Degenerate music


Yesterday evening while walking home two young Japanese lads passed me by on bicycles. There was a rhythmic noise coming from either their bikes or some hidden music player. As they rode by I tried to decide whether it was some modern kind of music or just a chain that needed oiling combined with a creaky saddle. In the end I think it was the latter. It occurred to me that you probably wouldn’t mistake a Mozart composition for a creaky saddle and rusty chain.

It isn’t that I’m a music snob. I grew up in the punk era and still like some of it. Just the other day I was listening to Sham 69 and Cockney Rejects. Even so, I don’t think I would ever try to argue that Hurry Up Harry is on a musical par with Beethoven’s Fifth and I don’t think Sham 69 would either.

All this put me in mind of a discussion I had about a year ago with my teaching colleagues in a bar. I said that some music was objectively lousy while they claimed that it’s not possible to say that music is either good or bad. All you can say is whether or not you like it, and that depends on past experiences and what you associate with the music.

I think the other teachers assumed I was just too stupid to grasp that some things don’t lend themselves to objective judgements, like whether vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream. They thought I was confusing my own preferences and dislikes with objectively good and bad. Maybe I was. It’s just that I believe that well-educated, liberal-minded people nowadays are far too ready to see any kind of judgement as a bit Nazi-like.

My point was that beauty is in the brain of the beholder and human brains are quite similar the world over, without being identical. The differences in the wiring of brains are partly biological and partly cultural but sometimes there is enough similarity to say that humans universally seem to prefer one kind of music to another. Though it might not be possible to say that vanilla ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice cream, it might be possible to say that vanilla ice cream tastes better than dog poo. I was trying to make the same kind of argument with music, that is, that it is only a curious convergence of cultural factors – a kind of collective societal madness – that renders awful music attractive to abused ears and brains.

I agree that it’s difficult to make this argument but I wanted to try anyway, partly to generate discussion and partly because I’m just a bit fed up with the automatic response, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

It isn’t that I believe music can be better or worse in some mathematical, scientifically-measurable sense. In that sense nothing is better than anything else since the universe simply doesn’t care about anything. I just mean in the human sense where the arrangement of some sounds is better suited to humans ears and brains across cultures, unless those ears and brains have been perverted in some way. The random banging of a brick on sheet metal, for example, probably could only appeal to someone whose mind has undergone some peculiar influences. And imagining that because there are people out there in the world who disagree about something thereby refutes the idea of a universal good is silly. It simply means that there are some nutters around. After all, the existence of one or two people who want to be eaten doesn’t refute the idea of a universal human desire for self-preservation. It just means you can talk some people into almost anything, if your indoctrinate techniques are good enough.

I think various influences form our musical tastes but this does not mean that we can be trained to like absolutely anything. I think our tastes are constrained by the structure of our brains. Just as there appear to be certain grammatical rules that all languages adhere to, so too are there patterns common to all kinds of music and it is the presence or absence of these patterns that makes music more or less musical. That, at least, was my claim.

One or two of the teachers were of the opinion that any noise a person might like could be described as music. This included the sound of a vacuum cleaner, which reminded one teacher of his childhood. But are individuals really allowed to define the meaning of a word by what it means ‘to them’? If you think the sound of fingernails scraping down a blackboard is good and reminds you of your childhood, is this also music? Language is not a private affair: it has a dictionary definition and that definition is not ‘Whatever sound an individual happens to like’. The definition of ‘music’, though hard to pin down, is not so fluid as to include any sound any individual might like.

Just as folk tales have something archetypal about them and speak to almost everyone, so I believe certain kinds of music are closer to the ‘bull’s eye of music’ than others and for this reason have more universal appeal. This is also appears to be true of classical architecture, which builds structures in proportions loved almost universally. It is also true of food like pizza, curry, hamburgers and chocolate. They have all gone international because they speak to most people’s taste buds, regardless of where those people live or the culture they grew up in. The reason these foods are so popular is easily explained by evolutionary theory. On the other hand, natto (fermented soy beans) has remained stubbornly local to Japan; quite rightly in my opinion, because it’s horrible.

The same is true of art. The Hudson River School of painting is liked all over the world, even by people who have never even seen, much less lived in, a Hudson River-like landscape. Conversely, Dada, Futurism and Expressionism have only minority appeal, something that can also be explained by evolutionary theory, as Denis Dutton does here in a brilliant TED Talk.

So while the Beatles and Beethoven seem to be appreciated even in cultures where the music didn’t originate, Death Metal and Progressive Jazz remain the preserve of the few and are much harder to export.

There are some native African languages which have almost no abstract words and are thus rather impoverished when compared to richer, more complex languages. I think it can be argued that those African languages are not as good as more expressive languages. After all, to express something is what language is for. Equally the idea that all music is equally expressive and thus equally good in its own way is far from obvious to me.

I was a child of the 1960’s and was exposed mainly to British pop of that era. The generation before me generally preferred Jim Reeves and Doris Day, while people born into families with more high brow tastes tended to prefer Jazz and classical music. People born in India may like that odd music they play in Indian restaurants. I have no reason to believe that Indian music is ‘worse’ than western music but the fact that only Indian people tend to like it suggests it is the natto of the music world: unless you grow up with it and are exposed to it early you probably won’t like it. This is the sense in which our taste in music is culturally determined and this was what the other teachers were arguing. Yet that is just half the story and because our tastes are influenced by accidents of birth doesn’t prove that all kinds of music are equally good.

In our discussion I didn’t claim that you can rank different kinds of music against each other; just that some musical tastes border on the degenerate. Preferring Death Metal to the Beatles is like finding a withered old hag more physically attractive than a pretty young woman. The person who does so either has brain damage or his tastes have become so perverted by his society that he can no longer see straight.

In this, my views are similar to those of Hitler when he railed against degenerate art. I see the same degeneracy in Death Metal and Tracey Emin. Of course, there are people who allegedly like weird stuff. This could be either because they genuinely do like it, or because they feel this makes them look unique, sophisticated, interesting or some other good quality. And some people just want to fit in. If the rest of society likes ‘the Birdie Song’, they too will like ‘the Birdie Song’. But others are probably not pretending; they actually do like the weird stuff. I think exposure to a warped kind of culture carves out warped neural pathways in our brains and causes us to like unmusical music. Just as constant exposure to pornography is probably not healthy or normal, so I feel the same about constant exposure to Death Metal.

Of course, some people will ask, ‘Who are you to determine what is warped and what isn’t?’ and no doubt feel they hold the moral high ground and thus win the argument. Yet I have read about people in the world who want to be sexually abused or humiliated. Would the teachers also ask, ‘Who are you to say that people shouldn’t want to be sexually abused and humiliated if they want to be?’

Having said all that I am by no means completely convinced by my own argument. There seems to be such a thing as acquired taste and perhaps the more sophisticated our tastes become, the weirder they appear to ‘healthy’ people whose tastes have not yet moved beyond instantly accessible stuff, like the music we like in childhood. I suppose the ‘weird’ ones might have simply tired of the same old stuff. After all, how long can you keep listening to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star without getting bored? Maybe the ‘degenerates’ simply the clever ones who have graduated to enjoying something a little less safe and predictable than the middle-of-the-road stuff I listen to. I find it hard to say.

A year later

I have just read an article by Ed West, part of which relates, sort of, to what I wrote above. Here is the relevant part:

There are two major reasons that more British cities are not beautiful. Firstly, there are the architects themselves, who tend to prefer innovative buildings over traditional ones. In 1987 a psychologist called David Halpern did a survey of students rating buildings by attractiveness and while almost everyone had similar tastes, uniquely the architecture students rated everyone else’s favourite as their least favourite and vice versa. Curiously the longer someone had been studying architecture the more contrarian their tastes.

This makes sense, in the same way that people who study music their whole lives tend to prefer more idiosyncratic and unpopular artists and styles than what’s played on Capital Gold. But there may be a status aspect too; just as deliberately unpopular modern art is a status signal – because any idiot can like a Rembrandt – so unloved architecture sends a similar message.


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