Kyle Vanderburg Aesthetics of Music - MUSC 5970 October 30, 2009


Introduction What is beauty? Can it be identified, can it be defined, can it even be put into words? Moreover, how does one define beauty in music? These questions and many others are at the forefront of a young composer's mind as he or she begins musical study. While beauty may be the first worry of a composer, the term "beauty" is not often used. Instead, the sorts of questions that plague the young composer are formed as "am I qualified as a composer?" or "am I good enough?" Following the myriad directions music took in the twentieth century, the answers to these questions have changed significantly. Over the last century the composer's chief concern has been finding a suitable audience for a composition rather than the mastery of musical components. This trend among composers mirrors a similar phenomenon among the listener. While the composer worries about writing music beautiful to the listener, the listener too must worry about what music they find beautiful. This question is not a question of what the listener finds enjoyable, palatable, or even bearable, as music criticism has been in existence as long as music itself, showing differences in musical opinion. Instead, the question becomes whether a listener can find beauty in music which they do not like or tolerate. In this sense the concept of beauty in music seems to have moved from a concrete term to a relative one. This appears to be a recent development caused in part by the abundance of musical styles utilized in the twentieth century. John Rahn addresses the issue when he asks the questions "what is valuable in art, and can music still achieve it?"1 Rahn says These important questions resist any definitive or absolute answer, intrinsically. Imagine someone giving the absolute answer to these questions. Inescapably, such an answer would circumscribe the personal artistic space of the answerer, presenting the shape of that space as its essential quality. This is why pronouncements on such subjects are usually interesting when they emanate from people whose artistic space is of general interest, from a Babbitt or Xenakis or Boulez, a Carter or a Stockhausen, a Glass or Cage.2


Rahn, ´What is Valuable in Art and Can Music Still Achieve It?,µPerspectives of New Music 27, no. 2 (Summer, 1989):

6. 2 Ibid.


The future of composed music will depend on the aesthetic sense of the next generation of composers,3 and the products of this next generation of composers will be a result of theindividual composer's sense of aesthetic judgment. Cast in this light, how this generation of composers will create and develop their aesthetic guidelines becomes a question of great importance. Hanslick and the musically beautiful Eduard Hanslick, in his book On the Musically Beautiful, has a great deal to say regarding what beauty is as it relates to music. He begins this explanation by defining music in the famous sentence: "The content of music is tonally moving forms."4This sentence serves as akey thesis in Hanslick's book, and due to its importance has been argued repeatedly. Using this definition, Hanslick moves on to discuss the ability of composers: Just as out of the same marble one sculptor carves ravishing forms, the other clumsy botchings, so the musical scales in different hands take on the form of a Beethoven overture or one by Verdi. What makes the difference between these two compositions? That the one represents a heightened emotion, perhaps, or the same emotion more faithfully? No, rather that it is constructed in more beautiful tone-forms5. This alone makes a piece of music good or bad, that one composer puts in a theme sparkling with genius, the other a common-place one; that the former works everything out in new and significant relationships, while the latter always makes his (if anything) worse. The harmony of the one unfolds eventfully and with originality, while that of the other turns out to be not so much flawed as impoverished; the rhythm in the one throbs with life; in the other, it thumps like a military tattoo.6 With this paragraphHanslick argues that music should be composed (and for that matter, studied) as a science. This is partially true. All serious students of music at American universities today are required to study a battery of theory, harmony, and form, but the chief method by which this is learned is through analysis of earlier works. While this has been a fundamental aspect of the

3 For more information see Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle, Brian Ferneyhough, Steve Reich, Franco Donatoni, Louis Andriessen, and GyorgyLigeti ´Brave New Worlds: Leading composers offer their anniversary preductions and speculations«,) The Musical Times 135, no. 1816 (Jun., 1994), 106-112. 4 Eduard Hanslick, On The Musically Beautiful, trans. Geoffrey Payzant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986), 29. 5 What Hanslick seems to be saying here is the ability of a composer is based on his or her understanding and utilization of musical elements. One example that really appears to support Hanslick is jazz improvisation where the manipulation of musical elements is of paramount importance. This topic is covered in great detail in Ted Gioia, ´Jazz: The Aesthetics of Imperfection,µ The Hudson Review 39, no. 4 (Winter, 1987) 585-600. 6Eduard Hanslick, On The Musically Beautiful, trans. Geoffrey Payzant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986), 35.


educational process of music and continues to be fundamental to the present, the strict scientific analysis of music does not guarantee a composer's abundance or lack of success in composing. What Hanslick fails to fully address is the concept of creativity. The aspect of creativity that Hanslick does address regards the ability to exhaust a musical idea over a certain period of time and the inherent requirement in the art of composition to reinvent the wheel every thirty years.7This idea allows Hanslick to bypass the concept of creativity in composition.8 Additionally, Hanslick's view of the musically beautiful is that musical aesthetic is an absolute definition, suggesting that all listeners feel the same way regarding the content of music. While this thought may have carried quite a bit of weight historically, the concept breaks down as the traditional concept of tonality breaks down.9 As tonality has been transformed throughout the twentieth century, it has allowed the musical community to journey away from Hanslick's original thought that beauty is automatically inherent in works that have been composed by composers who have truly mastered the elements of (tonal) music. Despite the criticisms of the translation of Hanslick's ideas to a new century, mastery of the elements of music is an important step in the creation of a compositional aesthetic. Composers and Relative Aesthetics While conducting research for this paper, I had the unique opportunity to hear composer Daniel Asia speak during the composers forum at the University of Oklahoma. Regarding the end result of music, he stated that a composer must say to him or herself "I believe so strongly in this

Hanslick, On The Musically Beautiful, trans. Geoffrey Payzant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986), 35. Hanslick's omission of composition requiring creativity could be seen as a link to his opinion that a piece of music should be judged based on its content and not on its reference to outside works or influences. This is a major portion of Hanslick·s opinion and can be first found in ibid. 5. 9 It is important to note that the translator's attempt to translate tönend to English creates a slightly ambiguous and incorrect statement, and therefore Hanslick's tonality applies not to strict tonality but to any form of tonality or lack thereof. For more information, see Geoffrey Payzant, ´Essay: Towards a Revised Reading of Hanslickµ inOn The Musically Beautiful by Eduard Hanslick, trans. Geoffrey Payzant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986), 95.



piece [of music] I have to let it out."10 Or, a shorter question, "Do I love the result?"11This is where applying Hanslick's belief on aesthetic value to the art of composition becomes questionable. The question becomes "Do composers write music they find to be unpleasing?" to which the answer appears to be "no," except in a few cases. The first case is when a composer chooses to place more importance on the fee generated by composing than on aesthetics. An example today would be a composer with a classical background writing radio jingles or other such advertisement material. An historic example would be Richard Wagner'sAmerican Centennial March, which was criticized as Wagner's acceptance of a commission based entirely on money.12 The second case in which a composer might write unpleasing music is when an aesthetically distasteful effect is needed, which is frequently used and useful in film music.13 The aesthetics of film music are inherently different than the aesthetics of art music, as film music generally works to support film, while art music usually stands on its own.14 In asking whether a composer composes aesthetically unpleasing music one must question the music that lies outside of the realm of traditional tonal music, such as electronic music and atonal music. In both of these genres harmony does not serve as an aesthetic basis, instead it is replaced by form, systematic mathematical calculations, or randomness. Aesthetics and the Audience The first major problem with allowing young composers to control their own sense of aesthetics is that audiences may or may not appreciate what a composer is trying to say through a

Asia, untitled presentation, Norman, OK, October 22, 2009. Daniel Asia, ´The Act of Composition,µ (presentation, University of Oklahoma Composers Forum, Norman, OK, October 22, 2009. 12LieselotteOvervold, ´Wagner·s American Centennial March: Genesis and Reception,µ Monatshefte68, no. 2 (Summer, 1976): 180. 13 For more information regarding aesthetics and film music, see David Huckvale, ´Twins of Evil: an investigation into the aesthetics of film music,µ Popular Music 9, no. 1 (Jan., 1990); andJames Tobias, ´Cinema, Scored: Toward a Comparative Methodology for Music in Media,µ Film Quarterly 57, no. 2 (Winter, 2003-2004). 14 The exception being musical works where extramusical performances are intertwined with music, such as opera and ballet.



piece of music, and composers may begin their studies writing music completely inaccessible to the audience. What must emerge is a sort of silent compromise between artist and consumer which dictates theparameters by which a work of music must be composed. Composers generally understand this as the phrase ´know your audience,µ which would prevent a composer from writing a serial work for an audience generally accustomed to music of the common practice period. The same reasoning applies for excluding Bach·s ´Art of the Fugueµ from a new music concert.15Now the young composer not only has to worry about finding his or her compositional voice but also how to let that voice speak through the silent compromise of audience connection. Unfortunately there is no ´aesthetic integration in composingµ class in the academic composition curriculum.Instead this process occurs gradually. What begins to take place in the field of composing is the circular process of: audience enjoys composer·s music, composer becomes popular, composer is commissioned to write new work, audience enjoys composer·s music, ad infinitum. A study by Karl Weick, David Gilfillan, and Thomas Keith titled ´The Effect of Composer Credibility on Orchestra Performanceµ explores an aspect of that cycle which they call composer credibility. The main result of the study·s findings was that ensembles performed the music of a more credible composer with fewer mistakes than the music of a less credible composer.16Later rehearsals of the music resulted in fewer mistakes, bringing the performance of both the qualified and unqualified composers· pieces to anequal level, but the implications regarding perceived composer credibility are important to the compositional community. If perceived composer credibility affects ensemble performance, then actual composer credibility is of utmost importance.

15 This reasoning falls apart when applied to derivative works, like Wendy Carlos·s Switched-on Bach.I mean, really, that·s just awesome. 16Karl E. Weick, David P. Gilfillan, and Thomas A. Keith, "The Effect of Composer Credibility on Orchestra Performance," Sociometry36, No. 4 (Dec., 1973): 435-462.


Teaching Composition The art of teaching composition is a musically interdisciplinary event. A good composer must be the following: a music theorist, to understand the functionality of harmony, melody, rhythm, counterpoint, and form; a musicologist, to understand the historic use of forms and instrumentation; a performer, to understand the mind of a performer and how best to notate music so that it is clear and easily grasped; and an orchestrator, to understand timbre and instrumental function.17 All of these roles must be balanced to create a well-rounded composer, and learning these roles seems like an insurmountable goal for the beginning composer. Stan Bennett, after interviewing eight professional composers in the 1970s, tried to explain the compositional process.18 In the case of these eight composers, the "mean age when the first composition occurred was 12.1 years, with the range of 4-22 years of age."19Although these composers began composing for a variety of reasons, all agreed that development had occurred in their musical composition.20 A more recent study conducted in 2002 tracked the compositional processes of four high school composers in an attempt to discover the creative process by which music was composed. In this study, none of the four high school students had any previous experience composing art music. The compositional processes graphed by Bennett regarding professional composers21 and by Kennedy regarding high-school composers22 show interesting parallels. Both models23 start with

17 This is a condensed list which does not include the more commercial activities of professional composers such as publishing, promoting, research, keeping up with current technologies, or any of the myriad other activities in which composers take part. 18Stan Bennett, ´The Process of Musical Creation: Interviews with Eight Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1976):3. 19Ibid., 5. 20Ibid.,6. 21Ibid., 7. 22 Mary Kennedy, ´Listening to the Music: Compositional Processes of High School Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 50, no. 2 (Summer, 2002):105. 23 Both models are reproduced in appendix I of this paper.


thinking or a germinal idea,24 which is then developed or refined, which then becomes a completed work.More interesting than the parallels, however, are the differences. Bennett's model is a crisp, concise chart of compositional choices, while Kennedy's model shows a process that branches in multiple ways, showing the high school students· attempts to make sense of their musical landscape. Kennedy also notes high school composers "had a tendency to procrastinate and wait until the last minute to work on their acoustic pieces."25Additionally, although Bennett noted the elaboration and refinement step in his model, Kennedy noted that the students in her study worked without much revision, allowing for little refinement and development. Looking at these two models of the compositional process, the lack of development in Kennedy's model is the largest contrast. As composers mature, it seems, the developmental process becomes a more important part and the entire compositional process becomes streamlined. In addition to mapping the compositional process, Bennett also compiled a list of thoughts the interviewed composers had regarding their formal compositional studies. One phenomenon Bennett observed is that four of the eight composers interviewed were not impressed by their compositional studies and, quite the opposite, were disillusioned by them.26 However, despite this disillusionment, "some indicated that they needed the rigorous background provided by disciplined study."27 This greatly contrasts Kennedy's finding that notes novice composers are prone to become complacent with a work rather than work toward developing an idea.28 One aspect of musical composition not explored by Kennedy is the aspect of inspiration. Bennett offers some basic feelings or states in which composers find themselves. Tranquility,
24 Kennedy's model starts with "listening as preparation" which is considered training in Bennett's schematic and is therefore not shown. It is omitted here for the sake of clarity. 25Mary Kennedy, ´Listening to the Music: Compositional Processes of High School Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 50, no. 2 (Summer, 2002): 100. 26Stan Bennett, ´The Process of Musical Creation: Interviews with Eight Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1976):6. 27 Ibid. 28Mary Kennedy, ´Listening to the Music: Compositional Processes of High School Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 50, no. 2 (Summer, 2002):107.


security, and relaxation all play a major role, but none of these adequately describe the inspirational process as it relates to composition.29Several composers indicate what first pushed them toward becoming a composer, but there is no significant mention of compositional inspiration.30 Developing Aesthetics When asked for whom he wrote, Igor Stravinskyreplied "The Hypothetical Other"31which suggests that Stravinsky had an audience in mind while composing, and the same is likely true for all successful composers. But this outlines a more important question: "What is this piece of music about?" This question has a variety of implications which must be addressed on several levels. If the composition is programmatic music, these choices become slightly easier as the subject matter will likely suggest the artistic path of the composer. Regardless, many decisions must be consciously (or subconsciously) made regarding the content, form, harmony, development, and even ethics32 of a composition. In early works of student composers, these decisions are made subconsciously (if at all,) while advanced students become more concerned with the decisions they are able to make regarding a composition. This active engagement in the compositional process shows an increased level of academic and compositional maturity and is an important step in the creation of aesthetic taste. These decisions, if they are based on good judgment rather than on whim, generally come from a great deal of listening and analysis of earlier works. For reasons such as this, the compositional curriculum is structured with several years of music theory and analysis and several semesters of music history. Unfortunately, on the undergraduate level a study in compositional decision making is not emphasized, as this process is usually reserved for graduate
29Stan Bennett, ´The Process of Musical Creation: Interviews with Eight Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1976):10-11. 30Ibid., 5-6; John Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008), 20 31Milton Babbitt, ´On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer,µPerspectives of New Music27, no. 1 (Winter, 1989):112. 32 This opens a door to a different argument, but Ken Stephenson asserts the acts of "composition, performance, and listening" to be human acts and therefore potentially good or evil. For more information, see Ken Stephenson, ´Reforming Music Theory: God·s Voice and Balaam·s Ass,µ Christian Scholar·s Review 35, no. 2 (2006).


study.Additionally, if compositional study is pursued without a mentor or teacher in composition, these decisions must be made by trial and error. While an effective method of developing aesthetic taste and partially required in conjunction with any other method, trial and error alone is a significantly slower method. Additionally, too many errors produced by this method could have negative effects as discussed earlier by Weick, Gilfillan, and Keith. One problem that has been introduced in recent years is the problem of aesthetics as it involves electronic music and computer-composed music. While the question of taste as it refers to produced sound can be studied, the question remains whether computer-composed scores have aesthetic value despite the lack of human creativity, or if computer-composed scores are simply the result of mathematical calculation. Gottfried Michael Koenig answers this problem by suggesting aesthetic integration in computer-composed music as "the process by which the data of the computer printout are transformed into the 'aesthetic object' we hear as a performed piece of music."33 Conclusion While there is no clearly set way in which a student composer makes the transition aesthetically to a professional composer, there are several ways in which a composition student gains a sense of aesthetic judgment. The first, as noted by Kennedy and Bennett, is the broadening of the aural palette through listening to works by other composers. In many student-teacher situations a great deal of the works studied are works by the teacher, allowing the teacher to impart a sense of musical wisdom to the student. Additionally, many networks of composers have been established during the last century, allowing composers young and old to communicate musical ideas as well as

Gottfried Michael Koenig, ´Aesthetic Integration of Computer-Composed scores,µ Computer Music Journal 7, no. 4 (Winter, 1983): 31.


ideas specific to composition34. A third method by which aesthetic judgment is developed in the young composer is simply through the utilization of trial and error. While this may not be the fastest method of developing musical taste, it is eventually successful. A fourth method is through the conscious decision making explained earlier. However, despite the identification of these methods of assembling aesthetic judgment in music composition, no single method will be entirely effective when used alone. Instead, a combination is recommended to create a fully well-rounded composer, which is largely how the compositional curriculum in American universities today is structured. The American composer Milton Babbitt, writing in 1989, commented on Stravinsky's "hypothetical other," simply stating I--who have been obliged too often to confess that I try to write the music which I would most like to hear, and then am accused of self-indulgence, eliciting the ready admission that there are few whom I would rather indulge,--I am prepared to confess that I, too, have composed for a Hypothetical Other, but--to paraphrase another American thinker--I have met my Hypothetical Other, and he is I.35 Here, Babbitt (in his fifth decade of composition) explains his aesthetic sense as an extension of himself, showing just how closely intertwined a composer's creative judgment should be to the process of composition.

34 The internet has made the creation of these networks much more feasible. A small sampling of these groups are the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; Society of Composers, Incorporated; the American Composers Forum; Broadcast Music International; and the National Association of Composers, USA. 35Milton Babbitt, ´On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer,µPerspectives of New Music27, no. 1 (Winter, 1989):112.


Appendix I: Compositional Process Schematics

Figure 1 From Stan Bennett, ´The Process of Musical Creation: Interviews with Eight Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 24, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 7.


Figure 2 From Mary Kennedy, ´Listening to the Music: Compositional Processes of High School Composers,µ Journal of Research in Music Education 50, no. 2 (Summer, 2002): 105.


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Kuhns, Richard. "Music as a Representational Art" The British Journal of Aesthetics 18, No. 2 (1978): 120-125. Mueller, John H. "The Aesthetic Gap Between Consumer and Composer" Journal of Research in Music Education 15, No. 2 (Summer, 1967): 151-158. Overvold, Lieselotte. ´Wagner·s American Centennial March: Genesis and Receptionµ Monatsheft68, No. 2 (Summer 1976): 179-187 Rahn, John. "Aspects of Musical Explanation" Perspectives of New Music 17, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 1979): 204-224. Rahn, John, ed.Perceptions on Musical Aesthetics. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. Rahn, John. "What Is Valuable in Art, and Can Music Still Achieve It?" Perspectives of New Music 27, No. 2 (Summer, 1989): 6-17. Stephenson, Kenneth."Reforming Music Theory: God's Voice and Balaam's Ass" Christian Scholar's Review 35, No. 2 (2006): 221-236. Tobias, James. "Cinema, Scored:Toward a Comparative Methodology for Music in Media" Film Quarterly 5, No. 2 (Winter, 2003-2004): 26-36. Weick, Karl E., David P. Gilfillan, and Thomas A. Keith. "The Effect of Composer Credibility on Orchestra Performance" Sociometry36, No. 4 (Dec., 1973): 435-462. Wilson, Sarah J. and Roger J. Wales. ´An Exploration of Children·s Musical Compositionsµ Journal of Research in Music Education 43, No. 2 (Summer 1995): 94-111.

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