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Friday, 13 November 2009

What does our perception of music depend on?

The Washington Post Experiment or The Flop of the L’Enfant Plaza. (read the original article: "Pearls before Breakfast”, although it should be titled "Pearls before swine")

'Beware the barrenness of a busy life.' — Socrates

Stradivarius violin
The following example illustrates the key factors in our perception of music and art in general.

A social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities was carried out at Washington subway station in the cold January morning a couple of years ago.

One of the greatest violinists of our days played incognito at the station exquisite Bach pieces (among other great composers’ works) for about an hour on a violin that costs 3.5 million dollars. Hardly anyone stopped, paid attention, or dropped a coin. Let alone recognizing him, while tickets to his concert usually cost 100$ on average.
Most people attributed it to the fact that it took place at an inappropriate hour when nearly everyone was rushing to catch a train to get to work, therefore hardly anyone could afford to stop to listen to buskers and thus risk losing their jobs.

“Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.”

So there were hardly doctors, firemen, or anyone whose getting to work on time was a matter of life or death among the people streaming past a masterpiece that in Brahms’ words contains “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings” and is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to have evoked in the audience either thoughts or feelings. Must've fallen on stony ground.

If I were offered this story as a thought experiment, I would predict exactly the same result. What’s more, I’m pretty sure if the following day in the same context a different social experiment had been done — along the lines of a porn star performing a hot scene — far more people would’ve come up with tons of excuses for being late to work and would've crowded around.

First of all, it takes talent or the ability to perceive talent and beauty in order to recognize and appreciate such qualities.
It takes at least a rudimentary intellect to understand and enjoy classical music — mind, animals wouldn't stop either, although experiments in zoos showed that animals calmed down while listening to Mozart, but run amok at the first sounds of hard rock or heavy metal. The effect of classical music (or any other art form) on an individual is directly proportional to his/her intellect — the higher the intellect, the deeper the comprehension.

Beauty can't be explained, proved or tested — it's like vision, no-one can explain to you what it feels like unless you've got eyesight.

If we could grade beauty according to the nature of feelings it evokes, absolute beauty would be at one end of the scale. The old saw about "beauty being in the eye of the beholder", in my opinion, refers to the ability of the beholder to distinguish true beauty rather than to their views on beauty — if the eye can’t "behold" there’s no "beauty" in it.

Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell
There's no doubt at all that a person with trained ear and certain cultural level would have stopped to appreciate the outstanding quality of Joshua Bell's (yes, it was him) performance in any environment, at any hour, in any context, however fast his/her pace of life may be and whatever pressure their hectic, busy and tight schedule may put on him/her, even despite him/herself simply because he/she would be able to distinguish a great performer and a superb instrument from an ordinary musician and a cheap assembly line fiddle.

The violin in question, made by one of the greatest 18th century Italian craftsmen, Antonio Stradivari, is worth 3.5 million not because it's old, but, among other things, because of the unsurpassed quality of its sound created by the richest possible palette of harmonics and overtones, and how far the instrument can project it.

Then again, it takes a finely tuned ear to notice that.

Harmonics and overtones are produced by the vibration of parts of a string (partial frequencies) that together with the string’s full length oscillation (fundamental frequency) are perceived by the human ear as the timbre of the tone, the quality of which almost entirely depends on the wood the violin is made of, the varnish that coats it’s outside surface and the luthier’s skill. The chemical composition of the varnish and the fashioning of the violins were analysed, and the dimensions were copied to a thousandth of an inch precision, yet the secret of their tone remains unlocked. It’s in tomb with their makers.

Most genres of modern music are nothing more than organized noise, that is, cacophony — commercial products record companies and all sorts of shameless small time “artists” called music and forced on the increasingly uncultured public so that they can rake in the millions. Prolonged exposure to such products, especially from an early age, dulls the senses and perception, so that most people aren’t able to recognize true beauty any more.

Granted, there's a lot of trash in classical music too, as well as mediocre performers, and in such cases a piece of good modern music is indeed much easier on the ear.

The fact that all Joshua Bell’s performances are sell-outs doesn’t mean the audience is made up of refined art connoisseurs. Actually, the best seats at concerts are hardly ever occupied by true music lovers, many of them can't even afford to buy the tickets. The great majority of people who do buy tickets for his concerts do so either for show — frequenting such events is seen as a sign of good taste, or to keep up with their arty-farty friends, or to feel they belong to the elite of the society. Joshua Bell is a world renowned violinist and therefore a crowd-puller (not in the least measure thanks to marketing), naturally enough, the posh are just eager to pass themselves off as being in the know and flaunt their class.

On the other hand, there are many unrecognized talented artists that simply didn't have the luck to bump into an equally perceptive person.
Another factor to take into consideration is that most people have no criteria of their own for measuring the quality of a piece of art or an artist's performance, so they just jump on the bandwagon.
Otherwise who in their right mind would perform or "listen" to 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence and call it music, or gape at white panels on a white wall and call it painting?
Like in H. C. Andersen's fairy tale 'the king is naked!'

Beauty is a universal truth. It’s an objective reality — just because some people can’t perceive it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Unless, of course, we start a debate on quantum interpretation of reality and ponder about profound questions such as ‘Does the Moon exist when nobody is looking at it?’ Well, some people argue that perception of beauty is a matter of taste — and there is no accounting for taste, which I read as ‘what I don’t understand I don’t like’. Most people stick to taste factor so as not to be branded as lowbrow. Actually, what accounts for taste is each individual’s intellect. It takes guts to face the truth.

It's sad that nowadays people are brainwashed by junk food, junk culture and consumer goods into being afraid to get sacked if they stop to listen to the music of one of the greatest composers of all times, or into buying things they don't need and selling their souls for things they do need. And it's tragic that in our society getting to work on time so as not to lose a job is more important than listening to a piece of sublime music performed by one of the greatest living musicians.
Wasn't progress supposed to make our lives happier and more comfortable?
With such prosaic mindset, why would parents try to instil good taste into their children?

No wonder modern society doesn't actually need highbrow art.
Besides, we are too busy for everything that really matters.

I wonder what the result would be, if the same experiment were carried out in Europe, especially in Italy. Probably more people would squeeze the virtuoso’s performance into their busy schedule, since Europe has much richer and longer cultural traditions than the US.

Curiously, in the past it was allegedly far more difficult to provide food and shelter for the family, workers had fewer rights and there were no modern comforts, still true art prospered — probably because even a person without a fancy music education was able to recognize it. It seems, for some reason, material wealth and technological advances are proportionate to spiritual poverty.

However, the status quo is convenient for the ruling class — ignorant slaves are easier to rule.

They say humanity is progressing — but just because we’re moving forward doesn’t mean we’re going to a better place.

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  1. Isn't that experiment amazing. I think one person actually recognized the violinist. Crazy.

    Honestly, I would have been on of the many who walked by and not noticed. My wife, on the other hand, would have stopped to listen and probably recognized the poor chap!

    You should read about the Stanford Prison Experiment. We humans are a bizarre species :-)

  2. You're right; a guy of Italian origin was struck by an unusual quality of the performance, although he didn't recognize J. Bell in the busker. But he himself used to take violin classes in his youth.
    I saw a documentary about the Stanford Prison Experiment some time ago. Actually, it turned out exactly as I'd expect even without any experiment to prove it. No surprise there. We are indeed a weird species :-)
    I wonder why anyone would willingly take part in such a brutal experiment. The very idea makes my hair stand on end.


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