Investigating Musical Aesthetics

Earlier this week, I spent some time reading an interesting new article (available now on early view) about the aesthetics of everyday life in relation to beauty, art, and fashion.  As I read about the various ways the respondents interpreted beauty in their daily lives, I found myself wondering what makes a given musical offering beautiful?  How do people interpret musical offerings in relation to social locations and identities?  What would analyses of musical aesthetics reveal about what people find meaningful and influential in their own lives?  How do people talk about such things in daily life?

While I could go in any of a million hypothesized directions with this question, what kept rolling around my head were the ways people respond to different voices and the ways social location might influence musical “tastes.”  As a result, I think I’ll offer some examples of such variation in hopes of facilitating reflection about the aesthetics of music and what such an area of inquiry might involve or reveal.

When I think about voices, I always automatically remember the countless conversations I have with people about Bob Dylan.  Unlike so many people I have met in my life time, I am of the opinion that Dylan is an amazing singer – I love his voice, his vocal delivery, and his phrasing more than I can put into words (my favorite Dylan track is the one above).  I could listen to him sing for hours on end, and have done so many times – in fact, I spent a large part of last summer listening to nothing but Dylan to celebrate finally having copies of all his releases to date.  For me, Dylan’s voice is beautiful, and I automatically feel a positive response whenever I hear it.

I have, however, regularly learned that many other people do not hear the same beauty when Dylan sings.  Rather, people have literally told me they think Dylan has the worst voice ever recorded, and I know many others who only listen to Dylan songs when they are recorded by someone else (see above for one of the many examples over the last few decades).  Similar to other cases of taste, we are simultaneously listening to the same thing and something very different whenever Dylan sings.  How would we explain such variation?  How do different people hear varied sounds (or interpret sounds in varied ways) when listening to the same voice or even the same song?  Where do these “tastes” or “aesthetic preferences” come from?

I can actually flip this example very easily in my own case by turning to the work of Billie Joe Armstrong.  The lead singer of Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong is an incredibly celebrated singer and songwriter whose work has found international and critical acclaim – but I can’t listen to him.  Don’t get me wrong, I actually wish I could listen to him both because I can often relate to his lyrics, and because when I was younger (like others I know) I idolized him as one of the few openly bisexual celebrities I could find.  But, I just can’t do it.  His voice is like nails on a chalkboard to me, and even testing the video example posted above was painful for me.  While his voice is poison for me, many others love his vocals and can listen to him on repeat with tremendous pleasure.  I, however, echo my companions who cannot stand Dylan’s voice by turning instead to other people’s renditions of Armstrong’s songs like the one posted below (which is the Broadway version of the one posted above).

This variation becomes even more intriguing if we look at the ways people respond to different types of musical offerings.  When people say they “don’t like the sound” of hip hop, country, rock n roll, soul or any other form, what is the “sound” they are referring to? When people say that “sounds like” a soul ballad, a pop song, a rap song, or some other variant, what does it “sound like” to them exactly?  When people, say a certain song or style reminds them of “the sound” of the Beatles, Texas Music, or 2pac, what is the “sound” and how do they connect it to the references they offer?  Similar to music scenes or genre boundaries, it appears people “hear” varied things in the same offerings, what could we learn by asking for these meanings and then comparing and contrasting them systematically?  When songs blend elements of varied “sounds,” what do people “hear” and how do people define them in relation to existing categories (for example, does the following example sound like hip hop, rock n roll, pop, or all of the above to you)?

Another component of such variation likely comes from the assumptions and social locations of the listener.  When people talk about not “liking the sound” of female identified singers or “black music,” they are offering generalizations about music based at least as much on their interpretations of social groups as the sounds themselves.  An interesting line of research could be developed concerning the racial, gender, class-based, and sexual musical interpretations and preferences of listeners (see here for an example of one form such work could take in relation to gender race and class).  Considering that I’ve yet to find a type of music that only one race, class, gender, or sexuality performs and / or listens to, this could reveal interesting nuances about how we interpret songs and develop or make sense of “tastes.”

I noticed an example of this type of aesthetic meaning making while sitting outside a coffee shop a few towns north of where I live a couple days ago.  As I searched the map on my computer for record stores near my location (something I do everywhere I go), a couple of female appearing people sat down and started discussing an incident with one of their children wherein the teenage child was listening to “gay music” that worried the parent.  The other person, likely trying to comfort the parent, noted how they both listened to “black music” when they were kids because it was cool and their parents did not like it.

I must admit that while I was listening I attempted to figure out what was “gay music” (and, in their minds, “black music” for that matter) – I thought of fringe options from Queercore to mainstream acts like Elton John that were called “gay music” when I was younger.  However, I was actually quite surprised when the parent revealed (showing the friend the “gay music” compact disc) that she was talking about Brandy Clark.  I happen to be a big fan of Brandy Clark myself (I honestly think she may be one of the best songwriters currently active s0 I highly recommend her debut album 12 Stories), but I’m not sure what about her music itself is “gay” other than the fact that she identifies as a lesbian woman.  In fact, I think most people would call her music folk, Americana, or simply country music (the videos above and below these two paragraphs are the most popular Brandy Clark songs to date (other than those she’s written for other artists), see for yourself how you would categorize these songs in terms of genre, taste, and / or style).  It appeared that for the parent in question, Brandy Clark’s sexual identity defined her music above all else, which is eerily similar to how I remember Elton John being defined as “gay music” when I younger.

While I could likely offer a multitude of examples of the ways people’s social locations and assumptions about the world facilitate their aesthetic tastes and preferences in relation to music, the central point echoes the questions posed above about variance in the interpretation of voices.  How do such tastes develop?  How do people make sense of their own musical tastes?  What might answers to these types of questions reveal about the social nature of music consumption and definition?  What might answers to these types of questions reveal about music scene selection or wider patterns of activity?  I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions at present, but I believe they might provide an intriguing opportunity to investigate musical aesthetics on individual, interactional, and cultural levels of social organization.

J. Sumerau

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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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