Three Ways of Enjoying Music (and the Reverse Snobbery of Ultra-Poptimism)
The “let people enjoy things” ethos isn’t true egalitarianism because it implicitly denies the fact experts take the most pleasure from the complicated aspects of music
Music is a truly universal art form, entrancing tribal people in religious ceremonies, inspiring philosophers to dream up new theories, stirring pits of angry teenagers to mosh, and calming dentistry patients awaiting root canals. Since everyone loves music, everyone has an opinion of what qualifies as “good” music. Where there are disagreements — between rival tribes or between elites and folk peoples — there will be impassioned accusations of philistinism and fierce claims of snobbery.
Over the last century, the clearest dividing line in musical valuation has existed between normal people who love songs that top the hit charts and critics who champion complicated and innovative composition. While mass market music always "wins" by popularity and revenue, critics often claim victory by controlling what goes into the “canon,” which ends up steering the direction of future music. In the 1970s few people listened to Krautrock, yet critically-beloved bands Neu! and Kraftwerk are more influential on our modern pop sound than one-time superstars Tony Orlando and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
In the 21st century, critics have lost whatever meager influence they once had, with the rise of what I call Ultra-Poptimism — the belief that we must “let people enjoy things,” and what entertains the most people should be considered the best. This tacit ideology is a well-meaning hyper-extension of liberal tolerance and democratic ethics: We should stop forcing people to feel bad about their own internal desires and should be suspicious of how elites have long wielded taste as a cudgel. As a corollary to these principles, Ultra-Poptimism often implies that difficult music liked by a small cadre of elites is simply “loser” music. If it were good, it would attract fans.
The inherent problem with Ultra-Poptimism, however, is that it presupposes everyone is listening to music the same way. This is not the case, and to understand this better, we must turn to composer and scholar Leonard B. Meyer, who in his landmark book Music, The Arts, and Ideas, lays out the three distinct ways we appreciate music: the sensuous, the associative-characterizing, and the syntactical.
1. The Sensuous
Humans are hard-wired to love the sound of music. In This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that we specifically evolved to love music, whereas cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker believes that music simply massages parts of our brains evolved to do other tasks. Regardless, no prior knowledge is required for feeling the drive of a steady beat, the calm of a mother’s lullaby, and the majesty of a choir singing in harmony. Music offers pleasurable sensations, the same way freshly-baked cookies taste delicious, velveteen feels soft, and rainbows look magical.
When it comes to providing the greatest sensations to the maximum number of people, kitsch is the best strategy. Music that sticks to convention, clichés, and common-denominator lyrics reduces the barriers towards immediate understanding and enjoyment. Ultra-Poptimism thus defends the enjoyment of kitsch as a legitimate aesthetic experience. No one should be ridiculed for feeling positive sensations from watching The Masked Singer and chanting along to “Y.M.C.A.”
2. The Associative-Characterizing
“Associative-characterizing” is a very jargony way to say, “Certain sounds and songs remind us of other things in life.” For example, passages of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony sound like a thunderstorm. At the same time, our brains are very good at recalling the exact past moments we heard certain songs, so we build up these associations over time. In Pretend it’s a City. Fran Lebowitz notes:
We see how happy and grateful people are for music. Especially music that was popular when they were younger. It doesn’t matter if that music was Frank Sinatra or Billy Joel or David Bowie or Q-Tip. What matters is this: ‘Don’t you remember our first date? This song was on.’ This means a lot to people. And they love the person who gave this to them. … Musicians are loved by people. Adored even, because they give them the ability to express their emotions and memories.
Not only can we do this with songs, but Daniel Levitin notes that our brains even associate general musical conventions with memories. This means you can hear an unknown Slint song for the first time in 2023 and remember where you were in the Nineties.
Like the sensuous aspect of music, the associative-characterizing aspects provide pleasure to everyone — and this pleasure increases with our life experience. To enjoy music for its nostalgic potential, nothing is required of us other than to listen and live.
3. The Syntactical
Every piece of music has specific arrangements of notes and silence in certain rhythms and timbres, which forms a syntax. The contours of this syntax are what our brains convert into “intellectual or emotional” experiences. (Read Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music for the specific mechanisms of how this works.) These experiences provide more than basic sensations: They are “delayed gratifications,” and their effects increase as we gain more sophisticated understanding of musical conventions and structures.
Since all music delivers sensation and serves as a potential vehicle for memories, the syntactical aspects of music are where most of the “craft” lies. Critics, academics, and fellow composers thus judge musical value on this syntactical axis — a perspective that tends to devalue kitsch.
But the syntax of music is not a purely intellectual layer floating above the “real music”; composers and songwriters create their musical effects through sophisticated syntactical manipulations of listener expectations. Innovations in syntactical form are not just cold intellectual exercises but what provide us with new musical experiences. Educated listeners grow bored with sensuous music with low syntactical complexity. They seek out music that offers new emotional and intellectual experiences, which require syntactical innovations that only experts can provide.
Where syntactical innovations are too complicated or alien, they often interfere with the immediate sensations of music and become unpleasant for less educated listeners. Herein lies the basic conflict between the two groups. But in the long run, syntactical complexity is also good for mass culture, because these innovations tend to trickle down to folk and pop music where they eventually provide mass audiences with a new “punch.” With repeated exposure, non-experts absorb these new conventions and come to take pleasure from them. Once these techniques become too predictable, however, they can no longer provide “surprise” to educated listeners, who seek out further innovation.
Meyer believed, "Democracy does not entail that everyone should like the same art, but that each person should have the opportunity to enjoy the art he likes." If we want a true egalitarianism, then, elites must accept that mass audiences prioritize sensation and nostalgia over syntactical innovation — but also, Ultra-Poptimists have to accept that educated listeners take more pleasure from syntactical innovations than from recycled clichés. We can extend this principle to any creative form that extends across art and popular entertainment: film, theater, sculpture, painting, etc. If we want to “let people enjoy things,” this also requires letting experts enjoy expertise — because they can't enjoy stale convention. Without this mutual tolerance, we’ve just traded one snobbery for another.