Column: Objectivity vs. subjectivity in music
Using subjectivity in music analysis tends to trivialize it.
Feb. 24, 2014
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Music is not subjective.
That phrase, those four words, have caused me so much trouble over the course of my music analysis conversations. For making this claim, I’ve been called a hater, an idiot and even a hatemonger. But before you begin throwing insults too, let me explain.
I like to think of music as the great divider. Because of its vast amount and variety, it splits peoples’ opinions more than any other form of art or media.
I love bands that you hate, you love bands that I hate, and that’s a beautiful thing. No one’s musical taste fully aligns with anyone else’s. As much as we argue over music, we realize that taste is subjective, and we can all live with the understanding that we all enjoy different artists.
However, taste is different than music itself. In taste, there is no right or wrong because it’s about what you enjoy, and no one can change that.
But it doesn’t change the fact that you might enjoy terrible, objectively bad music.
Like other art, we need to have a basis for judgement. For music specifically, there are an enormous amount of factors that can go into whether a piece is good or bad. Complexity. Sound quality. Artistry. Lyricism. Depth. Rhythm. Album cohesiveness. Originality. I could fill this whole column with buzzwords used to judge music because judging music takes more than listening to how ‘good’ it sounds.
Despite the huge number of categories, some musical acts still lack in every single aspect of good music. They provide absolutely zero critical appeal in comparison to other music. Therefore, these bands are objectively bad.
This claim doesn’t come from a subjective, opinion-filled standpoint. We can take a purely objective approach when deciding whether music is truly good or bad with a completely non-biased perspective. However, objectivity is no longer the norm for judging music.
As post-modernist perspective seeped into our mindset these past couple decades, we judge everything based on how it makes us feel personally. Your good can be somebody else’s bad, and that’s OK when referring to musical taste. But it’s not a logical approach when judging a piece of music in itself.
Many argue that taking an objectivist approach to any form of art is futile. They say art, in its purest form, is meant to be subjective. But doesn’t that mindset tend to trivialize art? Art holds such a high place in our culture, and if the only way for it to be good is for us hold the opinion that it’s good, then we need to redefine everything.
Using subjective logic, the picture of a pig I drew in my sociology notebook could be considered greater than anything Van Gogh or Monet ever created. “Dad Culture,” the band my friends and I started in high school, could top anything Arcade Fire is trying to do, as long as I believe so.
To stop this illogical and blasphemous way of thought, we have to bring objective judgement to art. Our society is universally OK with throwing a terrible rating at Adam Sandler’s 2011 disaster “Jack and Jill,” right? And isn’t pretty much everyone (besides my mom) OK with calling my second grade finger paint project unimpressive? Then it’s time to bring the same judgements of “objectively good” and “objectively bad” to music as well.