Ugliness in Music

Posted: November 10, 2014 in Classical Music, Culture, Environment, Media, Music, Technophilia

While I’m on the subject of music, here is an interesting passage by Nietzsche, quoted in The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. I’m rereading the final two chapters in preparation for a series of blog posts.

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics in McGilchrist]

This passage comes from Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (German: Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister), published in 1878. Hindsight makes this passage especially prophetic. McGilchrist discusses how universal elements of music (e.g., melody, harmony, and tonality) have been systematically undercut and reduced to either their essences or to nonexistence. Consonance and dissonance no longer function as aesthetic anchors. This is especially true in art music, but it’s also visible in popular musics that have captured the hearts and minds of the masses; and nowhere is it more evident than in rap music, which strips away everything but the rhythm and relies on text for explicit meaning.

What all this means is found in the italics above: the symbolic replaces that which exists. We are in the process of replacing actuality (or reality) with our mental images of it, which I call living in our heads. Some readers might recognize the issue more readily from discussions of the map and territory. As just one simple example, I happened to catch part of an episode of The Voice, described by Wikipedia as “an American reality television singing competition.” (I saw picture and captioning only, no sound.) Significantly, use of the word reality is understood by audiences as a TV genre, certainly not as, well, reality. I noticed that contestants (competitors? singers?) had their ears plugged with playback devices, which is what I had criticized in my previous post. Not only was there no natural, unmediated sound reaching their ears, the experience of singing with one’s ears plugged is also altered fundamentally. Singing is no longer what it is.

Update: I can’t resist adding this further example.

  1. motorola says:

    Now that that’s out of the way, there is a musical style, the term for which I don’t know, whereby singers imitate musical instruments. It could be said that the young man is performing vocal percussion, and what he’s doing takes a fair amount of skill. A criticism similar to yours was once leveled against scat singing, which also has a strongly percussive element. I have to admit, though, I lost it when he started to squeal.

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