Sunday, March 26, 2017

A New Music Manifesto: Humanist Music - A declaration of principles

Although I have almost no ability to draw, paint or sculpt, I do appreciate art and often visit art museums with the family.  One of things that I have noticed is that I appreciate a wide variety of art ranging from artistic styles as disparate as classical to the surreal and the many genres in-between.  I am not a fan of the many specific genres of art; I like "good" art and don't appreciate "bad" art.  The specific genre is not that important to me.  (What is "good" art and what is "bad" art?  We'll get to that later...)

No, I am an not a visual artist, but I am (or pretend to be) a musician, or at least I identify as a musician in part, having written two rock operas, and having performed on stage numerous times over the years.  But one thing I have noticed is that while there are numerous art manifestos that attempt to define what art is "supposed" to be, in contrast there are few, if any, music manifestos that attempt to define musical art.  I'm going to rectify that in my own small way.

Humanist Music - A  Declaration of Principles

1) Humanist music is music that is not bounded by any musical condition except for one; it sounds "good."  If you want to make Humanist music, make it sound good.  Music that sounds "bad" is not  Humanist music although it may serve some other purpose.

2) Additionally, Humanist music should not cause harm or lessen the well being of those who hear it or are affected by it.  Optimally, it should increase well being.  Music that serves as a call to an action that would lead to misery or promotes ideas that one could reasonably conclude would lead to misery is most certainly not Humanist music.

Defining what is good and bad in music may seem impossibly subjective.  I certainly cannot offer the exact parameters that can be used to measure definitively whether a given piece of music is good or bad, but it is apparent that there is often wide consensus on what good music is and wide consensus on what is not.  Do not underestimate the collective genius of humanity when it comes to coming to an objective value judgment based on consensus.  I would venture the opinion that it is clear that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is "good" and that "My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas, is "not good".  (To be sure, there are a number of quite good Black Eyed Peas tunes; "My Humps" was not one of them, and they stopped performing it in 2011 because of their own lack of belief in the song.)

Good music stands the test of time; it crosses cultural boundaries and age groups.  It appeals even to those who may not be familiar with that style of music.  The reach and expanse of what I am calling humanist music can be incredibly wide stylistically.  Classical music, raga, reggae, blues, jazz, rap and rock are all eligible.  Does a particular work sound  good; does it harm well being or lift us up?  That is all you need to ask.

That is why India's Ravi Shankar, America's Louis Armstrong, England's Beatles, Europe's Mozart, and Jamaica's Bob Marley, as a handful of examples, can be safely described as "good."  Their appeal goes far beyond any culturalism or parochialism.  Their "goodness" is not simply a "social construct." We have not simply been conditioned to consider their music as "good."  Whether any particular piece of music by any of these artists is "humanist music" would depend on whether any message contained therein was "harmful" or not.  I might add that there is great leeway for a tune that allows for a "questionable" message if the message was appropriate from the point of view of the "character" singing the lyric and that the intent by the artist was to illuminate the listener to a certain point of view.  Sometimes it is good to know about something that is bad; expanding our knowledge of life through art is an important attribute of "'good" art.

It is clear that, by and large, humanity, generally, has an innate sense of what sounds good an what does not and it has decided that "Fur Elise" sounds good, and that fingernails scratching a blackboard sounds not good.  Yes, the culture we live in will greatly affect our musical tastes, no doubt.  That is how "My Humps" actually became popular - for a while.  However, in the long run good music appeals to our innate sense of musical taste just as many foods appeal to us while dog manure generally does not.  The odor of a skunk is not disgusting because of a social construction and the scent of a flower is not pleasant because of a social construction.  To some large degree our tastes in food and odor are innate (even though there is great variation in innate individual tastes.)  Why should our musical tastes be so different?  Why shouldn't there be qualities in music that have wide appeal?

Once again, there is no denying we can be conditioned to some degree and that we are individuals as well; this defines the larger challenge; how do we escape our lifelong social conditioning to break through to a real appreciation of what is good in life and what is not for each of us individually?  I do not offer an answer here, and in fact I acknowledge the difficulty.  But I suspect that appreciating what is good and bad to each of us individually while being mindful of the conditioning we are all subject to would lead to a deeper appreciation of good music, good art and in fact, what is good in life itself and what in life is to be avoided.

Yes, it's hard to be free, and it's hard to truly know yourself - but it's probably worth the effort to be free; you may be happier and society may be healthier.  Humanist Music is a piece of the puzzle of freedom and enjoying life.
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