Aesthetic Education; Foundational Perception

July 11th, 2010

Education – the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.

Art – the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

Aesthetics – the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts, with a view to establishing the meaning and validity of critical judgments concerning works of art, and the principles underlying or justifying such judgments.

(Definitions taken from dictionary.com)

It is difficult to assess value to something that doesn’t seem to have practical value in everyday life.  However, when an object or activity is held dearly by those closest to us, we have no choice but to either accept or seek to understand its value.  Many times we simply choose to accept that someone values something apparently useless, but when cost or time become an issue, practical value must be evaluated.  If it can be spared for the sake of continuing the livelihood of an individual or an organization, then it is eliminated.  But one must be very careful since some very important things have no obvious value.

In our educational institutions, music is one of those very expensive things with little obvious value.  It’s a good thing to have around, but if it gets in the way of physical discipline, academic achievement, or recreational activities, it is dropped. The question that we must ask is, “How much value is there in art education, and does this value justify the neglect of funding sports, clubs, advanced sciences, or field trips?”

In order to begin to address this issue, I must pause to clarify the difference between art education and aesthetic education.  It is the same difference as between the light bulb and our vision; construction and use.  Art education teaches how to create a subject that can communicate to another person.  Aesthetic is the cumulative effect on a person’s perception that is generated from every component of the art.  Aesthetic education is the most important part of the arts because it is the part that carries over into all other facets of life since it teaches us how to observe and make new connections.

Creating art requires enormous amounts of time, effort, and–in the case of music–money.  Art education can therefore seem like an expensive waste of time and effort since it has little obvious practical value.  But many people love it dearly and they convince the people who don’t understand it to not let it die.  But what happens when funding is not available? What happens when a person’s time is limited?  Do we let it slip from the educational experience?  If given a choice between science and music, what would we choose?  Why are most of you jumping to the obvious choice?  I suppose it is true that understanding the physical world is more important than putting on a Christmas concert isn’t it…

Can’t a compromise be reached?  What about art appreciation classes that don’t require that expensive and time consuming creative act?  Can we teach aesthetics without teaching art?  The problem is that students must create art in order to learn how to observe it because the most basic way of learning how to observe anything is to create it.  Taste is enhanced by cooking, watching sports by playing them, shuttle launches by playing with tube rockets.  Observation is always more effective when you know a little about how it’s done.  Therefore it is safe to conclude that the most effective form of aesthetic education is art education.  It is ineffective to sit through a lecture about how to observe art when we have not produced it.  Just as you can’t teach students to read without ever teaching them to write, so you can’t teach students to observe without teaching them to create.  So then, the first step in aesthetic education is art education.

Why is education important?  In high school, I supposed that it was because I needed to know about the Korean war and how to solve a quadratic equation.  But I have since forgotten most of the details of both and have still been able to get jobs and continue on to graduate studies.  Obviously that information has not been necessary for my contribution to society. Education is apparently not for filling our heads with facts that we will use throughout out lives, but rather to expose us to large concepts and realities that will help us to continue learning throughout our lives.

Now, why is aesthetic education important?  Education is learning to learn, but we learn details we won’t remember simply because the only way to become an efficient learner is to practice learning various subjects.  But how does one begin to practice learning when they haven’t leaned how to engage their minds in something that isn’t tangible until the mind brings it into the learner’s imagination?  What is art education?  Is it not making something intangible a reality?  Is art not therefore in the center of learning to learn?  Is not art/aesthetic education leaning to observe?  Learning takes place through observing, so if we never learn to observe we can never learn.   Art education teaches to observe.  Art education is education.

For imaginative and intuitive students, aesthetic education is the key to a lifetime of learning.  Omit this, and you not only omit a major purpose of the educational institutions, but you omit a vital part of many student’s education (maybe for all students). So then, science or art?  Simply, yes.


The Definition of Intention

May 18th, 2009

We have established that the decision of what we listen to should not only be based on what we enjoy listening to, but also how intentional the music is.  While we may agree on this, what is still unclear is what exactly intention is and how to find it.  As always, when we are looking for a clear definition of a word it is always a good idea to start with a good dictionary definition whether you think you know what the word means or not.  (Taken from dictionary.com): Intention – “An act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result.”  Let us first focus on the words “determining mentally”.

Music is clearly a sort of presentation that is meant to be perceived by an audience.  Therefore, determining an action mentally is only part of the process since a musician must also accurately execute his intention in his selected medium.  The composer must correctly transcribe the sound in mind, the performer must place his events in exactly the place desired, etc.  So it seems then that proficiency and intention are separate.  However, since music is a presentation, intention and accurate execution are perceived as a unit.  When an unintended result comes out of good intention the result is perceived all the same; all that results is less intention.  So when mental determination is used in the context of music, we cannot say that the resulting action was intentional unless the action matches the intention.  Thus, we may as well include the resulting action in our definition of intention:

Musical intention – an act or instance of determining mentally a musical event which is supported by a result that reflects the predetermination.

Now we are left with a more difficult and more controversial question.  I will be as unbiased as possible, however some categories of music are going to be subject to harsh criticism when these ideas are applied.  The question is “How do we find intention?”  A more blunt way of putting this is “How do we determine the quality of our music?” 

An intention has to have reason behind it, because without reason intention itself has no intention.  The stronger reason the intention has, the better the intention will be.  If an entire work is written purely without reason, the intention will be considerably low.  Conversely, a work of high intention will have a wealth of reasoning for each musical event that is placed.  A trained composer will give extensive reasoning that proves intention in orchestration based on physics, melodies and harmonies based on theory, rhythm based on human nature, and aesthetic based on science, philosophy, and/or theology.  Trained performers, sound engineers, synthesizer programers, and many other types of musicians also will give the reasoning behind their desicions.  Unless there is a possibility of giving reasoning for every decision made, the musical work lacks intention.

Some may object to this statement because many outstanding musical decisions are made every day without conscious premeditation.  But this subconscious ability does not develop without an extraordinary amount of study and training.  The ability to make good subconscious decisions is only in musicians who are also able to make guided conscious decisions about everything that they do as well.  The best musicians have the ability to analyze their intuitive decisions and give them analytical reasoning, resulting in even seemingly unexplainable intention being explained.

All that now remains to be addressed is whether or not simplicity is a way to work around intention.  Obviously when something is simple it takes less intention to raise its quality to an acceptable level.  But when you have less intention, you have less reasoning.  Less reasoning means you have less to say and should take as little time to say it as possible.  (But now that I’ve attacked something, let me articulate what I am not attacking:  Simple does not necessarily mean less musical events, but rather less complexity.  For example, performing a string quartet with synthesizers reduces the work’s complexity simply because the string family’s sound is much richer than a synthesizer’s.  The music is now simpler.  So by simple music I mean music that lacks complexity in the elements of rhythm, harmony/melody, orchestration/timbre, or aesthetic.  I will expand on this in future posts.)

Quality comes from intention, intention from reasoning, and reasoning from training and study.  If a work is not capable of being defended by reason, the work is poor.  I mentioned four things that a composer must defend in order to argue a work’s quality:  Orchestration, melody/harmony, rhythm, and aesthetic.  These elements make the foundation of determining the quality of music.


The Definition of Music

April 28th, 2009

There are many words that we use on a daily basis that we all think we know the meaning of, but then when we’re asked to define it we don’t know where to start.  For instance, to define wisdom the average person would have a difficult time finding the words to describe it.  The same goes for many virtues and arguably intangible things in general:  Truth, hope, love, joy, emotion, justice…some may say that they have good definitions for all of these words and spout off a stream of examples that are supposed to lead us in the right direction.  But an example of something does not really tell us what something is.  When you give an example rather than a definition, you’re not answering the question.

I find that music is another one of those words that people give examples of rather than definitions.  I ask people what they think music is and a common reply is, ‘melody, rhythm, and harmony.’  Very good, you’ve given me the three components of music, but you still lack the definition.  Answer what melody, rhythm, and harmony are and you’ll begin to come closer to defining music.  ‘Melody is linear activity, harmony is the sound perceived at any given moment, and rhythm is the points in time in which these elements occur.’  Some would disagree with these definitions because people’s presuppositions are that these three elements must meet our western standards.  But the western world is small, and if we are to go by certain western dictionary definitions, we are required to say that the music of non-western cultures is not music.  Well then I ask you, what else could their form of sonic art be?  Is it noise?  Apparently not to them, but only to you.  Is your opinion right and theirs not?  Certainly not!  Our definitions of these musical elements must be broad or else we are in danger of offending our foreign friends.  And they would have good reason to be offended if we say our art is better when their people have poured their hearts and souls into their version of this craft.

A good place to look for definitions is always an up-to-date dictionary , because a good dictionary (some are bad) will tell us what something is rather than only giving us examples.  Let’s look at each of the three elements using dictionary.com:

Melody:  “The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.”
Harmony:  “Any simultaneous combination of tones.”
Rhythm:  “The pattern of regular or irregular pulses caused in music by the occurrence of strong and weak melodic and harmonic beats.” (The only flaw I find in this definition is that I think “strong and weak” should be changed to ‘strong and/or weak’.
Music:  “An art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.”

Without these broad definitions we discredit the work of other cultures.  I propose that music is simply the definitions of our three elements put together.  My personal (and therefore arguable) definition would then be, ‘Music is sonic events occurring linearly at specific points in time.’  I implore you then to identify all organized sound as musical expression.  This is not to say that I think you should appreciate all music as well crafted art.  I will address this in later posts.

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