I think a lot about the topic of “taste“, specifically to do with art and music. I’ve had a few discussions with people on this topic, so I thought I’d flesh out my current thinking for those interested.
What is taste?
When it comes to musical taste, most will recognise how this phrase echoes our preferences in foods which we like to put in our mouths. In the same way, musical taste reflects our preferences as to which music we like to put into our ears.
The late great philosopher of aesthetics, Sir Roger Scruton, commented that the contemplation of art rarely has definitive answers, only more questions. He noted instead that time spent steeped in this topic led him – if not to answers – to a more precise and more articulate phrasing of the questions surrounding this topic. With this in mind…
Is it entirely subjective?
I think we can all recognise that taste has a strong subjective component to it. Hopefully we can agree that this is beyond dispute. But many often talk as if music and its relative goodness/badness is entirely subjective. So let’s consider this…
The Postulate: Enjoyment of music and art in general is entirely subjective, and has no absolute parameters that we could identify or rely upon in analysis
Point 1: It would follow that there is no such thing as right/wrong in music, and in turn, no such thing as good or bad music.
Point 2: Continuing the logic of this, such an assertion of total subjectivity (meaning there would be no absolute components by which we could assess a piece of music) would mean any concept of “goodness” or beauty in a piece of music is entirely determined through the lens of an individual’s musical taste.
Point 3: Going one step further, if it is all entirely subjective and it all comes to down to purely subjective preferences, then all music must be equally good and – in turn – not possible to compare. It would also therefore follow that there is no better/worse sense of taste, and as such everyone’s musical preferences are equally good and equally valid.
Personally, I am unconvinced by the conclusions this postulate leads to.
There has to be a subjective AND an objective component to music
We’ve established there is some degree of subjectivity in the enjoyment of music. But in the discernment of beauty, the relative excellence/beauty of a piece of music cannot be entirely subjective. There must be a mix of both subjective perception, and absolute metrics that we can identify. How much of music is objective vs subjective is a much bigger topic, but my chief point here is to show via proof by contradiction that there MUST be some objective component.
This position would also be supported by the mere existence of art-discipline schools and centuries-long studies undertaken by such schools. The history of such schools digging into painting, sculpture, classical music, jazz, or the study of any instrument you care to name. Each of these schools, and every single student of these disciplines, seeks to understand and to dig up the inherent beauty in each of their instruments and disciplines. Further still, they seek not just to identify it’s existence, but also to codify their understanding of that beauty.
The longer and deeper the history of an instrument (e.g. piano), the more is discovered about the instrument and the musical experiences that can be created through it. The tone of the piano has actually changed substantially over the centuries, from the earlier harpsichord forms, to the larger and richer tones of the piano forte.
The piano did not remain static, but was slowly and iteratively shaped through the exploration of the instrument and what was slowly discovered to be more/less beautiful. Much like Darwinian natural selection, judgment was exercised over many centuries and the more pleasing and more beautiful tones remained while the less pleasing ones were retired. Ergo, not all tones (from the piano example at least) are considered equally beautiful in an absolute sense.
(SIDE-NOTE: Male and female voices have also evolved over the centuries, both in terms of the developmental standard of vocals, range, depth of tone, ever-increasing standards as to what is considered beautiful, and knowledge about how to achieve that sound. Sadly, it’s only in the last 30-50 years that we’ve started to see an erosion of that high standard in what people perceive as a beautiful voice, and a consequent decline in vocal quality).
While the piano discussion is an imperfect example, and refers more to an instrument than an overall art form/discipline, it is not purely in the technical realm. It is within the artistic and the aesthetic. To my mind, this hints at a deeper and more nuanced truth as to the philosophical search for beauty within art.
It hints that all things are not equal, and that there is some emergent objectivity as to what makes something more/less beautiful.
And if it is not hinting at some absolute measure of beauty, then it hints at there being something akin to some polar arrangement, with a “better/more beautiful” pole that we strive toward, and a “worse/less beautiful” pole that we are always trying to move away from.
Perhaps it may never be possible to deem a piece of music as truly “bad” or another as absolutely “good”, but we can certainly discern pieces as being better vs worse than others.
Maturing of Taste
If you are not yet convinced as to the merits of this argument, consider your own personal experience with food and drink. We all experience this same growing sophistication and development in our own food tastes.
When we are young we often enjoy very sweet white chocolate. As we get older we may prefer milk chocolate. Then it often progresses to dark chocolate, and some even turn off dessert entirely and prefer savoury items such as cheese at the end of a meal.
For some who start out drinking sugared tea, many progress to unsugared tea, then along a spectrum to black tea. We generally refer to this process as our tastes maturing.
The maturation of taste I’ve described above is also near-universally the direction that people go in. Few start out drinking black tea then slowly find themselves drinking milkier and more sugared tea in later life. This only highlights (to my mind) that in the exploration of human preferences (and what constitutes good/bad music), there are some inescapable absolutes that exist in relation to growing sophistication of preference.
It isn’t random
It is worth noting that our tastes also do not just change randomly: they become more sophisticated through repeated exposure to the external stimuli. It’s through this process that we become increasingly desensitised to things that are initially enjoyable in their novelty, but are ultimately one-dimensional in what they offer.
Instead, our senses start to look past that novelty and get switched on to things with greater depth and nuance, attributes that can be further explored. We see this with whisky, coffee, chocolate, or other foodstuffs with rich variance.
Of course, some do not find their tastes change, but these are generally in the minority. As such, they serve more as the exception to the rule, rather than a disproval thereof.
Don’t miss the wood for the trees
When we take the view that “it’s all subjective“, we unwittingly brush away the idea that there are absolute non-negotiables that exist… while simultaneously experiencing and following these rules ourselves day to day and not seeing the wood for the trees. These non-negotiables are discovered only through time and repeated exposure to whatever discipline we steep ourselves in.
This is why I can often have a lot to say about a voice and it’s merits/demerits. I’m not just hearing the notes or the volume – I’m hearing several different aspects to their tone, their consistency, the relative beauty and ease, the fluidity in their voice, and I have a strong sense of where that sits along the spectrum of voice.
I estimate I have worked with close to/if not over a thousand voices, and listened to many more. Given this, I can more accurately place what I’m hearing in a broader and more nuanced context. All this inevitably leads to a maturing of taste in what I’m looking for and what I’ve ascertained to be more/less beautiful in voices over the years.
So back to my original questions…
Is there such a thing as bad music? Is there such a thing as bad singing
Given my enormously long preamble, it makes it easier for me to give my answer as: ‘yes’ to both (albeit heavily qualified)
In relation to bad singing, I can tell you when I hear it. I’ve certainly been guilty of it in the past, and even now I could probably do better. Perhaps another voice coach or experienced listener would disagree with me over a certain singer, and I’d be happy to discuss it with them. But one thing is for certain, no voice would be beyond discussion, and there would be very specific attributes we would be looking for and weighing up.
In relation to bad music, I can similarly tell you when I hear it. But depending on the exact genre and the exact idiom of that song, I may not be sufficiently experienced enough to judge it as good/bad. Think of it like trying to assess a whisky as good or bad when you’ve never really had whisky before. Nevertheless, just because you or I do not feel qualified to assess a piece of music does not mean there are not objective ways for a more experienced listener in that genre to do so.
So next time you’re wondering if a piece of music is actually as bad as you think it is, it may be that you’re not the best placed to judge it, but you may also simply have better taste!