A Short Survey of Interesting Topics

I have 7 students in my Music and Ethics class this semester. They’re just about cresting the first difficult climb in writing their thesis papers. They’ve done the bulk of the research, and had to turn in a full footnoted outline of their argument. All that’s left for most of them is to spill the actual ink, and turn it into something readable. And then, of course, the editing.

They’ve picked some pretty interesting topics, so I thought I’d throw them out here for you folks to peruse. These are their thesis statements, roughly, along with some background.

  1. Sacredness is an ascribed quality, not an objective quality, therefore music that is sacred is always sacred to some person, or group of people. It is sacred because it serves the function of producing desired internal states, considered spiritually significant by people who call the music sacred. This means that 1) people outside of that group have no obligation to the “sacredness” of the music, and 2) it is inappropriately limiting to the creative process to force composers to work within a certain genre of music because of its “sacredness”.
  2. The emphasis on competition within High School music programs is detrimental to the education process. A music educator has an obligation to select repertoire for their ensemble based on artistic merit and educational value, and not competitive value.
  3. A film composer’s evaluation of a potential project should be based on the over-arching primary theme of the film, rather than content that serves that theme. She may choose to work on a film with a strong positive primary message, even if the film also contains graphic sexuality and violence. If the strength of the primary theme outweighs the presence of objectionable content, the project as a whole can be considered good, and worthwhile.
  4. There are three categories of repertoire that are frequently controversial in music education: music with sexual themes (sensual and explicit operatic works), music with overt religious themes (everything written between 600 and 1600 C.E. in Western Music), and music by controversial composers (Wagner’s pro-genocide stance, for example). A music educator has an obligation to perform these works, in spite of the controversy. To avoid them both limits that artistic experience of the students, and presents a skewed perspective on the scope and history of musical literature.
  5. A composer’s original intent is the fundamental guiding principle for the interpretation of a work. Contemporary performers and conductors have an obligation not to deviate from the best understanding of the composer’s intent in their interpretation and execution of a work.
  6. A musician has an obligation to only create works that best express their aesthetic judgment. It is a violation of the purpose of music, and the nature of the musician, to make choices based on values of broad appeal or commercial viability. There are strong parallels between a musician using their craft for less-than-art purposes, and prostitution, in that both treat the person as a means to an end, in violation of the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative. (This is going to be a helluva paper – this student is incredibly bright, and is making some very, very strong arguments in support of this thesis. Once he’s finished, I’ll give more of my thoughts on this topic).
  7. The lyrical content of music is capable of making moral claims, even in poetic and non-propositional formats. Songwriters have an obligation to produce works whose moral claims contribute to social unity. Songwriters may not plead ignorance in their understanding of these moral claims, and must take responsibility for their social impact as contributing factors to social change. To claim that songs are not sufficient causes for any particular social change is not an argument against their contributory power to those changes. The two primary case studies will be the identification by Klebold and Harris with the music of Marilyn Manson prior to the Columbine High School shootings, and the release of the song F*ck Tha Police by NWA prior to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (I think this student is going to argue that the moral claims of F*ck Tha Police actually fulfill the obligation toward social unity, by exposing an underlying reality that then prompted broader attention and calls for change.)

It’s fun to sit in conferences with these students and read through their arguments, to see the evidence of their critical thinking. I love the fact that I don’t have to prod any of them to find the value in this process – they all seem to understand that spending time thinking deeply about these themes will be beneficial to their development as musicians, and as people.

35 thoughts on “A Short Survey of Interesting Topics

  1. michael lee Post author

    by the way, I’m going to direct the students themselves to this post, so that they can correct my summary, or defend their ideas. Feel free to ask them questions. This will be part of their assignment.

  2. sharolyn

    “A music education has an obligation to select repertoire for their ensemble based on artistic merit and educational value, and not competitive value.”

    My current experience is that they are one in the same (the educational value and competitive value). I am helping prepare a great middle school choir for competitions in a month, and they have a healthy fire lit under them. They wouldn’t be working this hard if they were doing it to look in the mirror.

    I understand this premise – don’t teach to the test – but it’s not like we’re going to the No Child Left Behind convention or anything… ;)

    Having taught all subjects, this is the fun part about teaching music. Bad curricula (scripted, for example) can suck the creativity out of teaching, but when you teach music, no one can take that from you. Even when you’re competing.

  3. michael lee Post author

    Sharolyn – I agree. This was one of the issues I raised with this student. It’s the primary counter-argument that he has to deal with in order to prove his thesis.

    The mindset of preparing for a competition can have immense educational value.

    But then, I think about show choirs, and I get sad all over again, and I agree with him.

  4. michael lee Post author

    oooooooh yes.

    When I was first out of school, I played for quite a few of these things. It’s one step below a wedding gig. They all made me sad.

  5. sharolyn

    I was kind of bummed when Author #4 showed up at my daughter’s Kindermusic.

    #5 reminded me of a piano lesson with Dr. Sage, if I remember correctly. There was a G arpeggio that went up so high, then continued to ascent from two octaves below. He said the composer likely would have continued the chord had his keyboard been as wide as our modern keyboard. In other words, the composer had maybe a 5-octave keyboard. So that leads to guessing at the composer’s intent.

    I’m not drawing any conclusions here, just chewing on the thought I guess. Now I’ll read the rest…

  6. Sharolyn's Husband

    #6 reminds me of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. Before writing his 5th symphony Shostakovich was criticized by the communist powers that be. This meant that he was in danger of “disappearing” for not being patriotic enough, or writing music that was not Russian enough.

    Shostakovich wrote the 5th to say F U to his critics. The whole piece is fantastic, but the last few minutes of the finale are an awesomely subtle middle finger to his haters. Some conductors take the tempo at the end pretty quick, but it seems obvious to me that Shostakovich was thinking of a terribly slow tempo for some gloriously victorious music.

    Here I will steal from Wikipedia about the 5th symphony finale:

    In the words of the composer: “There is a feeling of rejoicing, but it is one of forced rejoicing. It is as if someone is beating you with a stick and telling you ‘your business is rejoicing!’ over and over again. Eventually, you walk away muttering ‘my business is rejoicing.’”

    Here are two very different recordings of the finale.

    Bernstein (very fast) listen at about the 8 minute mark to the end.


    Paavo Järvi (very slow) The big difference is at the 2:00 mark to the end.

    I am really glad that I don’t have to turn these thoughts into a formal academic paper with citing and footnotes and me turning to the dumb book that shows you how to cite your sources.

  7. Eric

    Sounds like you’re in for some interesting reading. All the theses are thought-provoking. One that particularly interests me is number 5, the question of “original intent.”

    I’m one of those “historically informed performance” geeks, and I’ve made a career out of trying make “best guesses” about the original intent of composers LONG dead and gone. I’m not sure if this is what your student was thinking of, but as a composer, I’d like to assume that a performer would always approach my music with my intentions firmly in mind (as, naturally, it’s all about ME), but as a performer, I know that doesn’t always happen, even if I’m around, and that sometimes the resulting performance is better than what I had in mind.

    Stravinsky was once quoted as saying that for him, the correct tempo for his music was as obvious “as if it were painted blue.” If that’s the case, he must have been color-blind, because the tempi of performances that he conducted almost never match the printed tempo indications. While there are plenty of composers who wrote music considered “unplayable” because that’s what they wanted (like the double bass part of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony), there are many others who changed or simplified parts so that a particular performer could play them (manuscripts of a number of Vivaldi’s concerti have simplified versions of difficult passagework written in, presumably because the soloist couldn’t hack it). So which represents the composer’s original intent? What he heard in his head? Or what he settled for because it sounded good?

    And, even though I’m one of those weirdos who thinks that Bach always sounds better on the harpsichord than the piano, does that mean pianists shouldn’t play music by one of the greatest composers who ever lived?

    Somehow I feel a vague connection between proposition 5 (original intent) and number 6 (musical prostitution, if you will). If a composer arranges his music for forces that are available to him/her, rather than what he originally conceived, is that a choice based on commercial viability? And if the result (though different from his/her original intent) is aesthetically pleasing, surely popularity doesn’t invalidate the outcome. Nice work, Professor Lee.


  8. Cerise

    Wow, my favorite (you’ll all die of shock) is #7. If we get permission, Michael, from the students, can we read the finished works? I’m curious as to which lyrics specifically the author will cite of Manson’s to indicate that his words lead them to kill their peers. I’m curious especially since there’s a big…I don’t know…rumor? Urban myth? General belief? about Marilyn Manson’s influence being partly to blame for the Columbine killings, but in his interviews I seem to remember him having very different ideas about 1. what he would define as social unity (which would put his culpability into question, I think) and 2. how exactly the two young men should have been treated/raised/helped that would have averted their actions. Different ideas from general Western society, I mean.

    Ramon and I were just listening to F*ck Tha Police the other day. I turned to him and said: “I wonder how many people in this crowd (who you can hear enthusiastically singing the lyrics) became cops?” Ramon replied that he imagined that many people in the crowd WERE cops, and right there with NWA. “You think all cops believe that they’re morally unassailable as an institution?”

    Anyway, I’m interested, and am, as always, only speaking from the rare and valuable origin of Talking Out of My Ass 101, so…

  9. michael lee Post author

    I think the student on #7 is being very discriminating in how she parses Manson’s connection to Columbine. It’s not an X causes Y relationship, it’s more along the lines of “X is intended to highlight and celebrate Y aspect of an anti-social person’s perspective on society, which serves to reinforce the normality of Y and increase it’s influence on the person’s perspective, which in some case can contribute to a worldview in which actions Z are just, and justified in that person’s mind.”

    I think it’s perfectly fine to say “A,B, and C were significant factors in Z occurring” without having to say that any individual thing A, B, and C were the single, sufficient cause. The same can be said of the other factors that led to the Columbine tragedy – there are plenty of kids who are mocked, ignored, and have insufficient parental care or oversight. For almost all of those kids, those things aren’t sufficient cause to tip them over the edge to murder.

    Have you read any of Manson’s actual writing? Oh man. It reads very much like a 13-year old kid who just finished his first reading of “Atlas Shrugged” and only understands the parts that mean he gets to do whatever the hell he wants.

  10. sharolyn

    Marilyn Manson is not on my bedside table, but if I remember correctly, there is a chilling moment in Bowling for Columbine in which Manson is asked what he would have said to the two murderers. He says something like, “I wouldn’t have said anything, I probably would have listened.”

    It’s creepy when the freaky guy is right.

    I’m off to Google “Atlas Shrugged”…

  11. michael lee Post author

    Don’t bother, I’ll summarize for you.

    The only thing of real value that I can have true knowledge of is my own happiness. Therefore, my only obligation is to act in ways that serve my own self-interest. The only reason I shouldn’t knife you in the gut and keep your kidneys in my freezer on the off chance I might enjoy eating them is because I might suffer punishment.

  12. Cerise

    I knew you’d steer my thoughts in a more precise direction, Michael, and I thank you. I’m glad to get your perspective on what your #7 is going to get at. I’m eager to read it.

  13. Eric

    So, none of your students have commented?

    Re #6: I’ve always had a little trouble with Kant, but that’s probably my imperfect understanding.

    I can accept the argument that I have a perfect duty to create compositions or performances that best express my aesthetic judgment, but when I have to balance that against my imperfect duty to pay the bills, well it gets pretty fuzzy. Could it be a difference of degree? As long as I have enough to eat, I can agree that it’s wrong to make musical choices based on popular or commercial appeal – I’m not looking to get rich, or I wouldn’t be in this business – but when money is tight, I become a bit less scrupulous. A slippery slope, eh?

    What if I’m part of an ensemble, but not the one who calls the shots? If the conductor asks for something with which I strongly disagree, I am violating the second formulation if go along? I think there is a violation of the first formulation hiding there somewhere.

  14. michael lee Post author

    Hey now, what did Kant ever do to you?

    I think that’s a false dichotomy, a presentation of a seemingly impossible choice that makes the action seem inevitable. To argue “But my kids needs to eat!” seems like survival and compromise are our only two choices, but that’s only true if we accept that music is the only possible way this person can provide for the basic survival of those depending on him or her. Only in that case can we invoke the idea of duty to survival first, and only then to everything else that follows.

    I don’t think that’s ever the case. The choice is not between compromise of aesthetic integrity and survival, the choice is between compromise and taking up a different job. We wouldn’t accept that argument from a pornographer who says, “But my kids need to eat! I have no choice but to keep making these films.” It’s not an issue of survival, it’s an issue of wanting to earn that money in a preferred profession.

    The second question (solo vs. ensemble) is an interesting one, and something I think he’ll need to deal with in his paper. I think he’ll address it by suggesting a sliding scale between the amount of individual creative input a person has in a project, and the amount of their aesthetic obligation. In the case of a large symphony, there is a low level of individual aesthetic contribution, identity, discretion, whatever. In the case of a bubble-gum pop songwriter, a very high level. The obligations shift on that basis, I think.

    And, now that I’ve done his work for him, I kind of hope they DON’T come by to comment.

  15. Eric

    Immanuel never did anything to me except raise questions I Kant answer.

    Dorothy Sayers addressed this question of artistic integrity in her novel “Gaudy Night.” Over dinner, Lord Peter raises the case of an “artist whose works are so original that they fetch very little money” (or something like that), and asks rhetorically if he should paint “pot-boilers” and become commercially successful or continue to paint in his highly original style and let his family starve. One of the academics immediately replies that there is no question, he must cease painting immediately – he would violate his artistic integrity if he painted for popular appeal, and he “mustn’t let his family starve.”

    I found myself wondering what the fictional Edwardian artist would do instead to support his family. Probably as art director for an advertising agency, which might arguably be considered another form of artistic prostitution. I agree that framing the argument as a choice between artistic integrity and survival presents a false dichotomy, but (hmm…I always get in trouble when I type that word…) that can present a very difficult choice, and not just between basic survival and a more comfortable lifestyle.

    Perhaps in Kant’s Kingdom of Ends the choice is not between integrity and survival, but I’m not entirely ready to accept that the issue is as simple as wanting to earn money in a chosen profession. Charles Ives had the luxury of heading a very successful insurance business to underwrite his artistic integrity. Would he have written anything at all if he was supporting his family as a day laborer? Since the thesis specifically parallels the sacrifice of artistic integrity with prostitution, does one imagine that the sex trade is the preferred profession of most of those engaged in it? No, I wouldn’t accept the argument of survival from a maker of pornographic films, who has a certain position of power, but I would be less quick to condemn the actors (if you will).

    I feel blessed.

  16. michael lee Post author

    Eric, I think those are excellent points. I have to resist the urge to get too caught up in this, in the interest of not skewing my student’s actual argument. Once the papers are turned in next week, I’d love to come back and deal with some of this more specifically.

    I also don’t want to give the impression that I agree with this student’s argument. It would be pretty hypocritical of me, given how I’ve made most of my money in music. It was not, how you say, “Art”. Artfully done, I hope, but not towering works of aesthetic wonder. More along the lines of “Loop it, delay it, autotune it, bop it!”

  17. Eric

    Mike, I’ll wait to see what your student(s) come up with. Integrity is something with which I wrestle on a daily basis, so I think I can bide my time.

    I didn’t get the impression that you were in complete agreement with the thesis. And, there will always be a substantial subjective component where aesthetic judgments are concerned.

  18. michael lee Post author

    The interesting thing about this argument is that it bypass a lot of the issues associated with subjectivity in appreciation of art. It says that the only subjective critique that matters is that of the artist, not some collective assessment of society at large. It is not abstract, it is not loose and unknowable, it is not assigning the artistic works to the categories of “good” or “bad” generally, it is assigning them to the much narrower, more easily distinguished categories of “good-to-the-creator-themselves” or “bad-to-the-creator-themselves”.

    The phrase “making bad music”, for the purpose of this student’s thesis, has a very specific meaning during the act of creation. It can only mean “making art that is contrary to the artist’s best aesthetic judgment.” After it has been created, a whole new set of criteria emerge for evaluating it’s worth to others. This thesis argues that the second criteria should never substitute for, or even interfere with, the first criteria during the act of creation.

    By the way, Eric, welcome to the blog. I’m glad you found us!

  19. Eric

    Interesting. Now I find myself musing if I am violating my personal aesthetic/ethical code of conduct every time I play a less than stellar performance (and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely happy with one). I’m reminded of Pablo Casals spending years with the Bach cello suites before he dared play them in public.

  20. Justin Clavell

    I guess I will be the first to comment… a day before its due ha ha…. The argument is not about whether you think your performance or writing is the absolute best thing to ever be heard by humans. Its pointed more towards the idea that you should stay away from anything work that you think is just really bad music. Using your artistic abilities for in non-artistic ways, defined as anything you think is really bad, for personal gain is morally wrong. So if you clam during a song, or are dissatisfied with a particular chord change in something you wrote, your not morally bound to never play that song. As long as you find some beauty in the work it is worth being played, but if it is not beauty but money that you see that is where the problem is…

  21. Justin Clavell

    sorry for the horrid grammar and spelling I promise my paper won’t reflect that…

  22. sharolyn

    “if it is not beauty but money that you see that is where the problem is…”

    This could easily be outweighed by a number of financial obligations, such as feeding one’s family. But I suppose I am stating the obvious. (?)

  23. sharolyn

    Or, playing a gig for rich people of Beach Boys’ tunes to pay for a Princess Birthday Party.

    But we wouldn’t know anything about that personally.

  24. Eric

    Ah, Justin. Except for that addendum, my inner militant grammarian was ready to slice into your post with a red pencil… ;-)

    I didn’t get the impression that the premise (quoting from the original post: “A musician has an obligation to only create works that best express their aesthetic judgment”) meant one shouldn’t compose or perform unless he/she was completely pleased with the result, but it did make me rethink my criteria for performance.

    So, are you the author of the paper in question? You commented, “Using your artistic abilities for in non-artistic ways, defined as anything you think is really bad, for personal gain is morally wrong.” While I tend to agree with that statement, I’m one of those concrete-sequential people who want everything clearly delimited (OK, so I know the world doesn’t work that way, but…), and that definition of “non-artistic” is annoyingly subjective. What is “really bad”?

    You implied that it would be a problem if the artist placed financial gain ahead of personal aesthetics. What if I’m just lazy? Suppose I know the result isn’t the best I can do, but I’m not willing to take the time to work at it – is there a place for “good enough”? Or suppose I agree to play a concert of music that I personally think is “really bad”, but I play it really well. Does that pass the test? Yes, that’s a quasi-rhetorical argument.

    In an earlier post, Michael wrote, “The phrase “making bad music”, for the purpose of this student’s thesis, has a very specific meaning during the act of creation. It can only mean “making art that is contrary to the artist’s best aesthetic judgment.” That put me in mind of Colossians 3:23:

    Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…(NIV).

  25. Justin Clavell

    Yes I am the author of the paper in question and I would like to acknowledge Sharolyn, that is the first counter-argument that I address in my paper, and I do think it is a valid one to some extent. Except I don’t think that those are the only two choices that one has when in that type of situation, playing bad music is not the only means one has to make money. However, if that were really the case were the choice really was play bad music or your family starves than by all means please be Britney’s backup singer. But I it probably pretty rare that you would be in that black and white a situation…

    Eric I totally understand that need for there to be a reason behind something even if you already think it may possibly be true… In my paper I define aesthetically beneficial as a work that meets a certain criteria to be determined by anyone but I go on to say that you should only participate in the works and projects that you deem aesthetically beneficial, the caliber at which you execute that project is not really discussed. Although I do think that playing to the best of one’s ability is a moral issue it is not within the scope of the matters addressed in my paper. On the other hand playing a piece of “bad” music, as determined by the artists performing, or writing or whatever, no matter how well you do at it, is what i see as wrong. Most people would probably agree with my statement but have a really hard time as to who gets to decide what is good and what is bad because they are such subjective determinants. What I am trying to make a case for is that it does not matter what the population thinks or what even other artists think when it comes down to you playing or writing, if you think it is not beautiful than you should not be doing it. I think the point from Col. is a really good one and one that should be discussed but my paper is more pointed toward the artists who not do the best they can, but more towards the artists who use their abilities and talents in a knowingly inappropriate way.

  26. sharolyn

    Student #2 might find this interesting:

    “John (Jacobson) is the founder and president of America Sings, Inc., a non-profit, charitable organization that creates non-competitive choral festivals. These festivals provide young performers with the opportunity to utilize their talents in service projects and worthwhile causes. Since 1989, more than 100,000 young people have attended these events.”


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