On Ranking Music

Rob and Alice sit at a café, in a trendy section of downtown Ottawa, enjoying biscotti with their coffee.

Rob: After we finish having our coffee did you want to go to “Make Mine Vinyl” and pick up some records?

Alice: I would be down with that, but I don’t know if I will get anything while we are there.

Rob: Why is that? There are always interesting records to check out. If you don’t have money on you, I can front for you.

Alice: No. That is not necessary. The issue is not that I don’t have money on me, or even that I don’t want to buy a new record. I just find myself overwhelmed by the amount of music I already have; I can’t find the time to truly listen to all of it.

Rob: I guess that makes sense. I have run into this problem myself in the past, but I have a found a way to deal with it.

Alice: How do you deal with it?

Rob: I make sure to set aside a certain amount of time per week to listen to new records, and rate them on Rate Your Music. This way I don’t get behind schedule and find myself in a situation where I have not heard all of the new releases that I want to listen to.

Alice: You rate the records right after listening to them? How many times do you listen to them before you put in your rating?

Rob: I usually listen to them once or twice before ranking them to be fair, and I typically put in the ranking right after I complete my listening. It is kind of part of the process.

Alice: That seems like an efficient approach. How many records have you ranked since starting this?

Rob: I have 1500 records logged on Rate Your Music. How many do you have?

Alice: I don’t use Rate Your Music, but I keep track of my thoughts on each record and have ranked about 300 or so.

Rob: Only 300 or so? I know you have listened to far more than 300 records. Why have you only ranked 300 or so? Do you feel like you have no time for that as well?

Alice: To some degree I feel like I don’t have time, but I also struggle with ranking every record that I have listened to. It feels somehow artificial to put in a ranking for a record just because I have listened to it a couple of times.

Rob: I don’t understand. What feels artificial about it? If you have listened to the record you would most certainly have a judgment on it. Wouldn’t you?

Alice: If am going to rank a record I want to make sure I really understand it, and have given it the opportunity to present itself to me. This will sometimes happen after the first listen, but in other cases the record will seem opaque and I feel I have not really understood what this record is. In these cases, I could just ascribe a ranking to it based on some arbitrary criteria, but that would seem to devalue the record. If I am going to make a pronouncement on a record I want to feel as though I have really figured it out.

Rob: That is interesting, but isn’t any form of ranking of records just selecting a numeric value for the record based on some arbitrary criteria? Some people might attribute more of their rating to their sheer enjoyment of the record, while others might look at originality, musical innovation, lyrical profundity or cohesiveness in order to make their ranking. But in the end, isn’t all of it arbitrary?

Alice: You’re right that people typically rank records in this fashion, but isn’t there something troubling about this? If we rank records just because we can pronounce judgment on them, doesn’t this mean we are ranking records for the sake of ranking records?

Rob: I don’t think so. What do you mean by ranking records for their own sake?

Alice: I mean isn’t music supposed to be something that speaks to us? If our main goal in listening to records is to rank them then aren’t we treating records as objects to be organized into a hierarchy, rather than looking at them and trying to grasp if and how they speak to us? Are records a plaything for our creative amusement in organization and categorization? Or are they unique pieces that call out to be fully grasped and understood?

Rob: I don’t see why records can’t be both. When I sit down to listen to a record and rank it, I do so with an open mind.

Alice: It may be true that you so do with an open mind, but if you are using the method you described earlier and ranking a record after one or two listens what happens when a record does not speak to you after those one or two listens?

Rob: It means that the record deserves a low or mediocre ranking. My view could change if I listen to it again and realize that the record does something well that I had not noticed during my initial listens.

Alice: But how often do you go back to listen to records that did not speak to you upon the initial ranking? If you have to keep up with listening and ranking a bunch of new records where do you find the time?

Rob: It is hard to find time, but I think it is very unlikely that a record would not speak to me on my first couple listens and then somehow speak to me later, so I tend not to go back and listen to them. But I am comfortable with that.

I think the issue is that you don’t like the idea of ranking all of your records because then it might leave you open to ridicule for your rankings and you would have to commit to your rankings.

Alice: Or maybe I am interested in grasping and understanding records, rather than viewing the fact that I listen to them as a badge of my status as a music scholar?

You recognize that you do not go back to records if they do not grab you after one or two listens. Isn’t this precisely viewing music as something not to be grasped and understood, but just to be ranked, organized into a hierarchy and thrown away?

Rob: I am not like that at all! Just because I rank every album I listen to and post it to a website does not mean that I am doing so for the sake of establishing some kind of status as a musical authority, or that I don’t try grasp the record. I just happen to really like to rank records and it is good way to keep occupied when I am not at work, or with friends.

Alice: You know yourself better than me, but I still think my general point holds and that there may be better ways to keep occupied than keeping up with, and ranking, new releases.

The Intergalactic Chronicles of Kesarp

Dear Pisely,

I have been travelling around the universe for far too long. As a result I feel compelled to reach out to you even if it is only to share some of the findings from my missions.

My last mission was to explore the city on Earth called “Toronto.” It was quite a voyage from the other side of the Milky Way, but it was certainly worth it to observe the forms of life that inhabit this city. The squirrels, coyotes and rabbits were all interesting, but the most interesting creatures that I witnessed were those who had built Toronto, and other cities on Earth, the humans.

Unlike other creatures their bodies were soft and fleshy, and did not seem to be suited to survival, but these creatures had clearly figured out a way to maintain their dominance over the seemingly more formidable forces of nature that inhabit the Earth. It is not of interest to me how they came to achieve their dominance, but one thing that does deeply interest me is the relationship humans have to machines.

Within Toronto many human beings packed themselves into capsules that transport them from one end of the city to the other, but generally the human does not see the presence of others within these capsules as an opportunity for interaction with those others. They merely pass each other in silence, avoid eye contact and seem to see the corporeal presence of other humans as a physical obstacle that they must get around. Once in a while one of them will move their flappy food holes and say something in the presence of others, but this is not the norm. It is hard to say whether they are at ease with the presence of others, or too afraid to interact with others when they are on these capsules.

However, one object that did solicit a vast amount of attention from humans when they gathered on these high-speed capsules were little rectangular boxes that humans carry presumably to contact one another, and access information. These boxes appear to be the center of each human’s world when they are in those high speed cramped capsules areas. At regular periodic intervals they will check the box like an attentive mother hen watching over her chicks. It is as if something disastrous will happen if they do not interact with their box. Also, their boxes seem to deeply impact the emotions that the human experiences. Their box will burble or make another odd sound, and they will peer at it, and giggle, smile, frown or cry. The only explanation I can see for the deep attachment that humans have to their boxes is that the box constitutes one of the most significant elements of their lives, as they seem to be far more affected by it, then by the presence of others right in front of them.

Perhaps humans have an internal adaptive function that allows them to be unaffected by the presence of other human beings in crowded spaces in order to better pursue their peculiar goals. But this is only conjecture, and I have no way to prove it, as we are banned by the bureaucrats on Lixillika from dissecting any creature on another planet, no matter how fascinating, and must make due with scanning through anal probing which only gives us modest information. Sometimes I wonder if these bureaucrats fail to understand what would be gained if researchers like us had greater authority. Surely, if we were able to dissect humans then we would uncover the secrets that lie behind the human’s relationship to the box.

But to return to the topic at hand, one other peculiar thing about these boxes that I just must share with you is that these boxes seem to be indispensable, and yet utterly replaceable. There are piles of them throughout cities, and if a human finds himself without one he does not grieve, as he would the loss of a child, but nonetheless he must necessarily get a new box as soon as possible. How can something be so fundamental to a life, but yet be so replaceable? I still feel like I am missing something in understanding the human’s relation to these boxes, but one thing I am certain of, Pisely, is that fully understanding these boxes is necessary to fully understanding these strange creatures.

I hope you are well, and the desk work you are engaged in is not too repetitive for a seasoned field researcher like you.

I hope to see you soon.

Yours truly,

Kesarp

Is solitude compatible with the best kind of life?

The question of what is the best kind of life for man has been answered in a large variety of ways, but one particularly dominant issue that this question raises, is whether the best life requires substantial relationships with other beings, or whether the best life can be lived in solitude. I want to illuminate two different ways of thinking about whether the best life requires relationships with others or whether the best life is a solitary one, and suggest a solution to this problem that seems to me to fit with our intuitions.

One of the clearest statements of why the best life requires particular kinds of relationships with others can be gleaned from the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes in The Symposium. I specify that these are the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes as The Symposium is a dialogue written by Plato, and consequently we cannot be sure whether it represents the authentic voice of Aristophanes himself. For the sake of this entry I will refer to Plato’s Aristophanes as Plaristophanes. In The Symposium, each guest of a drinking party is to give a speech in praise of Love (Eros).  When it comes to Plaristophanes turn to give a speech he says that Love “is the helper and the doctor of those sicknesses whose cure constitutes the greatest happiness for the human race.” Furthermore, to explain why Love is so important to human happiness Plaristophanes provides an origin story about the nature of humanity, which states that originally humans had four legs, four arms, two sets of genitals, and two heads. Similarly, there were three genders: one that had two sets of male genitals, one with two sets of female genitals, and one with one set of female and one set of male genitals. These beings were much more powerful than humans are today, and made an attack on the gods, and as punishment Zeus, with the assistance of Apollo, cut the beings in two so that they take on the shape that they have today. Plaristophanes then notes that Love is the longing of each for his or her other half. Specifically, he says “each of us is a matching half of a human being because we’ve been cut in half like flatfish, making two out of one, and each of us is looking for his own matching half.” Consequently, for Plaristophanes, Love is the name of the desire we have to pursue wholeness by finding the half from which we have been cut off.

Plaristophanes’s speech, while humorous and absurd, expresses a reading of the human spiritual predicament in which humans as we exist now are incapable of living the best life in solitude, as we are incomplete halves of a wider whole. If we are only part of a whole, how could we live a fully developed life without our other half? So, if we tend to agree with Plaristophanes that we are not whole, but rather parts of a whole, it seems that the best life would necessarily require a relationship with our other half. On this view humans cannot be complete in solitude; the solitary sage or philosopher lives a radically impoverished life because he is not able to try to approach his completion through a relationship with another. Furthermore, this viewpoint is very appealing to members of modern postindustrial societies as we tend to see the pursuit of romantic love and the finding of a “soulmate” as essential to the best kind of life. Likewise, we typically feel that something has gone wrong in someone’s life if they have not been able to find their soulmate, or at the very least develop substantial friendships.

On the other hand we have the viewpoint that is expressed in Plato, but is also present in other philosophers, that the best kind of life is one spent in contemplation of the forms (the fundamental constituents of reality.) On this reading of our existential predicament while human beings do require a particular form of activity to live the best life, this form of activity does not necessarily require others.  On this view humans are being who fundamentally reach out to know, and thus the best life for us is one that fully allows us to reach that end, and it is only a life of contemplation that fully devotes us to understanding the whole and our place in it. While initially we may find this attitude hard to understand. It seems to me this viewpoint is very powerful for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the good of contemplation is not vulnerable to circumstance; no matter what happens in my life as long as I am alive, I can still try to comprehend the fundamental constituents of reality. Presumably, even if I become a slave I can still contemplate, whereas the forming of relationships is much more vulnerable to circumstance. If the best life requires grounded, developed relationships, than the best kind of life requires me to be fortunate and meet people who I can form these kinds of relationships with and there is no guarantee that this will happen, thus if the best life involves relationships necessarily many will be barred from living the best life by virtue of misfortune. Similarly, one other reason why I find this Platonic viewpoint powerful is that one fundamental constituent of humanity is the desire to understand our place within the universe, and the Platonic view about the best kind of life takes the aforementioned desire very seriously, rather than viewing it as something that is good, but perhaps not necessary to the best kind of life.

I want to suggest a solution to the question of whether the best kind of life can be lived in solitude that argues that the best life will involve relationships, but also that these relationships are not the only source of value in that life. The view that the best life requires significant relationships with others seems correct in one sense, for I cannot think of someone living a complete life without friendship. Part of what makes Socrates’ life such a model is that he did have friendships, and did not simply live a quiet life devoid of friendship to pursue contemplation. However, the reason why the best life requires friendships of some kind is not because friendships or relationships are more important than activities like contemplation that can be pursued in solitude, but rather because relationships with others can enhance many goods that we can pursue in solitude. For example, if I am interested in pursuing the good of understanding the universe, my efforts are enhanced by conversations with others, as they may assist me in trying to come up with solutions to problems with my current understanding. Likewise,  if I am drawn to the value of the appreciation of music or art, this is enhanced again by conversing with friends about what we enjoy and why enjoy it, as we may have our eyes opened to other artists, or return to a work of art that we have dismissed, but which might be quite valuable if appropriately appreciated.

In this sense sharing in a good with others seems to enhance that good. I don’t mean to completely reduce the value of relationships to an instrumental one in which their value simply lies in enhancing other goods. Relationships do have an intrinsic value, but the reason why they are so vital to our lives is because they not only provide a unique value to our lives, they also enhance other activities that we engage in. On the other hand, a life that was filled with relationships, but relationships that failed to enhance particular goods would hardly be eligible to be considered to be the best kind of life. Furthermore, a solitary life might be preferable to one that involved the aforementioned kinds of relationships with others.  In this sense, I would affirm that relationships are essential to the best kind of life, but these relationships must enhance important goods, rather than detract from them.

One other element of the best kind of life is that relationships themselves cannot be the only source of value in that life. While relationships are deeply important and can be valued on their own account, if the only value in one’s life is relationships with others, than one is leading a deeply impoverished life, as there are a whole host of goods that are separable from relationships, that one is missing out upon. This is not to say that one has some obligation to pursue all goods, but rather to say that focus on one good at the expense of others tends to lead to an impoverishment, as differing good realize different fundamental human capacities that ought to be valued on their own account. This is also simply the other side of my previous comment that relationships are a necessary part of the best life because they enhance other goods, but if the only good in one’s life is relationships with others, than one’s relationships, are by definition, failing to meet the standard of the best kind of life, because they are not enhancing other goods.

It will be noted that I did not directly respond to the questions of whether contemplation is a necessary part of the best life? And whether we are irreducibly incomplete parts of a whole? I lean towards an affirmative answer to the former question although I will leave answering that question to another entry. With regard to the latter question while I find the views of Plaristophanes fascinating, I tend to disagree with them, although it would take an entry far longer than this one to explain all of the reasons why. I will just say that I tend to see things in more Platonic terms, rather than Plaristophanic terms, and because of that I tend to see our most full realization as in principle separable from a specific relation with another.

Works Cited

 Plato. The Symposium. Trans. Christopher Gill. Toronto: Penguin, 1999. Print.

How can we understand music? What role should it play in our lives?

For many in postindustrial societies the enjoyment of music is a central element of a well-lived life. We speak of music in different ways. In one moment we see it as a release. In another, we see it as a pleasure. In another we see it as something to be understood. It is to the issue of understanding music that I wish to turn. Furthermore, I would like to examine music without lyrical content and ask if there is any meaningful sense in which such pieces of music can be grasped or understood. It may seem obvious that music can be understood, but on further thought understanding music gives rise to difficulties that do not arise in other forms of art such as painting or poetry. Music, on its own, is divorced from the medium of language, and because thought requires language it becomes difficult to think of how a sequence of melodies or harmonies can have any inherent linguistic meaning. Furthermore, unlike painting, music is divorced from visual representation, and while visual representation itself may not have any inherent relation to language, the visual representation of object seems to more easily align itself to linguistic meaning than sound. For example, if I see a picture of a person sitting in a chair with their dog, I automatically think that at least at a superficial level, the painting is about the pleasant relation of people to their pets, and perhaps this meaning relates to the human desire for domestic comfort. However, when I listen to “Claire de Lune” by Debussy I can only sense sadness, beauty, and fragility, but these terms themselves seem to conflict so what is the overall meaning of the piece? Is there an overall meaning of the piece? If the piece has no meaning, what does it mean to have an understanding of the piece? In this entry, I will try to reveal what it means to understand a piece of music.

When I listen to a piece of music in order to get an understanding of it, of any kind, I have to clear my mind of other thoughts. If I am occupied with thoughts, even thoughts about the music, I will hear the sound, but I will not be aware of it and how it fits into the whole. This means that to understand a piece of music I cannot analyse it as I am listening to it; I must fully engage myself with the music.

While I must fully engage myself with the music to get any understanding of its meaning, there is a danger in engaging in a way in which the self is utterly lost in the experience. This occurs when we listen to a piece of music and after the piece is over we have a very incomplete sense of all of the parts of the piece, but nonetheless we have found the piece enthralling or beautiful. This may be an extraordinarily pleasant experience, but it does not allow us to understand the music, as the subject is not fully consciously aware of the musical piece as a whole.

After listening to a piece of music and avoiding the dangers that were mentioned above we may get a vague sense of the meaning of the music. We might say that the piece is melancholic, dark and there is a sense of grief in the music, but it is difficult to see how we might be able to penetrate to a more articulate core of the meaning of the music. Consequently, it seems that the meaning of a piece of non-lyrical music at most can be disclosed to the listener in general terms that do not pertain to a particular problem or issue like the angst we experience regarding the inevitability of death. Further, while a musical piece may become associated with this particular meaning in a listener, there is nothing in the musical experience that renders this particular meaning as the only legitimate meaning of the piece. For another the piece may disclose the meaning of the grieving process.

As a result of the preceding the meaning of piece of music can only be articulated in general adjectives, rather than as something that discloses a particular issue, or a particular problem. We can understand the specific meaning the piece of music has to a particular subject, whether the subject is the composer or a listener, but if divorced from its relation to any particular subject, the meaning of the piece of music is only describable in terms of basic adjectives. In this sense, music does not disclose any particular thought, although it may bring to consciousness the particular concerns of the listener.

At this point, someone may be asking why this is an important topic at all? The reason this is an important topic is that many people see music as essential to their lives, and because of this we need to understand what these people are devoting their time to.

It seems to me there are three ways of listening to music. We can listen to understand the music. We can listen and lose ourselves in the music. Or we can listen to music while analysing it. The first option allows us to understand the meaning of a piece of music, and may encourage reflection upon our own lives as we relate the feelings that a piece of music evokes in us with particular experiences or issues. The second option provides us with a pleasant experience. The third option fails to disclose the meaning of music, but exercises our capacity for analysis.

When I reflect upon how I ordinarily listen to music I realize I tend to listen through the second method, or the first. I think most others will have similar tendencies, and if this is the case we have to question how much time we spend listening to music through the second method, because while pleasure has value, the pleasurable experience of losing oneself in a piece of music, does not create lasting fulfillment or enable us to live worthwhile lives. The visceral experience of the second method is like eating chocolate; it is an immediately pleasurable experience, but not one that would realize any substantial good in one’s life. So, we need to be sure not to build our lives upon listening to music through the second method.