Emotional classical music

Let’s assume, for this conversation, that Mozart > Bieber:
For this post, I’m going to assume a simplified account of musical taste which is not exactly what I think about music (or at least it might lead you to assume certain things about music that I don’t believe), but it’s a pretty conventional trope so it makes the analogy easier. I’m assuming that there’s this “classical music”, Mozart and Beethoven and stuff, and then there’s “pop music”, Justin Bieber or whatever. When you’re a kid, you like pop music, because it’s sugary and dancey and addictive. As you get older, you maybe start to appreciate classical music more - it’s not as immediate, but it’s deeper. Arguably, the joy that a music lover gets out of a wonderful classical music concert is better* than the joy a kid gets out of Justin Bieber.

Aspiration vs. Ambition:
Podcast interview between Tyler Cowen and Agnes Callard. (If this link works right, it’ll take you right to “on aspiration and proleptic reasons”; if not, do a command-f for that.)

Worth a read or listen, but my short summary: Ambition is just “wanting stuff.” (s/stuff/prestige, or status, or money, or a Justin Bieber CD, or whatever.) Aspiration is “wanting to want stuff.” Like, I don’t really want tickets to the symphony, but I want to be the kind of person who wants tickets to the symphony.

(Callard says that you can only really aspire to want “good” stuff, but I think that’s unnecessary - first of all, people don’t tend to aspire to like “lower” pleasures", and second of all, “good” is a little arbitrary.)

Another essay by Callard. An excerpt I love: if you have a friend Phil, who just likes donuts and reality TV and other “low” pleasures, but you’re trying to open his eyes to “better” things, what you are asking him is “to try to believe them to be more valuable than he has currently has reason to, in order to learn their true value.”

Emotions in place of music
Ok, I was just watching Saw (bear with me here; also goriness alert; also mild spoilers) so I was watching Saw** and the guy is like “I have to help my family enough that I’ll even saw off my own leg to help them.” And it’s not even just “give up your foot”, it’s like “give up your foot and hope that you don’t bleed to death and hope that you don’t get otherwise killed etc, given that you’ve been trapped by a sadistic serial killer” - it’s like “probably give yourself a painful death, in order to maybe help your family.”

If I were his family, I’d probably be like “dude, don’t worry about it, don’t saw your leg off; either we’ll find another way out of this or else we’ll probably die anyway, b/c serial killer and all; you don’t have to saw off your own leg in the off chance that it’ll help us.” But you don’t start a family because you want them to be loved; indeed, half of your future family doesn’t even exist yet! You start a family because you want to love them. You want to feel that love that’s strong enough that you’d saw off your own leg to help them.

Let me try that again, with a less morbid example:
When you were a kid, you learned that getting Christmas presents was great! The older you get, the more you realize you actually prefer giving presents. It’s a harder emotion to get into, but it is deeper and more satisfying.

So what do we do?
Is it good to aspire to liking classical music, or to aspire to liking gift-giving over gift-receiving? Well, good for whom? I think it’s ultimately good for you if you aspire. But it might just be natural. Like, if you’re satisfied by donuts and Bieber, go for it. The only danger comes when you don’t know that you’d be happier if you aspired higher. Like, if you just get bored and depressed with Bieber, but you don’t realize that there’s a better option out there (though it does take some work).

Also, how do we aspire? I like Callard’s concept of “proleptic reasons” - you can have your cognitive part know something that your feelings side doesn’t know, but the feelings side lets you back into it. Like, you can think “classical music is really rich”, but that won’t make you actually start doing it. But maybe you start dating someone who likes classical, so you go with them because you’re into them. Then over time you start liking classical for its own sake.

A neat corollary:
This may have something to do with the length of life that you’ve experienced. If your life is 5 years long, the thrill of getting presents might last you through that! If your life is 50 years long, you realize that the constant sugar high gets old, and you want something that’s more complex and lasting, so you skip the Bieberesque gift-giving and go for the Mozartian gift-receiving.

What if our lives get longer? Do we get into more complex emotions? I’d have to think so. And that if you’re 1000 years old, you could have some really-complex really-wonderful emotions that look super alien to a younger kid, kind of like how enjoying Mozart can feel impossible to a kid.

Footnotes
* one of the best moments of grad school, in retrospect (though not at the time) was when we had to go around the room and describe our research to professor and design researcher John Zimmerman in a class. Everyone else in the class described their stuff, and he was like, “ok.” When it got to me, I mumbled something about “studying social media in cities in order to make cities better.” And he just started asking me “what do you mean by “better”? Better in what way? Better for whom?” and I was totally taken off guard, because I admittedly had no good answers. Then I got mad because I felt like he was singling me out. But he was definitely right: “better” is a cop out when you don’t know what you’re talking about. Most things will be better for some people, in some ways, and worse in others.

** ok, two more asides:
1. this movie was way better than I expected. I mean, low expectations, and it’s not a masterpiece, but it was a solid low-budget suspense-thriller. (that somehow got Cary Elwes, Donald Glover, and Ken Leung? Maybe not super low-budget. Felt like it though.) Unlike how it was described, it wasn’t just a torture-porn-fest (though there was a solid 10 minutes of that).
2. I have to point out how this movie is oddly appropriate to talk about in a conversation about high/low culture :-P


Comments:

Adam Jaffe - May 5, 2018

If you want any classical recommendations, lemme know!

Dan - May 6, 2018

Ok, I’m usually like kinda half ass aspirational towards classical music. But maybe there’s a way around to it.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been listening to Steve Reich and Philip Glass and Brian Eno recently. Like, I’m super into Music for 18 Musicians. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s like, for an orchestra and not a couple of folks with an electric guitar and a synth, so maybe it’s one step closer to classical than most things I usually listen to.

Is there anything in the classical world that you know of that I might like, given that I like that?


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