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Formal Properties as the Basis for Value in Music
by Thomas B. Yee
Bruce Baugh makes a helpful distinction between “form” and “matter” in music. He defines form as the intrinsic elements of a musical piece’s composition and matter as “the way music feels to the listener.” The remainder of this paper will refer to what Baugh calls the “form” of music as “formal properties” and “matter” as “non-formal properties.” After making this distinction, Baugh proceeds to argue that what makes a piece of rock music good is its non-formal properties rather than its formal properties. It is tempting to make a similar claim for music generally, namely that it is the non-formal properties of a piece of music that give it the value it has qua music. However, in this paper I will argue that a musical piece’s formal properties, rather than its informal properties, are what give it its value qua music. I will offer two arguments to support this thesis. These arguments will attempt to show that non-formal properties are inadequate as a basis for value in music, and that it must be the music’s formal properties that give a piece of music value qua music. I will then raise and attempt to refute objections that might be raised against my conclusion.
The argument against non-formal properties as an adequate basis for value in music is as follows:
1. If non-formal properties are the basis for value in music, then value in music is not objective
2. Value in music is objective
3. Therefore, non-formal properties are not the basis for value in music.
By describing value in music as “objective,” I mean that there is a correct answer to whether a piece of music is better or worse than another or good/bad at all. If value in music were not objective then there would be no correct answer to whether a piece of music was valuable or even more/less valuable than another. Put into other words, objectivity in musical value means that some musical pieces will be better or worse simpliciter than others.
It now becomes apparent why non-formal properties cannot be a basis for objective musical value. Since non-formal properties are concerned with how a piece of music makes us respond, they cannot ground a judgment that a piece of music is good or bad simpliciter. If music were valued based on non-formal properties, then its value would depend on the evaluative responses of agents, which are prone to vary widely. We would have to conclude that while a Beethoven piece has greater value than a Justin Bieber song for the virtuoso pianist, it has less value for the thirteen-year old girl. If value in music is subjective, then there is no way to arbitrate between the appropriateness of these two responses. The best this approach can hope for is reaching a statistical average of what music tends to please most people, but this hardly seems to be what we mean when we say that a piece of music is good or bad.
In order to show that value in music is objective, I encourage readers to find a recording of the song Pahpam Jarkwa, taken from the Canela tribe of Brazilian natives. Mere verbal description cannot do justice to the experience. When listeners hear the song, their response is one of revulsion, often manifesting as tension in posture, displeased facial expressions, or even sounds of disgust and incredulous laughter. When we react with aversion to the song, we are not simply conveying a belief that the piece is ugly, but that it is bad music. This reaction commits those who have it to the claim that value in music is objective. Those who would deny having this commitment must explain their aversion to a particular piece of music as merely a matter of preference-taste rather than a belief that it was truly bad —and that is a bullet I and many others are unwilling to bite.
A potential objection arises here. If non-formal properties are the basis for value in music, then one of the best and most common candidates for what makes music good or bad is how much pleasure or displeasure it brings us (though there are other candidates, naturally). Can one not simply say that it is the fact that Pahpam Jarkwa brings one displeasure that makes it bad music? Thus, our aversion would be reducible to non-formal properties after all. Unfortunately, the objection falls short. The Canela tribe that sung the piece considered the song quite pleasurable, holding that kind of sound as the very paradigm of beauty. But the fact that the tribe derives pleasure from Pahpam Jarkwa does nothing to undermine our sense that the song is bad music. What is pleasurable is not always good; as a clear counter-example, that a man can derive pleasure from rape fantasies does not make those fantasies good, despite the pleasure they can yield. And if he were to carry out the rape, we would reject any appeal he might make to the pleasure he derived from the act to justify it. I will return later to the question of whether pleasure in music makes it good.
1. Bruce Baugh, “Prolegomena to Any Aesthetics of Rock Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and
Art Criticism vol. 51, no. 1 (1993): 23.