How to Judge a Song

First, we need to distinguish between a piece of music and a song. Rand has devoted a whole book on the subject of aesthetics called Romantic Manifesto which she has described music as a psycho-epistemological experience. I’ll provide a few quotes to summarise what she meant when she discussed music:

Psycho-epistemologically, the pattern of the response to music seems to be as follows: one perceives the music, one grasps the suggestion of a certain emotional state and, with one’s sense of life serving as the criterion, one appraises this state as enjoyable or painful, desirable or undesirable, significant or negligible, according to whether it corresponds to or contradicts one’s fundamental feeling about life.

Music is an emotionally-bound process that allows the cognition to experience certain emotional state through the evocation that conducts the sense of life person is consciously feeling. The unit of music (philosophically) is emotion, which is inferred from the combination of noises a human brain may process, the integration of the noise would be the melody.

Helmholtz has demonstrated that the essence of musical perception is mathematical: the consonance or dissonance of harmonies depends on the ratios of the frequencies of their tones. The brain can integrate a ratio of one to two, for instance, but not of eight to nine. . . .

The psycho-epistemological meaning of a given composition lies in the kind of work it demands of a listener’s ear and brain.

A composition may demand the active alertness needed to resolve complex mathematical relationships—or it may deaden the brain by means of monotonous simplicity. It may demand a process of building an integrated sum—or it may break up the process of integration into an arbitrary series of random bits—or it may obliterate the process by a jumble of sounds mathematically-physiologically impossible to integrate, and thus turn into noise.

Think of the times when you may be unconsciously listening to a set of noises but having no recall of hearing them upon reflection, that is the hypothesis that appraisal of music requires the conscious input of the listener. With the advance of physics, we can now even study the mathematical process that would generate a brilliant piece of music. Therefore, we can say music is a study of both epistemology and logic.

However, because there is no physical form produced by the integration of music (that is, a combination of sound waves/harmonics), there is no objective proof that one music may be more superior than the rest. It is therefore,  a subjective experience (to the extent of judging them as rationally as possible with our perceptions). Now, if we apply the value judgement of music, we can see that people can find value in some music others may not find enjoyable while equally being validated for their judgement.

A song on the other hand is not entirely the same of a piece of music. A song is a work of music that is being designed to be sung, for a song to be sung it needs lyrics and the lyrics can convey more meaning than a piece of instrumental music to reflect the value of the artist/composer/lyricist. So I now propose a four step process to judge a song

  1. The purpose of the song: there are a variety of songs available for different usage, there are national anthems, hymns, ceremonial songs, ballads, chants, lullabies. A good song needs a clear purpose such as I Walked the Line by Johnny Cash as a song of devotion to his wife; How Great is Our God by Chris Tomlin as a song of worship and I Dreamed a Dream composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg as a song about the lose of innocence.
  2. Composition: this involves the the genre of the song, melody, harmony and instrument. A good song needs a coherent composition of all the elements to create a set of pleasurable noises. Due to our faulted perceptions we may find different sets of sounds appealing but other may not. Finding the right composition that others can find value in would make it a good composition.
  3. Lyrics: lyrics are especially important in songs, they help to convey the purpose of the song. Good lyrics need to present a good message that makes you feel good/hopeful/relieved/affirmed. Such as Another Day composed by Jonathan Larson about living every moment of one’s life; Defying Gravity by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth about being true to oneself and Heores (we could be) by Tove Lo about acceptance to not fall under peer pressure.
  4. Vocal: the same song can have evoke different emotions to different audiences based on different singers. Good singers can turn a a dull song into a magnus opus.

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