7 favorites]


fourcheesemac, I would definitely subscribe to your newsletter. And if you write a book about this stuff, I will buy it (when I can afford to buy books again).

Seconded! This was one hell of a thread. I also skipped over it since I didn't feel like reading about smooth jazz, but then spotted all the favourites and wandered in. I sent this thread to my brother too -- he writes new music in the classical tradition and I play in an indie rock band, and we've had a continuing discussion/debate about what music is all about. Your comment above (the one with all the favourites) seems to be in line with the consensus we seem to have reached, which is, broadly speaking, that nobody can claim to own music, and therefore nobody can say what music should or shouldn't be.

People who have enjoyed this thread might like reading Greg Sandow's column on the "future of classical music".
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:49 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Since this thread is sidebarred, let me add a link to this terrific new thread on Aboriginal Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu -- it needs more traffic, and music heads will really dig it!
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:37 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thank you everyone for your contributions to this thread. I really learned a lot ... not only about music history and musical aesthetics ... but about the many exceptional individuals who participate on MeFi. And yes, please go visit drhuva's Yunupingu post.
posted by netbros at 8:15 PM on April 22, 2008


fourcheesemac:

Thank you for introducing some sanity and perspective to this thread. (Your comments on the demographics of smooth jazz listeners were also of particular interest.)

However, while I mean this with the greatest professional respect, I am obligated to level a fairly harsh criticism against you: I feel compelled to admit that, from a scholarly perspective, your most favorited comment above seemed to me to be little more than an overly long appeal to generic liberal-humanist/democratic ideals.

In contrast to the prevailing mode of conversation in these kinds of threads (i.e., the literal "your favorite band sucks,") this comment was indeed a welcome relief, but, at the same time, I feel that it didn't really offer much more in terms of analysis beyond the ironic version of "your favorite band sucks" (which suggests that all music commentary is inherently flawed and that there can never be room for valued analysis in discussion of music.)

In this respect, I feel this thread is sorely lacking. The discussion, I believe, would have been far more productive were it to have included (and I sincerely hope that someone can come along and provide these):

- the common rubrics on which smooth jazz music is judged (were we talking of, say, rap, this might include the complexity of rhyme scheme, cleverness of puns, &c.)
- the historical progression of the genre
- how sub-genres of smooth jazz or individual performers can be identified (e.g., in rap, Kayne West's extreme use of rime riche versus R. Kelly's defiance of traditional norms of scansion)
- what constitutes smooth jazz "genre music" versus that of wider appeal (e.g., in rap, everyone may like Montel Jordan's This is How We Do It but maybe only genre fans will appreciate B.I.G.'s Runnin'.)
- how smooth jazz fits into the greater context of jazz music or modern American music in general

I strongly believe that, by these means, we can actually begin to intellectualize our appreciation of this form of music without invoking the cliché of relativism, de gustibus non est disputandum, but instead by generating an objective critical framework that will allow us to academize our musical judgements.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:59 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Rationem ex vinculis orationis vindicam esse." (Wittgenstein) Which is what music does.
posted by semmi at 10:13 PM on April 22, 2008


Language invents novel categories and allows us to operate on an abstract plane. The problem is that after a category has been defined, it distorts the memory of the actual experience, getting between us and our actual perceptual world.
posted by semmi at 10:23 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Many of the instrumental pop guitarists in particular started their careers in rock or pop/rock. For example, Peter White spent a number of years writing and performing with Al Stewart. 1988 performance of On the Border.

Craig Chaquico, of course, had his early career with Gracie and Kantner in the Jefferson Starship. See the nice Chaquico solo in Stranger about 3:50 in.

Jeff Golub played with Peter Wolf, formerly of the J. Giels band, but before that he worked with Billy Squire. 1981 Lonely is the Night.

Tackling some of the evolution. Anyone else like to try?
posted by netbros at 11:24 PM on April 22, 2008


MetaFilter: an overly long appeal to generic liberal-humanist/democratic ideals.

I don't know what you are trying to say, actually, Sangermaine. If that's a "very harsh criticism," I hope you tear me to shreds more regularly. I'm not even finding the flesh wound in your comment with respect to anything I said.

What I am describing is a *social scientific* position that attempts to objectively distinguish between aesthetic form and social function, and to locate "meaning" in activity rather than objects.

As far as I know, "liberal humanism" and "democracy," no matter how "generic," have nothing to do with this except in the broadest sense that "social science" is a humanist enterprise (and "liberal" in the very traditional, not political, sense of the word, which means it was born about simultaneously with modern ideas of "democracy" during the 18th century European enlightenment).

But in fact, your list of questions for us would be predicated on taking my stance, which does indeed privilege the idea that people *talk* about music, and that we are therefore not clueless about what kind of musical experience they are having (or have had), although we don't have direct access to it either. So sure, the next set of questions now becomes: *among people who do like smooth jazz, what are the qualifications for aesthetic [or other functional] quality or excellence," or whatever.

"Overly long," yeah, that part fits. Sorry about that. I do tend to go on.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:23 AM on April 23, 2008


Uh oh -- semmi broke out the Wittgenstein! Now this thread is gonna get serious.

I differ just a bit; I see music and language as formally interpenetrated domains of experience and communication (it's sort of what I'm most interested in). I think linguistics (and Wttgenstein, bless him) over-state the referential function of language and understate what Jakobson called the poetic function, suprasegmental structure, gradient categories, and especially the direct modeling of "sound" in the ways we use our voices (where "language" does not equal "text" or "writing").

But that is a whole other can of worms. Mmmmm. Worms.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:30 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've been shamed by the quality of subsequent comments into coming back to apologize for mine. Not because it's not what I feel, but because I should have emphasized further that my inability to appreciate smooth jazz as a genre is in no way related to the technical mastery of the average musician who makes up the genre. It's more related to my general need for an energetic tempo or some other subjective lack that I can't articulate. So, netbros, I'm not crapping on your music but merely on how it makes me want to fidget. I don't know if that helps though.

I generally agree with fourcheesemac when he reviles the obsession with authenticity in jazz. I myself appreciate a lot of electronica/jazz bastardization.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:42 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I strongly believe that, by these means, we can actually begin to intellectualize our appreciation of this form of music without invoking the cliché of relativism, de gustibus non est disputandum, but instead by generating an objective critical framework that will allow us to academize our musical judgements.

Is this a parody of academic jargon? I'm really hoping this is a parody of academic jargon. Otherwise, god help us all. Er, I mean, we must intellectualize our appreciation of academizing our musical judgments within a critical framework.
posted by languagehat at 5:02 AM on April 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Like languagehat, I was turned off by the jargon*. (Thanks for suggesting it might be parody. That hadn't occurred to me. Let's hope you're right.)

...by generating an objective critical framework that will allow us to academize our musical judgements.

How is it possible to generate an objective critical framework? If you generate a framework, isn't it necessarily subjective? After all, you and I could each generate contradictory frameworks. You'd make the subjective choice to use yours; I'd make the subjective choice to use mine.

One of the steps you suggest to help create this objective framework is to list "the common rubrics on which smooth jazz music is judged." In other words, when most people (learned people? critics? professors?) judge music, what SUBJECTIVE tools do they use and what ARBITRARY features do they consider important?

You're suggesting that by listing a bunch of subjective ideas, we can come up with an objective system.

Huh?

I don't know why so many academics are hung up on proving they're being objective. Surely, one of the major purposes of school is to transmit culture. We don't want students to judge works by any random criteria -- we want them to judge them by the common criteria used by our culture, or at least our academic culture. (At the same time, hopefully, we teach them to be critical of that culture's rules.)

I bowed out of academia years ago. I bowed out because I don't find the academic way of interpreting art useful. If the academic way is THE way -- if it's cosmically, objectively the TRUTH -- then I guess I screwed up. But it's not the truth. It's a way of looking at things. It's merit is that it has been sanctioned and honed by a great many people (some of them smart). And if I agree to use it, I can also take part in a big conversation. But since it didn't speak to me, I chose other tools.

* One thing that repeatedly irks me about academese is the passive voice:

the common rubrics on which smooth jazz music is judged ...
- how sub-genres of smooth jazz or individual performers can be identified ...

This may not be the intent, but it seems disingenuous. It stacks the deck towards pseudo-objectivity. For God's sake, WHO did WHAT to WHOM? WHO is judging jazz music? WHO is identifying the sub-genres.

If you clarify the ideas behind these items -- if you write something like "the common ways jazz critics judge music..." the subjectivity is clear. By saying "is judged," it sounds like some nebulous force of nature is doing the judging.

posted by grumblebee at 7:49 AM on April 23, 2008


The point has been made, yet bears repeating, that there is nothing inherently wrong with smooth jazz as a musical form. The problem is overly commercial emphasis. Most interesting music, like most interesting literature, has tension and dynamics, something interesting to say. However, that has been systematically culled out of most smooth jazz. The form itself contributes to this; it is supposed to be smooth and soothing. It is not inherent in the form though. Smooth and relaxing jazz with interest abounds, as has been pointed out several times above. It typically does not carry the moniker "smooth jazz" though. That is marketing as much as a musical form. I think the visceral reaction that people have to smooth jazz is the marketing, what it has done to the music. It has come to be associated in many people's minds not with a smooth version of jazz, but with a muzak version of jazz. Great music could be and likely is made in the form, but not so much in the marketing category which has become smooth jazz.
posted by caddis at 7:52 AM on April 23, 2008


I home my academic tone hasn't been offputting ... I've certainly tried not to use jargon without defining it or locating it in a specific tradition of thought.

As for the critical stance I've been advocating, I don't think it's "the" way to interpret anything, just *a* way to listen outside your own cultural comfort zone, and I'm careful to point out, I think, that my whole point is to become "objective about subjectivity" -- a venerable goal of (phenomenological) social science, not to be confused with the equally valid work of judgment, critique, and conservation and creation that gets done under the banner of the humanities, where subjectivity is king and its refinement the purpose. I am being, as it were, *meta*-humanistic.

But as to "commercial," and all that, my MAJOR point above is that music serves many functions besides the aesthetic ones we foreground in our discourse here and more generally in western culture (and many other cultures); those functions are *never* absent -- there is no pure aesthetic art form or response to art, just as there is no human expression that does not have the potential to become art. Almost all modern music is commodified and marketed in some sense or other; half the interpretive work we seem to do is about deconstructing and dealing with that fact.

The article does not seem to be online, but a nice audio and slide show excerpt does from Burkhard Bilger's provocative piece in the current New Yorker magazine "The End of the Road," which presumes to search for the "last real folk music" in the US.

I call bullshit on this article for a number of reasons, but it's worth reading if you can get the magazine in paper copy somewhere.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:33 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


(As Charles Keil once wrote in a stunning polemic called "Who Needs the Folk," I've had enough of the "folking over" of the working classes.) (Keil 1978, Jrnl of the Folklore Institute, I believe)
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:36 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Anthony Braxton and George Lewis are really nice guys.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:57 AM on April 23, 2008


Great thread! fourcheesemac, many thanks for taking the time to articulate such a critically important perspective on music. I frequently express a similar view of music ('it's about the experience, not the object' is my glib way of putting it) to other musicians, and am most frequently met with sort of blank stares, or perhaps occasionally interest and questioning or disagreement and questioning; rarely with agreement.

It is astounding to me how, in my experience, so many people who have devoted so much time, work, and study to the musical art, have never considered these basic questions. My performance work is--at least for now--tied to a world of presumption and musical privilege that I often regard with disdain, and it's refreshing to read such clear expressions of musical thinking that have largely been stripped of cultural, etc., baggage.

I wanted to echo and pursue one particular point you made:
Our taste-obsessed music culture, however, (speaking of the cosmopolitan west, but global culture to some extent) is premised on the idea that only some people are "talented" at music, and presumes that "making music" is a specialized, professional activity which is not analogous to Language in its generalized distribution as a faculty, or the natural basis of its universality. I dispute that too: I think it's a product of stratified society and a terrible approach to music education in the west which streams musically "talented" children into something that all children deserve, regardless of potential competence at the highest levels. I was a "musical" child, and was immersed in music as a result. Every child deserves (I think needs) that[...]
As someone involved a great deal in music education, I absolutely agree, and have been thinking about this for a while. Aside from the enormous practical challenges, I struggle even when thinking about a new kind of music education: Ideally, all children would be able to be immersed in music programs; I think that those programs should provide as universal an approach to the art form, with the greatest diversity of experiences, as possible; I also believe that teaching music through performance is fundamentally important in music education.

Already, though, my ideals are in conflict: how does one offer a substantial breadth of musical experience to young people if performance is integrated as fundamental to the curriculum? It takes a while to develop a basic level of skill on any instrument (voice included), and a fair competence at playing is needed to get beyond the surface of any musical tradition. So which instruments and which tradition is chosen in that regard?

Perhaps we create a sequence where younger students have more basic experiences playing music (Orff, etc.) but are given a breadth of listening experiences. As they move through school, students can then make more informed choices about what kinds of music they find most meaningful, and can begin to develop performance skill specifically associated with instruments and practices in that musical tradition. But then how do you find teaching staff to handle such complexity? Is it realistic to expect a 4-5 year music education major to be able to conduct the orchestra, coach the rock band, assist in the hip hop studio, lead the computer lab, give didgeridoo lessons, etc.? Is it realistic to expect a school to hire a staff of 9 or 10 musicians, when most are reluctant to employ more than 2 or 3? Besides, most of this stuff is absolutely best taught in small groups, and the typical class size for most music classes in the US today is upwards of 50! So if every student in a middle school of 800 kids took music, appropriately taught in small groups of 10, it would require around 14 or 15 music teachers just for a smallish school. And that kind of reform simply is not going to happen.

And this brings me to my basic question: how does one reconcile ideals about the musical art and music education with the harsh realities of actually teaching kids in a real school? The compromises we've made in the US are flawed certainly, and grossly favor the concert tradition; however, large group instruction in band, choir, and orchestra has made substantial experiences in music available to millions of young people over the past century who would have had little or none otherwise.

In short, I've spent much of the first decade and a half of my career as a musician working out my ideas (and ideals) about music, and am pretty clear on them now; I'm finding practical implementation of those ideas and ideals to be profoundly challenging.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:23 AM on April 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


fourcheesemac, I think your point is a good one, that music has different uses and different contexts and it's silly to think we can judge (or even comprehend) all kinds of music by listening to it with headphones in a dark room. Music is good (or bad) if it does a good job at doing what the performers and listeners want it to do.

But! I think that in some cases we can critique the context itself. We can say: "That thing you are doing, the context in which you are using that music, the function music is performing for you there, is bad." A song that slave drivers require their slaves to sing as they work is a bad song, even if it has strong melody and a good beat.

When Wynton Marsalis bashes hip hop, he's not merely saying that hip hop is not excellent by the standards of jazz. He's criticizing the whole culture of hip hop. He's saying (I think): that music is an integral part of a sick and twisted culture. We can disagree with him on that, we can remind him that the jazz he plays was once "bad music" in that sense (And he might agree! He might say jazz is better when it's not the soundtrack to drunkenness and prostitution). But I don't think he's talking about the music in the same out-of-context sense that you're critiquing.
posted by straight at 2:24 PM on April 23, 2008


So when the music snob criticizes the "sellout" band, he's not just saying, "I don't like the sound of your music anymore." He's expressing a sentiment similar to the person who hates SUV drivers. He's saying, "What you're doing is bad. Bad for you, and bad for society."
posted by straight at 2:27 PM on April 23, 2008


So it's not actually about the music at all but instead an ad hominem attack. Which was logical fallacy the last time I checked and not a method of discourse.
posted by GuyZero at 3:34 PM on April 23, 2008


Actually, I've been thinking about this and I tend to agree with straight, to a degree. Music may succeed at doing what it is supposed to do, and thus we should call it good music; yet we may not agree that the music's purpose is valuable. I would say the purpose of smooth jazz is to provide pleasant inoffensive background music - it is by its very nature, bland; otherwise it wouldn't be smooth. Reactions against this music are probably reactions against blandness. One should not criticize smooth jazz for being bland, but one could criticize people for liking bland things. One would be kind of silly to do so, though, because people have their own reasons for liking things, and good luck being objective here.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:51 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


GuyZero, I think that fourcheesemac's analysis implies that music is inescapably ad hominem, if you will. That the value of a piece of music is bound up in the context in which it is used and so is tied up with (among other things) the character and purposes of the people who make it, listen to it, use it.

We're not going to find easy agreement about the value of "smooth jazz culture" or "hip hop culture" but I think there's at least a lot there to talk about that goes beyond "it rocks / it sucks" and maybe can get at the real reasons people have such strong (almost moralistic) opinions about music.
posted by straight at 12:19 AM on April 24, 2008


"Inescapably ad hominem" is a lovely phrase, straight (though one is tempted to say "Metafilter=inescapably ad hominem!)
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:07 AM on April 24, 2008


excellent discussion. glad i wandered into it, even if i was tardy. i agree completely with fourcheesemac's position, which to me seems like a kind of relative absolutism. within their proper contexts, works of music can be evaluated according to something approaching objective criteria, but their particular contexts can be defined only in subjective terms. that's why the very best polka makes for truly terrible glam rock, but it isn't really fair to say one is 'superior' to the other. i like it. thanks all!
posted by saulgoodman at 11:27 AM on April 24, 2008


MetaFilter: Inescapably ad hominem

and...

MetaFilter: relative absolutism

but perhaps the most accurate of all:

MetaFilter: Truly terrible glam rock

Also, I kind of have to take issue with this because it makes no sense:

that's why the very best polka makes for truly terrible glam rock, but it isn't really fair to say one is 'superior' to the other

"glam rock" is a label, not a set of goals or objectives. Your comparison is like saying lettuce is terrible bread. Smooth Jazz cannot be bad because smooth jazz is not an objective - it's a descriptive label. Music, overall, cannot be bad (morally) because music has no intentions - it's amoral. Music can be performed badly because there is a point to a music performance, although you may not get agreement on what that point is.

You can say you like glam rock better than polka but in and of themselves they have no purpose and thus cannot be measured, either independently or against one another.

Unless you're measuring hair. In which case, glam rock wins.
posted by GuyZero at 1:17 PM on April 24, 2008


Music is almost as subjective as food. You like what you're brought up with.

Hell, a lot of music made doesn't even use the same TUNING SYSTEM that you and everyone you know is used to.

*shrug*

Try listening to traditional Chinese music (or traditional Romani stuff in the OLD tunings) every day for a few weeks and get back to me.
posted by chuckdarwin at 1:48 PM on April 24, 2008


"glam rock" is a label, not a set of goals or objectives.

GuyZero: I basically agree with the principle of your point, but if I were the front man for a glam rock band, and I debuted a song one night that followed all the formal conventions of polka, while at the same time unironically presenting the song to my audience as a glam rock song, they would reject it as not up to the usual standards of my work. if they took that song and judged it on its own terms as 'glam rock' (regardless of whether or not that means something to us, let's assume it means something to my audience), they'd probably boo me off the stage.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:00 PM on April 24, 2008


So, yes... but no.

Your point is reductio ad absurdum. IMO. Passing off lettuce as bread does not result in a "BREAD FAIL" but it is, instead, mis-labeled lettuce. Just because you call polka rock doesn't make it so. And your hypothetical singer gets booed not because of "GLAM FAIL" but because the audience subjectively doesn't like polka. Many subjective opinions does not the objective truth make.

Now we can move on to the inherent meaninglessness of labels and contemplate koans about the moon and one's finger.
posted by GuyZero at 2:16 PM on April 24, 2008


I thank you all for a glorious read. But aren't there serene melonamiacs among you prepared to make distinctions that accord greater value to denizens of our pluralistic multiverse who are open to sampling varied musical expressions before issuing aesthetic judgments about the music sampled? By contrast to those cursed with autistic hostility towards all music except the stuff that prevails in their milieu or the music they espouse as a social affectation?
posted by abakua at 6:37 PM on April 25, 2008


Music is almost as subjective as food. You like what you're brought up with.

Hmmm... I dunno, that doesn't hold exactly true for me, chuckdarwin, not across the board, anyway. FOOD: I was brought up (all though childhood and adolescence) eating mostly canned and not fresh vegetables. Now I don't like canned vegetables, I like fresh vegetables. MUSIC: I was brought up with (again, we're talking childhood here, but still in the air in my house all through adolescence) a lot of easy listening that my dad relaxed to after work. I hated it then and I reckon I pretty much hate it now.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:09 AM on April 26, 2008


I've spent about an hour reading through this amazing thread and was amply rewarded. It's what Metafilter should aspire to be more often. This discussion itself is "best of the web" and a great percentage of it would be worthy of others to see, on almost any musically serious music blog on the web. (As for myself, I cut and pasted much of this thread to email to many musician friends.)

Some of the things expressed reminded me of a few of the same ideas as expressed by the late jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason in his 1969 original liner notes for Miles' "Bitches Brew" album, when he wrote the rhetorical question -- [something like] "Who says Mozart is better than Sonny Rollins and to whom?" Those with that album should check it out, for context.

As a professional musician also, it's refreshing again to see such articulate, culturally and musically knowledgeable intellects contributing here. I learned a few things for sure. Thanks to the usual suspects for such mentally enriching and stimulating thoughts.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 12:46 PM on April 26, 2008


fourcheesemac: I, too, find your ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

This has been a fantastic thread. Kudos all around.
posted by aqhong at 11:43 PM on April 26, 2008


Since this thread is still active, I have to say that I disagree strongly about their being no "absolute" standards for music at all (though of course individual taste can certainly vary).

I wasn't able to find the reference online but there was a fascinating study a few years ago where they gave music from all cultures to people of all cultures, about a third of whom were musicians. What was interesting was that there was little or no correlation between what regular people liked between cultures - but there was a huge correlation as to what musicians liked between cultures.

I don't believe you'd get the same effect if you were investigating writers or painters. I do believe you'd get the same effect if you were investigating mathematics or physics (i.e. if you asked mathematicians around the world, "What are the most beautiful theorems?" you'd get remarkably similar answers regardless of culture).

I believe that music and mathematics, which are essentially abstract in a way that painting and particularly writing can never be, have universal, pan-cultural features that are attractive to all, particularly to experts in those fields. Certain tiny features like paradiddles (playing X and then the mirror image of X) seem to reappear over all musical traditions worldwide; this isn't a coincidence or even something genetic but the logical consequences of mathematics of music and the limited number of mechanisms to create richer material and still preserving some sort of "logic", and also the logical consequence of the shared physical nature of human music production (i.e. paradiddles come naturally from having two hands, or two feet, where one is dominant.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:31 AM on April 27, 2008


A song that slave drivers require their slaves to sing as they work is a bad song, even if it has strong melody and a good beat.


By whose standards? We actually know this, historically, not to be true. If the slave driver requires the song, and it results in more or better work accomplished, then it is, to him, an excellent song.

Another historical note: Slave drivers (and foremen and bosses and wardens) have often required slaves or otherwise oppressed populations to sing at work, delivering the command explicitly. When people are commanded to sing all day upon pain of punishment in a coercive system, most will do so. But there is no doubt that some songs are preferred over others in those contexts. "Favorites" emerge. It may be bitter to be forced to sing, but the survivals and oral history accounts of the singing tell us that those who could sing under those conditions in a way which matched the mood and pace of the group and fitted the moment were rewarded and recognized, and people who lived those lives can recall songs they liked more than others.

From our position of ease, it's easy to condemn the context under which these songs were sung and suggest that aesthetics can't apply because we no longer approve of the context in which they have been sung. But that doesn't blur the reality that those songs are subject to their own aesthetics, to which their creators and singers were sensitive. Some worked better than others - fit their purposes better than others - whether the purpose was the overseer's or the singers'. Probably the most successful songs of this type were those that did both, or at least satisfied the demands of each listening audience in different ways.
posted by Miko at 3:19 PM on April 27, 2008


A song that slave drivers require their slaves to sing as they work is a bad song, even if it has strong melody and a good beat.

The statement doesn't make sense to me.

If Hitler whistled a tune, did the tune instantly become bad? If the slave drivers force slaves to pick up buckets, are buckets bad?

Do you believe that evil is some kind of physical force that can infect inanimate objects?

An ACT can be evil, meaning that the actor had cruel intentions, the outcome caused pain or both. But I don't get how a song can be evil. A song is notes, harmonies, rhythms... Listeners hear these aspects and, as a result, have feeling, thoughts and memories. These responses differ from person to person. You may hear a song that slaves sung and have bad thoughts; I may not.

People can also use songs for evil ends. I can torture you by locking you in a room and playing Three Blind Mice over and over for hours. I can also torture you by hitting you with a hammer. That makes ME bad -- not the hammer.
posted by grumblebee at 5:31 PM on April 27, 2008


A song that slave drivers require their slaves to sing as they work is a bad song, even if it has strong melody and a good beat.


No, it isn't.
posted by caddis at 5:44 PM on April 27, 2008


I have a question for the class. It may have already been obliquely answered in the course of this discussion, but I wanted to put it directly: Do you believe there is such a thing as good or bad taste? If so, how would it be measured? If not, why not?
posted by aqhong at 7:34 PM on April 27, 2008


Good taste is what I like.
Bad taste is what I do not like.
Next question.
posted by caddis at 7:59 PM on April 27, 2008


Next question.

Capitol of Nebraska?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:10 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Do you believe there is such a thing as good or bad taste?

"Good taste is the death of art".

-Truman Capote
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:15 PM on April 27, 2008


For me, anything I might call "good" or "bad" taste is definitely subjective, but it does have a meaning. I believe people's estimations of music become more useful to me based on how much music they know and how deeply they know it. When I say that my friend Greg has "good taste in music," it's shorthand for what I really mean: that Greg is an astute and lifelong student of blues and traditional music, has heard more recordings by more artists than I am ever likely to take in, and when he makes selections of music to listen to or to play, they are deeply informed and perhaps offer more to the interested listener than other possible selections. That is just an example - it could be applied to any genre. My point is that when I talk about someone's "taste" I'm really talking about their degree of knowledge and ability to identify things of interest within the vast ranges of musical expression available in the world.

Though I think my friend Greg has fantastic taste, and have loved listening to his selections and have learned more from his tutelage than from any number of writings and presentations on the blues, there are many people in his life who are about ready to throw his entire collection of tinny, scratchy, slurred, poorly reproduced, plunky 1920s blues field recordings out the window because anyone of taste can tell that they sound awful.

So much for taste.
posted by Miko at 8:51 PM on April 27, 2008 [5 favorites]


... good or bad taste?

Music and other arts are external stimuli designed to generate emotion. Generally, when I'm listening to music, I am listening for something that will enhance my happiness, my serenity. There is certainly a difference in sound between the joy of light, airy strings and wind instruments and a funeral dirge or marching band. Each has their place as stimulus.

Taste then, becomes a matter of how we use each genre of music and its appropriateness for the mood or moment. That funeral dirge would be totally inappropriate at a wedding (some would say in bad taste). It probably isn't a good idea to blast John Phillip Sousa over the PA at a wake. New Year's Day in Pasadena? Absolutely.

When I am happy, I want to remain that way. I play music that makes me feel good, but it's my aesthetic sense, because any two people simply aren't likely to have the same listening experience. Most likely your musical happiness is at least slightly different from mine.

Quality, however, is an entirely different matter. Compare the voice of Andrea Bocelli to mine. My voice would actually make you cringe, maybe even your ears bleed. It would certainly be poor quality, perhaps even taste. The voice of Bocelli would uplift you, be aesthetically pleasing. Whether it is in good taste depends on your emotional needs at that moment.

The same can be said for inexperienced amateur musicians and bands. Their hearts may be in the right place, but the talent simply is not. Is their music in bad taste? No, just bad quality.
posted by netbros at 9:14 PM on April 27, 2008


Taste, quite subjective. Is Christina Aguilera a good musician? Her songs are pop dreck and most people "of taste" would say no. However, there are indications that this might be a wrong conclusion. I have new respect, big new respect. I wish there was more stuff like this from her. Too bad she has spent her career competing against Britany Spears. She should move to Chicago and play three shows a week at Buddy Guy's Legends singing nothing but the blues and she would go down in music history as a legend herself. OK, I am way off topic here.
posted by caddis at 9:16 PM on April 27, 2008


If one scrolls back and reads my opening salvo on this thread--This shit is an abomination. And yes that's opinion--one sees I never made any bones about the fact that I was expressing an opinion.

I wholeheartedly agree w/fourcheesemac's rather obvious point that "taste" in music or in any artform (one's individual preference in music, one's tacit cultural assumptions about the purpose or place or nature of music) is relative and subjective, and I'm not sure why anyone would disagree with this.

But I also think one can speak about "styles" of music in a similar way one speaks about "dialects" in language. Thus, the age of recording and the rise in popular music in the 20th century is roughly the same, chronologically, with the rise of America as a world power.

American popular music and popular song, and in this I emphatically include jazz (something I mentioned upthread), has a distinctive flavor, and that flavor is part of what we respond to. (I can't prove "smooth jazz" lacks that flavor, or is a diluted and watered down version of that flavor, but I can say that it seems a rather obvious stylistic observation--and not, necessarily, a judgement.)

My own conviction is that American music represents a surprisingly seamless whole, and that the traditional categories it is seperated into (gospel, swing, jazz, C&W, blues, bluegrass, R&B, rock, etc) are quite incidental to this whole--and more confusing than enlightening.

But again I don't think I can "prove" what the "essence" of American music is, although I'm sure there is one. Certain performers and composers (Scott Joplin, Dylan, Sinatra, Gershwin, Porter, Holiday, Davis, Armstrong, Berlin, Rodgers, Cash, Nelson, Hendrix, Waters, Ellington, Cline, Hazlewood, Parsons, Tatum, Basie, Janis Joplin, etc) seem to embody this whole more than others, but ultimately it is ineffable.

If I had to describe what this flavor is in an impressionistic way, I would say that it's a strange combination of brashness and melancholy. And I would also add that it is, like the age of America itself, largely on the wane.
posted by ornate insect at 10:03 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


I used to believe that good and bad taste in "art" were arbitrary.

I now believe that some aspects of good or bad taste are universal, inasmuch as people who really care about art, who would be willing to shed their own blood to preserve some famous work of art or music, have tastes that are surprisingly concordant with each other.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:05 PM on April 27, 2008


But I also think one can speak about "styles" of music in a similar way one speaks about "dialects" in language.


Sure one can -- and I did above, and to linguists, all dialects are equally grammatical

There's an old saying linguists pass around: "A language is a dialect with an army"
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:14 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


lupus, I don't disagree that there are very general, abstract principles of musical/aesthetic beauty that are cross-cultural, but as someone who has devoted my career to these questions, and who knows the science and social science pretty well, I can say that I do not think those general principles, rooted in the structure of the human mind/brain, are specific enough to help us with questions of musical value, certainly not cross-culturally, because those principles are evident in all human music, even the music you or I don't like
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:18 AM on April 28, 2008


I can say that I do not think those general principles, rooted in the structure of the human mind/brain, are specific enough to help us with questions of musical value, certainly not cross-culturally, because those principles are evident in all human music, even the music you or I don't like.

Clearly, I'm claiming what you said is not the case; of course, there are certain elements common to most human musics or it wouldn't be music, but my claim is that "the best music," the music that musicians really like, has much more of that "musical value" than a piece of music taken at random would. The "proof" per se is that musicians around the world like the same musics; it's more of an "indication" or "sign" though.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:11 AM on April 28, 2008


I used to believe that good and bad taste in "art" were arbitrary.

I now believe that some aspects of good or bad taste are universal, inasmuch as people who really care about art, who would be willing to shed their own blood to preserve some famous work of art or music, have tastes that are surprisingly concordant with each other.


Yes, but only insofar as people who are already drawn to and have extensively studied those works of art have agreed on certain criteria that they believe define its greatness. As we saw during the Josh Bell controversy, if those qualities are invisible to people who do not have the background of pre-existing interest and study, are they really there?
posted by Miko at 8:21 AM on April 28, 2008


Not to rehash old arguments, but it's a mistake to use the Josh Bell set-up as evidence that people can't appreciate great music. If you actually stopped the people and asked them if they thought the music was great, I bet they would say yes. I know I walk past beautiful things all the time, and I don't always have time to stop, or want to.
posted by grouse at 9:23 AM on April 28, 2008


I agree with your general point, and it was certainly discussed at length in the related threads, that people not "appreciating great music" is not the only conclusion that can be drawn from the Bell experiment. But I also think there was in that experiment a fundamental assumption that Josh Bell's playing really is better than others', playing other forms of music. And with that, I deeply disagree. In my comment in one of the threads, I asserted that yes, Josh Bell has been successful at meeting the criteria for greatness of a subset of music listeners who especially embrace the values and performance qualities of Western classical music -- but that doesn't mean there is something inherently better about his playing than the playing of people in other genres using other styles, or in fact inherently better about the genre itself. Which I believe was an embedded premise for the stunt.

So not only do I think the stunt was clumsily done and inconclusive for the reasons you mentioned, I also think it was based on the faulty idea that his music is somehow innately and obviously superior to other music listeners have access to.

There are certainly people - we all know them - who listen to the "greatest" music in any number of genres and are unmoved. I, for instance, found both classic jazz and improvisational jazz a really hard sell for years, despite the frustrated efforts of fans playing recording after recording and saying "But listen to this! Listen to how great this is! But wait - you haven't heard this yet!" Until I developed enough knowledge and interest of my own in the music to form a basis for appreciating it - that is, until I shared enough musical culture with its fans - it was lost on me.

That doesn't mean it was bad music. Nor does it mean that the jazz fans had better taste than I or that their music was better, pearls before swine. What it means (in my view) is encapsulated in fourcheesemac's broader point: unless I share or come to share some of the musical values and criteria of the people who estimate the music highly, I am not likely to say it is a great music, because it doesn't meet my criteria for 'great.'
posted by Miko at 11:46 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


A song that slave drivers require their slaves to sing as they work is a bad song, even if it has strong melody and a good beat.

The statement doesn't make sense to me.

If Hitler whistled a tune, did the tune instantly become bad?


My point is, that we can't come to universal agreement about whether the slave's song or Hitler's tune are good in the abstract. Some people will like them, some won't. Same goes for Kenny G.

But we can probably agree that slavery and Hitler are bad. And when it comes to Kenny G. and smooth jazz, we can talk about what's good and bad about the contexts in which that music exists.

Read that article by Pat Metheny on Kenny G. He's not saying, "Kenny G. is vanilla, but I like chocolate." He's saying "Kenny G. did something morally despicable when he recorded himself playing over an old Louis Armstrong recording."

People routinely make what sound like moral judgments about music. And I think it's because music has uses and functions in society that go beyond subjective tastes. In Pat Metheny's jazz circles, the way your music connects with other musicians of the past is a way of showing respect to those musicians. Kenny G doesn't seem to have the same connection to that tradition, and so he probably doesn't see what he did as a sign of disrespect. But Metheny doesn't see that as an excuse. He doesn't say "oh, well, different audience, different standards, it's all subjective." Because for Metheny, that music is imbeded in his culture and has a meaning and a purpose within that culture, and it's probably impossible for Metheny to think about Armstrong's recordings apart from their context.

So yes, it's possible to sit by yourself in a dark room and listen to Hitler whistle or slaves singing the compulsory work song and think, "I like that tune." But when you start talking to other people, you'll find that the music is rather stubbornly connected to the context in which it was produced.
posted by straight at 11:59 AM on April 28, 2008


Steve Coleman.
posted by semmi at 12:05 PM on April 28, 2008


when you start talking to other people, you'll find that the music is rather stubbornly connected to the context in which it was produced.

I disagree, but only because you make it sound like a universal statement. SOME people put music in a context, some don't. (Well, I supposed everyone puts it in some kind of context, but it's the context might be entirely different from person to person.)

My wife and I both hate jock culture. Yet I love Beach Boy songs (the super-pop ones, not the experimental ones) and she hates them. She hates them because she hates songs about cars and surfboards and California girls. I love them because I enjoy the snappy, upbeat tunes. I don't really care what the songs are "about."

I've talked to my wife. I respect her feelings. But her feelings don't affect MY context.
posted by grumblebee at 12:27 PM on April 28, 2008


But when you start talking to other people, you'll find that the music is rather stubbornly connected to the context in which it was produced.

Historically, sure, music has not always arisen from laudable conditions. But that hardly makes it bad music. If anything, I have come to be somewhat in awe of the persistence of human beings in creating music in even the most miserable of conditions. To me, the creativity and assertion of spirit embodied in song is deeply admirable. So, in a way, sometimes I like the music of adversity best, because it is testament to something so deeply encoded in our humanity that even oppressive systems can't completely crush it.

For instance, I am really really interested in prison work-gang songs. I would have to so say I really like them. They are the product of disgusting conditions. But what I hear in them is complicated: not just the product of an oppressive system, but a creative handling of that system, a spiritual and moral opposition to control, the cadence of the human body at work, vocalization of deep emotion, tunefulness with connections to a variety of other contemporary musical traditions and their antecedents.

For me to condemn a piece of music itself because of the conditions under which it arises would be extreme. That's the sort of reaction that led classic rock radio to stop playing Cat Stevens songs because of his conversion to Islam and commends he made about holy law. I think there are times when the knowledge of the source of a piece of music would render it sickening to me - a tune by Hitler, no matter how catchy, would be hard to call a favorite, sure. But where is the line to be drawn? If we set apart all the music that ever arose under conditions which many of us today deplore, there wouldn't be much music left. Certainly no blues, and without that, no rock-and-roll. Nothing by men who hit, cheated on, or abandoned women, or by women who did that to men. Nothing by people who participated in illegal drug use. Virtually no music of the peasant class anywhere at any time. No sea chanteys or cowboy songs or railroad or lumbermen's songs or fishermen's songs, no work songs at all, since work songs are generally a product of labor shortage. No hip-hop - too many connections with poverty and violence.

The moral conditions under which music arises are certainly interesting, but I can't imagine condemning that music, or declaring it "bad," simply because the conditions that gave rise to the music are not what a middle-class, liberal-minded person of the present day might consider acceptable. How much less we'd know of human musical capacities if we limited ourselves to that.
posted by Miko at 1:51 PM on April 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


Steven Wilson of Porcupine tree interview: "Hip hop has become everything that it set out not to be, benign, mainstream."

I believe Ludacris, Poison, and Kenny G are good representatives of sub-genres that have become benign and unimportant. Are we snobs, or are issues like lyrical content, intensity and proficiency, and tonal quality and rhythmic variation important to hip hop, heavy metal, and classic jazz (respectively)?

I think a lot of people may not like Smooth Jazz because it lacks some of the attributes of classic Jazz that were responsible for it becoming popular and respected, not because it is beneath them. For instance, I don't like sampled percussion, I don't like highly processed instruments, and I especially hate that combination with a slow tempo. Maybe it is because I hated going to the department store when I was a young child and hearing this kind of instrumentation when I could have been at home playing with my toys or hearing it in the doctors office when I had the flu. Maybe it's just because my brain doesn't respond well to it or maybe it's unpleasant association.

Either way, the snobbery accusations and crying subjectivity never get anywhere when you could discover what specifically people like and don't like about certain kinds of music. If you can't, then maybe you are a snob or have no taste.
posted by hellslinger at 2:12 PM on April 28, 2008


Maybe it is because I hated going to the department store when I was a young child...

If you wanted to make an entire nation hate a specific music genre, you could not do it any better than the Musak Corp has.

1) Find a universally unpleasant situation
2) play music that you want people to despise
3) profit!
posted by GuyZero at 5:27 PM on April 28, 2008


Clearly, I'm claiming what you said is not the case; of course

And clearly, I am disagreeing with you, on the basis of my professional assertion that there is no credible anthropological basis for the assertion, and certainly no way of doing a controlled experiment that would meaningfully prove it by bringing "musicians" together to judge "the best" music, -- can you cite the study you mentioned above? It strikes me as impossibly flawed in its basic assumptions, because music is *not* math, even if it has mathematically describable properties! Music is a product of human activity, and would not exist were it not for conscious human agency.

We can of course skip the back and forth and agree to disagree -- it's been a long thread.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:32 PM on April 28, 2008


Music is Math.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:38 PM on April 28, 2008


Carol Krumhansl is a cognitive psychologist looking at the question of universals in music cognition (via neural network theory) at Cornell; those interested in the limits of positing universal dimensions of musical cognition, and the experimental methods for raising such questions scientifically, may be interested in her work - I profoundly disagree with its assumptions and the way she operationalizes "culture" as an independent and discrete variable, but she's quite brilliant and provocative anyway
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:28 AM on April 29, 2008


fourcheesemac:

While I was unable to find a web reference(*) for the study above, and my music books are inaccessible to me at this point, it strikes me as the professional, you are making a specific claim, that there exists only as much cross-cultural agreement on aesthetics as you'd expect by chance, one that is a fairly unlikely proposition and demands some evidence from you.

It is a commonplace that musicians of widely disparate cultures are able to understand each other's musics, although commonplace knowledge isn't necessarily true. Having played music on five continents (not yet Africa) with an extremely wide range of musicians and a couple of animals, I'd say that's also anecdotally true for me.

An interesting example is Indonesian classical music.

From a popular viewpoint it hasn't done well against the universal onslaught of Western "soft rock" (if you follow world music, this is its kudzu, eating music from Denpasar to Seoul to bangkok... there isn't much "smooth jazz" as people like lyrics) though some of the instruments and techniques do continue to appear in Indonesian pop music.

If I put on a CD of a gamelan at your typical American party, I'd be forced to turn it of.

However, the impact of Indonesian music on Western musicians cannot be overestimated; I venture to say that almost every Western musician gets a memorable aesthetic shock the first time they hear a gamelan. By the time Zappa started using similar techniques in his music in the 70s, he was the second or even third generation of American composer to be inspired by Indonesian classical music, something that was still unknown to 99.9% of the American populace (it is laughable to hear the "island" music in such movies as "Bali Hai", not that I don't like those songs for their own value, but that there is literally nothing in common between the indigenous music and the film versions).

You could say much the same of throat-singing or a host of other artists or genres.

Now, absent any data, this is what you would expect if 1) appreciation of musical structure were a skill that musicians acquired over time and 2) musicians appreciated musical structure for its own sake (defining informally but not actually circularly "musical structure" as "that thing that musicians get better at perceiving as they study" :-D )

In other words, untrained ears would appreciate music based on uncorrelated reasons (e.g. "boy bands") but musicians would appreciate music based on musical structure and thus be correlated.

This is in fact what musicians claim to be true. So if you claim that this reported anecdotal phenomenon does not exist, some sort of proof is incumbent upon you.


(* -- this is a hard search. I know the damned thing exists - but what to search for? taste correlation musicians?)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:13 PM on April 29, 2008


It is a commonplace that musicians of widely disparate cultures are able to understand each other's musics

That's ridiculous—both the idea that "musicians of widely disparate cultures are able to understand each other's musics" and the idea that it's a "commonplace." Now, sometimes ridiculous ideas turn out to be true, but the onus is definitely on you to support it. I remind you that fourcheesemac has done a great job of supporting his remarks with references; all you've offered is your unsupported assertion. Which, frankly, carries no weight.
posted by languagehat at 1:53 PM on April 29, 2008


I have to agree with languagehat. Musicians of widely disparate cultures often like and are drawn to others' musics, and then may develop proficiency through continued study and appreciation - or may simply mimic and incorporate some of the obvious features of the new musical style into their own music. But mimicking and deep understanding are different, and thorough study and gradual understanding are different.

Some mystical level of immediate understanding, some language of musicians that goes beyond commonly held basic human traits? I don't think so; I've not seen it. When I've been around musicians playing cross-culturally, I've noticed that even people who have made a lifelong study of another musical form will find that they are recieving instruction and working toward a deeper understanding even when they have reached the level of great accomplishment and are capable of playing alongside masters. Masters who have come to the music from within the culture will often correct the outsider, even if the outsider's style has come to be more palatable or popularly accepted in the outsider's own home culture - if a music is suddenly more palatable to outsiders because of their own is playing it, it's quite possible that he's unconsciously imported some of his musical values and imposed them on the master's style. Zappa certainly did; he didn't become an Indonesian master. He borrowed some ideas and incorporated them into a Western popular music tradition, and his audience found it palatable, because he incorporated enough to satisfy their expectations of music while also folding in some musical ideas which were new to him. Do you think he understood Indonesian music immediately? Chances are that at least some traditional Indonesian musicians would say he never understood it at all.

It is not at all easy to learn and master the music of a culture that is different from your own - and if it makes use of things that are very different from the musical values you were raised with - different in the structure of a scale, for instance, or in the use of rhythm - it'll be harder to learn and understand in all its permutations.

It's tough, also, that you've asked fourcheesemac to prove a negative:

if you claim that this reported anecdotal phenomenon does not exist, some sort of proof is incumbent upon you.

It's nearly impossible to prove that things don't exist, because we can never have every experience or know every situation. So to make your argument, you'd need to prove that the phenomenon you desribe does exist, and that it's not a function of the fact that people who are musicians are already possessed of musical intelligence and might more quickly adapt to new musical stimuli and be more interested in new variations on sound-making.

All that is not to take away from what I'm sure is your basic feeling, that musicians playing can achieve a form of cross-cultural communication that is unavailable using spoken language. That, I agree with. But I don't think that amounts to anything like a true understanding of one another's musics.
posted by Miko at 4:06 PM on April 29, 2008


a true understanding of one another's musics.

Miko--I've read and re-read your last post and I think it's full of several internal contradictions and strikes me as deeply flawed.

It is not at all easy to learn and master the music of a culture that is different from your own

Are you saying it's impossible for someone to learn a musical style/form from another culture? Clearly this is not true. It's not at all easy for someone raised in America to learn and master Chinese, but people do. Likewise, people learn musical styles and forms different from their culture all the time: why is it any harder for someone raised in California to learn Gamelan than it is for someone in Jakarta to learn 12-bar blues?

I think you are conflating proficiency with mastery, but the same argument could be made about language. It's not at all impossible to imagine (or for that mater find) a person learning (and yes, sometimes even mastering) a musical idiom outside the culture they grew up in. Although, perhaps, unlike in language, mastery is not as easy concept to define in music: it is in some ways more subjective. The fact that Zappa did not become a Gamelan master says more about how casually he pursued it (and my guess is he pursued it very casually) than it does about whether or not he was capable. He was likely just looking to exploit (in the best sense of that word) certain elements of it for his own compositional ends. Which is the nature of art that is not wedded to traditional forms anyway: it's often inherently syncretic and collage-like.

Unless you think cultural idioms like language and musical styles/traditions are somehow hermetically sealed for all eternity, there is plenty of evidence in history that cultural transference and appropriation happens all the time: one finds this is the crafts (metallurgy, jewelry-making, woodworking, stone carving) and in architecture, boat building--and all myriad of technological know how. The entire history of the human species exhibits numerous examples of transference. Granted, it sometimes occurs very slowly and stubbornly (and there are places, like New Guinea, where cultures remain isolated from one another), but if we take an historically broad and anthropologically pragmatic view of culture (and that includes music), the notion of cultures as discreet, involiable and atomic clusters gives way rapidly to the more realistic notion of culture as something far more fluid and dynamic. Transferrance, adaptation, appropriation are not always symmetrical ("New World" settlers perhaps learned a lot less from natives than they could have and should have, but right away there was transferrence in agricultural practice, etc). There are no impermeable boundaries, at least in theory, between any two cultures, although in practice how cultures mingle and transfer idioms is rarely straightforward. Because much transferrence happened before written language, tracing how it occurred is not always easy. But I guarantee you someone in America without any Indonesian heritage is learning Gamelan, an possibly even eventually mastering it, as we type on this thread.

In my own life I've met plenty of musicians who have learned, and a few who have actually mastered, musical styles foreign to the culture they were raised in.
posted by ornate insect at 2:07 PM on April 30, 2008


...but as someone who has devoted my career to these questions, and who knows the science and social science pretty well, I can say that I do not think those general principles, rooted in the structure of the human mind/brain...

argumentum ad verecundiam

posted by semmi at 2:58 PM on April 30, 2008


Are you saying it's impossible for someone to learn a musical style/form from another culture?

No, of course not; that would be ridiculous.

why is it any harder for someone raised in California to learn Gamelan than it is for someone in Jakarta to learn 12-bar blues?


Because it's very likely that someone raised in California has been hearing 12-bar blues and songs based on 12-bar blues and musical intervals used in 12-bar blues and commercials and jingles and street musicians and bar bands and radio stations playing 12-bar blues and irs derivattive forms for their entire lifetime, and has acquired an understanding of the form through immersion, as people do with spoken language. Of course someone from Jakarta can learn it, but they'll be likely to miss subtleties in the same way that speakers of a language who study a new language make mistakes and categorical errors and so on. It takes significant immersion and/or serious study to master musical forms you didn't grow up with.

Of course I'm not saying you can't do it; just that you can't do it immediately and innately, which was your argument above, through instant understanding among musicians. You must go through a process of learning, and it is likely that, even when learned very well, there will be differences between players who have grown up with a music since childhood, and who have learned it through study or immersion as adults -- just as people may become quite fluent in a language other than their own, yet still have traces of an accent, or use sentence formation that is unusual to native speakers.

The fact that Zappa did not become a Gamelan master says more about how casually he pursued it (and my guess is he pursued it very casually) than it does about whether or not he was capable.

This is true, but that makes him not a very good example to use for your argument.

there is plenty of evidence in history that cultural transference and appropriation happens all the time:


Of course! If you think I'm arguing against that, you really did misread me. I'm arguing against a single contestation you made above:

you are making a specific claim, that there exists only as much cross-cultural agreement on aesthetics as you'd expect by chance, one that is a fairly unlikely proposition and demands some evidence from you.

It is a commonplace that musicians of widely disparate cultures are able to understand each other's musics


I'm saying that I agree with fourcheesemac that while musicians of disparate cultures are often drawn to and inspired to listen to, study, and even play other musics, there is not a common musical language that all musicians are more prepared to understand than laypeople (other than the very most basic elements that are applicable to all humanity), and that the difficulty of becoming proficient or even a master in another form is part of the evidence for the truth of that statement.

Does it happen? Sure. Human beings are great at learning stuff.

Does it happen because of a common understanding of music among musicians, or because there are hidden commonalities among all the world's musical systems that have not yet been discovered and defined? I don't think so. Most musical activities are learned behaviors and, therefore, necessarily, embodied cultural behaviors.
posted by Miko at 3:55 PM on April 30, 2008


miko--I'm ornate insect, not lupus_yonderboy. I think you may have confused us.

also, please re-read this: why is it any harder for someone raised in California to learn Gamelan than it is for someone in Jakarta to learn 12-bar blues?

here's your answer: Because it's very likely that someone raised in California has been hearing 12-bar blues and songs based on 12-bar blues and musical intervals used in 12-bar blues and commercials and jingles and street musicians and bar bands and radio stations playing 12-bar blues and irs derivattive forms for their entire lifetime, and has acquired an understanding of the form through immersion, as people do with spoken language. Of course someone from Jakarta can learn it, but they'll be likely to miss subtleties in the same way that speakers of a language who study a new language make mistakes and categorical errors and so on. It takes significant immersion and/or serious study to master musical forms you didn't grow up with.

Your answer AGREES with my statement, i.e that it's equally hard (more or less) for anyone from any given culture to learn another cultural practice. We're in agreement, but you misread my question. Re-read my rhetorical question again if you still don't see why your answer just reinforces my question.

Now this:

Of course I'm not saying you can't do it; just that you can't do it immediately and innately, which was your argument above,

I think you are referring to lups here, not me?

You must go through a process of learning, and it is likely that, even when learned very well, there will be differences between players who have grown up with a music since childhood, and who have learned it through study or immersion as adults -- just as people may become quite fluent in a language other than their own, yet still have traces of an accent, or use sentence formation that is unusual to native speakers.

Yes I agree but when did I say I was only referring to someone learning a language or cultural practice as an ADULT? Presumably children also learn foreign languages, and even, if they are lucky, music foreign to their culture (and as an aside: Western classical is foreign to just about every culture except some schools nowadays, and no one thinks Asian kids are incapable of learning 19th century European music).

now this:

The fact that Zappa did not become a Gamelan master says more about how casually he pursued it (and my guess is he pursued it very casually) than it does about whether or not he was capable.

This is true, but that makes him not a very good example to use for your argument.


Again, you've confused me with lupus. and that goes for this:

I'm arguing against a single contestation you made above:

you are making a specific claim, that there exists only as much cross-cultural agreement on aesthetics as you'd expect by chance, one that is a fairly unlikely proposition and demands some evidence from you.


The rest of your post seems directed at him.

But regarding this:

Does it happen? Sure. Human beings are great at learning stuff.

Does it happen because of a common understanding of music among musicians, or because there are hidden commonalities among all the world's musical systems that have not yet been discovered and defined? I don't think so. Most musical activities are learned behaviors and, therefore, necessarily, embodied cultural behaviors.


Well a lot of linguists now believe in something called Chomskian UG or Universal Grammar: the notion that humans are cognitively hardwired for language, particularly for the recursive aspects of sentence generating.

I think it's a false either/or to say that music is either wholly cultural or wholly universal: like language, music seems to obey certain fundamental rules, even if the outward aspects of music--the tonal scales, rhythmic patterns, harmonics, etc--vary from culture to culture and place to place. And thus just as their are people who are more naturally proficient with languages--polglots who can pick up languages with remarkable ease and fluency--so too does it seem possible that there are certain musical minds/personalities who can pick up musical styles faster and with greater facility than others. Just as some musicians can pick up different instruments and play them much quicker than other musicians can. I don't know that I want to extend that observation into any grand theory, but it's worth thinking about.
posted by ornate insect at 4:26 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


argumentum ad verecundiam

Yes, semmi, it is; I didn't think it appropriate to keep piling on long comments full of literature -- which I did a lot of in earlier posts in this thread, so that my claim is not merely based on my "authority," but based on the arguments and literatures already cited.

We could get into greater detail, but that would mean scrolling back at least to Alexander Ellis' 1885 "On the musical scales of various nations," a brilliant comprehensive survey of what was then known about the world's different tonal systems that concludes that human tonal systems are "many and not one." He's still right.

I am happy to engage the scientific discussion if people are into it; remember, I do not dispute very general, abstract universal processes of pattern recognition and entrainment, or even universal standards of musical beauty (certain kinds of assymetrical structure seem generalizable at many levels; all humans hear within a determined pitch range of 20Hz-22KHz, and experience pain threshold at the same decibel level.

I challenge anyone to show convincing scientific or ethnographic evidence that all cultures have a common standard of strictly formal musical beauty. I've devoted years to this question and know the literature well; I know of no such evidence that has ever convinced me of anything other than a baseline level of universality, much less clearly implicated in the differences between human musical expressions than the almost certain existence of an underlying universal cognitive grammar for the world's diverse languages (and even that is not entirely a proven thing in the sense that we are sure we know what that UG is or how universal it really is). To the extent that all humans share the same neurobiologcal architecture for, say, pitch processing or rhythmic entrainment, there are of course universal constraints, and maybe positive universals of structure (the notion of a tonal center, perhaps, but what to make of serial music or musique concrete, then? Can they not be beautiful or pleasing to some people?).

The problem is in overgeneralizing the "aesthetic" response as if it were reducible to neurobiological structures or common sound structures.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:34 PM on April 30, 2008


And actually, it is generally *easier* to learn a "foreign" music than a foreign language if the relevant physical skills are already present; music is generally much more redundant (low information) and hierarchically organized than language, and lacks the structural complexity of language because of (or perhaps causing) its inability to "refer" to the external world abstractly.

The learnability of music across cultures is certainly evidence of something universal; what I dispute is that that "something" is (directly) aesthetic value.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:40 PM on April 30, 2008


fourcheesemac--for what it's worth, there seems to be at least one possible cultural practice where the distinction between music and language virtually collapses.
posted by ornate insect at 6:09 PM on April 30, 2008


and at least one other developmental factor in which the roots of musical and lingusitic intelligence are initially deeply intertwined.
posted by ornate insect at 6:13 PM on April 30, 2008


From the TIME article on language drumming that ornate insect linked above (under virtually collapses):

"A good drummer must not eat chicken wings, give them to someone else.""

I can't get with that. I don't care what they say, I'm still eating my chicken wings.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:29 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


thus, following my previous post, if one considers whether or not something like a UL (universal lullaby) exists, one possibility is that the old insights of Piaget (motherese) and the familar insights of Chomsky (mentalese) might be combined: for here is a universal sing-song structure that is also critical as a cognitive tool to language development.
posted by ornate insect at 6:35 PM on April 30, 2008


Ornate insect, there is also Silbo-Gomero, the whistling language of the Canary islands (mp3).
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:05 AM on May 1, 2008


lupus_wonderboy: for what it's worth, there seems to be at least one possible cultural practice where the distinction between music and language virtually collapses.

Thanks for that.

But it's ore than one instance, actually.

My own research is on exactly this question; to me, the line between music and language does not exist, nor do "music" and "language" necessarily work as abstractions to cover the full range of human sonic expressive culture. There are numerous continua that comprise what George List once famously called "the speech-song continuum," (in "The Boundaries of Speech and Song" 1963).

Actually, I've written a book about it myself.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:50 AM on May 1, 2008


(Speech surrogates like whistle speech and drum languages are only the edge of the phenomenon.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:50 AM on May 1, 2008


PPS (hence the argument from authority)
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:52 AM on May 1, 2008


Interesting, fourcheesemac. Is this view borne out by neurobiological studies of where the brain is active during speech and music?
posted by grouse at 4:05 AM on May 1, 2008


grouse: there are definite areas of the brain active in processing language, in fact various specific modules of language structure are processed in various specific parts of the brain, and this includes "musical" elements of language structure (such as phonemic tone) that are processed in a different (or possibly non-specifically many different) areas of the brain -- interesting research on aphasia and tone languages has recently made big strides with this. So on the surface of things, two modalities of expression, two different neurobiological structures; but in fact it is nowhere near that simple, and to me the most likely scenario is that we simultaneously and holistically process both musical and linguistic structures; the obvious example of this (and the subject of my own research) is *song,* which of course requires us to (usually) process both linguistic structures (syntactic, phonological, lexical, discursive) and musical structures (melody, rhythm, architectonic form) at the same time, and to integrate those tasks instantly and on the fly.

The mysteries are deep, and fascinating, and by no means resolved.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:16 AM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


and this includes "musical" elements of language structure (such as phonemic tone) that are processed in a different (or possibly non-specifically many different) areas of the brain

Shit, I meant to finish that sentence, really: "musical elements of language structure that are processed in different areas of the brain when they are perceived as part of a musical structure, like a melody"

OK
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:18 AM on May 1, 2008


In other words, the music/language boundary is cognitively and neurologically real, but not a simple binary opposition, and it permits a lot of crossover and simultaneous processing of multiple levels of information structure, all on the fly and mostly unconsciously.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:22 AM on May 1, 2008


Interesting, thanks.
posted by grouse at 5:47 AM on May 1, 2008


Ornate insect: I did get confused, sorry. At this point I'm unclear as to whether you are still arguing for universal aesthetic principles. Since it's been a busy week at work and I jumped into an interesting discussion late and on the fly, I have been reading too quickly, probably. Maybe I should just be lurking in this thread.

But just for the sake of it, is there any point on which you still think my discussion is "deeply flawed?" I'm trained as an educator and so have a good working familiarity with Piaget, Chomsky, Gardner, and other theorists of development, cognition, language and literacy acquisition, and I am a lifelong musician and a student of folklore myself -- all of which I'm saying only so that you know you can pitch the discussion where you'd like because the elementary principles are probably known to most people still active in the thread. These ideas about universality and cross-cultual aesthetics are ones I've considered before, as well.
posted by Miko at 6:20 AM on May 1, 2008


lupus_wonderboy: for what it's worth, there seems to be at least one possible cultural practice where the distinction between music and language virtually collapses.

actually, fcm, that was me you were quoting.

also, I'm quite interested to check out your book: what's the title?

As an aside, I wonder if the cognitivist bias about language (that is, the bias that language is primarily about syntactical rule following, and the tendency to downplay the phenomenological embeddedness of langauge in sensory and somatic perception/feeling or sound) that has so dominated mainline thinking in philosophy of language (since Frege, Saussure, etc) is due a tendency to think of language in terms of its written, rather than oral, manifestations?

In pre-literate cultures, language has perhaps, for better and worse, yet to become abstracted out of its pragmatic context--it is not yet fully compartmentalized into discreet tasks. Literacy facilitated the development of a class of scribes, and we all know the degree to which written language historicaly codified certain practices: the "literal word of God" being but the most prominent example. I sometimes wonder if written langauge was not, in addition to being a conceptual goldmine, also a kind of curse for humanity. But there's no going back. That genie has lomng since left the bottle.
posted by ornate insect at 9:31 AM on May 1, 2008


ornate insect: I think it was both a curse and a blessing, as these things so often are. A change. YOu would probably find this wonderful recent New Yorker piece on reading, cognition, and the oral tradition really interesting - I did. It lays forth a few important points about the costs and benefits of the transition from oral culture to literature culture.
posted by Miko at 10:02 AM on May 1, 2008


Paging fourcheesemac, ornate insect, Miko to the green. Music scholars to the green please.
posted by netbros at 5:32 PM on May 1, 2008


due a tendency to think of language in terms of its written, rather than oral, manifestations?

So much so that I would say that is the primary modern understanding of the bias you describe so very well in that post
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:29 AM on May 2, 2008


Most of the so called "Smooth Jazz" is just too generic for my taste. Although many of the artists of that genre are very technically proficient, a lot of the music seems to be missing something.... Having said that, though, I love me some Al di Meola!

This is a huge jump backward, and several steps off of the high-brow, scholarly debate that has grown of this thread, but I just wanted to point out that I've never perceived Al Di Meola as smooth jazz. He's an extremely talented musician, and has created some extremely complex and challenging music through his career, both solo and with groups (most prominently Return to Forever). Very little of it would I consider "bland" or "elevator music," despite my loathing for anything remotely similar to these unfortunate genres (this being my opinion as a joke -- don't attack me).

Maybe this shows that even "smooth jazz" or "elevator music" or "muzak" (or whatever the buzzword is now) isn't always easily-tagged and is more open to interpretation than we might think. It seems that this discussion has been going on under the impression that smooth jazz is a clearly-defined genre made up of these artists and these albums.

But then, maybe everyone's just been trying to avoid getting into the categorical debate that so often arises from topics such as these.
posted by evhan at 1:56 PM on May 3, 2008


FCM, amazing performance. Please add book titles and links to your profile forthwith.

You intimated it was a 'good thing' we weren't talking about country music. Seems to me I'd love to read you on the topic. How might one best accomplish that?
posted by mwhybark at 1:39 AM on May 4, 2008


Miko: "If the slave driver requires the song, and it results in more or better work accomplished, then it is, to him, an excellent song.

See also: Lou Perlman.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 3:04 AM on May 4, 2008


"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." -- Frank Zappa
posted by semmi at 7:34 PM on May 6, 2008


"Endlessly dredging up that tired old chestnut does little to enlighten anyone, unfortunately, even though there is some truth to it and it's cleverly worded." -- flapjax at midnite
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:50 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


semmi--I've also seen that quote attributed to Elvis Costello: see here
posted by ornate insect at 8:23 PM on May 6, 2008


"Endlessly dredging up that tired old chestnut does little to enlighten anyone, unfortunately, even though there is some truth to it and it's cleverly worded." -- flapjax at midnite
posted by flapjax at midnite


That is what makes it worthwhile to dredge it up in the midst of so much abstract verbiage about something as a reminder that it should be experienced first hand.
posted by semmi at 1:40 PM on May 7, 2008


My other favorite: "Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to the birds," -Barnett Newman
posted by semmi at 2:01 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Seth Godin on Passion vs Pop using jazz as an example. Quite apropos to this discussion.
posted by GuyZero at 10:37 PM on May 7, 2008


I would argue that "experiencing music first hand" includes using words to describe, navigate, and contextualize that experience; I see no obvious boundary between "musical" experience and other forms of cognition engaged by musical experience.

That, anyway, is the radical claim of the tradition of communication studies and musical anthropology in which I work. For those interested in where the reset button (when one crashes on the shoals of a less than accurate abstraction caused by the fact that English -- and other Indo-European languages -- happens to assign nouns to "music" and "language" as if they were clearly distinguishable empirical phenomena in the ontological world), the basic reading list is:

Edward Sapir -- Language
George Herzog -- everything he ever wrote, but especially his definition of "song" in the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (1950) and "speech melody and primitive music" (MQ 1934)
Roman Jakobson -- everything he ever wrote, but especially his 1960 classic essay "Linguistics and Poetics"
Steven Feld -- "Communication, Music, and Speech About Music" (Yrbk for Traditional Music, 1984) and his classic ethnography of a New Guinea tribal sound culture, *Sound and Sentiment,* (1982) (and everything else he's ever written)
George List - "The Boundaries of Speech and Song" (1963 Ethnomusicology)


Again, the point is that "dancing about architecture" is not in fact a contradiction except at a veyr conceptually abstract level. All dance routinely performed in a built environment is in effect "about architecture," in fact.

Think of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" and apply it to sound; there is no actual natural boundary that divides music from language in the material world. Both are extraordinarily complex aspects of a broader communicative totality that is always engaged as a totality, and more narrowly of a broadly sonic totality in which we navigate constantly in our daily lives (don't let the incredibly recent phenomenon of literacy naturalize the relationship between vision and language - as I said above that is one of the key reasons why we take it for granted that "language" has no shared material or cognitive territory with "music."

The only certifiable universal in human "musical" culture is this: all humans sing.

Singing is the key; we separate "music" from "song" at great peril. Instrumental music, like literacy, is a derivative cognitive technology, albeit one with a much longer history and level of integration into our vocal natures than writing.

Ultimately, one needs to step back to a general semiotics of communication to see why it's folly to keep "language" and "music" conceptually distinct.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:44 AM on May 8, 2008 [5 favorites]


Ultimately, music (as a language, if you insist) communicates what words fail to.
posted by semmi at 3:34 PM on May 8, 2008


So do words, which fail by virtue of being human communication, and as predictably as music fails to communicate the existence of a predator in a nearby tree. That we have recourse to the musicality of language, not to mention "music" as such, when reference fails to communicate sufficient information points, in fact, to the unified faculty (and cultural system) I am proposing.

And here we are using words to discuss what music communicates that words cannot. Maybe we should just jam instead!

Really enjoyed this thread, thanks all around
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:00 PM on May 8, 2008


Maybe we should just jam instead!

Exactly.
posted by semmi at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2008


Exactly.

*waits for semmi to post something to MetaFilter Music*
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:04 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know, how cool would it be to have MeFi meetups among us musicians where we got together and jammed live, and not just on MeFi Music?

I'm down for it in NYC, and have a space we can play as loud as we want, with a grand piano and amps and drums and PA all ready!
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:51 PM on May 10, 2008


(ah the benefits of an academic career)
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:51 PM on May 10, 2008


If'n I wuz in Noo York with alla yew cool payple I'd sher as heck git my butt up there'n do some jammin' whicha!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:15 PM on May 10, 2008


« Older Say What?   |   No Intelligence Allowed, indeed. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post