Monday Musings: Aesthetics And Meanings, Or How To Value Any Sound

Posted on June 20, 2011


The critic feels a bit chilly.

Looking back at the variety of reviews I’ve written in the past few months, variety is the principal thing that strikes me. There are stylistic tendencies, but they have come about through natural enough processes, such as artists who know one another sending me their music to review: as far as my own proclivities are concerned I’m almost freakishly eclectic. This is a tendency I’ve noted in myself for many years, going back to when I was a young punk rocker who also enjoyed listening to the George Benson records I’d inherited from my dad, and it’s become more and more pronounced with time.

Basically, I just like music. All of it. I believe that there are good and bad practitioners within every style and tradition, and that’s where I’m inclined to make value judgements, but the question of whether or not a particular genre sounds good to me, is coterminous with another question: do I understand it? If I hear a new sound and I don’t like it, I want to know why, and by the time I’ve found out, I don’t dislike it any more.

This is all very well when the only obstacle to engagement with a new sound is familiarity, but certain sounds carry a very strong negative aesthetic value for some people, and when a style of music deliberately foregrounds those harmonies and timbres (which is frequently done precisely to exploit their negative associations) what are we to make of it? Some of you don’t like brutally abrasive smashing sounds, and you never will; other people are willing to listen to noisy music, but only under specific circumstances.

I find it hard to make an argument for people to accept aggressive or dissonant music into their homes and ears if they are disinclined to do so: many, probably most people, engage with music on primarily aesthetic terms, and as such they expect their music to be ‘ear-pleasing’. I’m about to make an argument for accepting ostensibly un-aesthetic sounds as artistically meaningful, but first I want to explore the way that certain sounds are acceptable to certain people, but not to others.

Heavy metal, for example, involves harsh, distorted sounds, intended to be heard at a high volume, and it has millions upon millions of ardent fans. Many people who may well like certain kinds of rock music, however, find it utterly intolerable, a noise too violent to be meaningful. So just why do many people love this sound, so commercially successful that it has to be considered mainstream? Fans of metal value its heaviness, its power, its impact, and its aggression. I would guess that part of its initial appeal was that it was obnoxious, and unacceptable to commonplace tastes. Its ugly surface was inherently subversive, and flipped the bird at a society that marginalised its predominantly young, working class adherents. Now of course it is a commonplace sound, and listeners come to its aesthetic as an established set of stylistic conventions, but still many sets of ears find it impossible to buy into anything so abrasive.

Metal is far from the most violently unappealing style of music: many forms of rock and electronica go out of their way to avoid any conventional aesthetic value. Still other approaches to music making introduce conventionally unmusical sounds: the sounds produced by objects other than musical instruments, or found sounds and field recordings. For many people these sounds will have less inherent ugliness than clearly musical sounds do when they fail to conform to their aesthetic expectations. Think, for example, of the appeal a powerful sports car’s engine note may have for someone who only listens to acoustic jazz.

I can’t really begin to get into a detailed exploration of the idea of the aesthetic, but I need to relate it to the idea of musical meaning. In other fields, literature for instance, there may be an obvious distinction between the element of meaning, what the words stand for, and the aesthetic, how well crafted, or how beautiful they are. In music, leaving aside any lyrical meanings, the meaning of the sound is in the experience of listening to it, which can clearly not be easily separated from the aesthetic element.

It’s really in the field of sound art, which may or may not be music, that the relationship between meaning and aesthetics is most strikingly explored. Here listeners are given a familiar context, and familiar sounds, but the context is that of aesthetic evaluation, where the sounds may well be those of everyday life. They are given sounds that may be more or less commonplace, but that are rarely accorded any aesthetic value, and invited to interpret them as meaningful in the same way as music. Paradoxically, this may be easier for some people to accept than some forms of relatively conventional music: for instance, the sound of a stream flowing will be far more appealing to many listeners than the sound of hardcore punk.

The real point of this though, is that the listener is invited to listen to the sound as given, rather than through the prism of their expectations. When you listen to an audio montage of a street scene, there is no sense that it should sound like something in particular: if a loud or abrasive sound suddenly cuts across the soundscape, if it comes from a contextually intelligible source (such as a bus’ brakes squealing), then it will sound quite acceptable and inoffensive. The sense that the sound is meaningful robs it of its power to be aesthetically transgressive.

The reason, I think, that I find it possible to listen to music in any style whatsoever, is that I assume the sound is meaningful, and set out to find that meaning. I refuse to turn away from a sound (unless it’s physically painful, in which case I may listen from a distance). You may be turned off by hip-hop, and find the surface meanings of its lyrics offensive: but looking beyond and through its generic conventions there is a similar set of musical and aesthetic meanings to be found as in any other musical discourse. The same goes for blues rock, jazz fusion, drone, power electronics, pop-punk and 8-bit.

I would argue that it is worth attempting to open your ears, and listen for the meanings in ‘difficult’ music, whatever music it may be that is difficult for you. It has to be remembered that music is unique among the expressive arts in its capacity to evoke a feeling, and to set the agenda in a situation. A picture can’t force you to look at it, and if a book is doing your head in you can stop reading it: but music will make you smell the place you were in when you last heard it.

For this reason it is difficult to fight against it when it offers a potentially painful experience, and I would not wish to suggest we should attempt to disarm music by ‘reading’ it rather than ‘feeling’ it. But I think it offers profound aesthetic and intellectual rewards to find a way into its sounds, especially when they seem unappealing at first contact: if you can switch off your sense of what music should sound like, and listen to it as an environmental sound instead, it becomes easier to hear what it does sound like. Once you’ve made the effort to understand a form of music, then you may be in a position to subject it to a value judgement.