This is an excellent question. grouchymusicologist above has it right that "music enjoyment is a remarkably multifaceted phenomenon", and I would like to expand on this.

Michael J. Parsons, in How we understand art: a cognitive developmental account of aesthetic experience, identifies a sequence of developmental stages in the appreciation of visual art. This is of necessity a very rough and un-nuanced summary since I don't have the book to hand, but I think this sequence is: first, colour ("this painting is red"); second, subject matter ("this painting is of a dog"); third, emotional content ("this painting makes me feel wistful"); fourth, technique ("this painting is pointillist"); and fifth, historical relationships ("this painting is a witty riposte to a work of Velasquez").

I can't point you at a corresponding developmental study of music, but I'm sure that similar stages of appreciation are there. To give a flavour of the different kinds of thing going on in the appreciation of music, let's take an example: here's Ian Bostridge singing Schubert's setting of "Der Erlkönig" by Goethe.

When listening to this, I appreciate: (i) the timbre of the piano and voice; (ii) the driving and urgent rhythm; (iii) the words and the story; (iv) the way the harmony creates and releases the dramatic tension at appropriate points in the text; (v) the skill of the performers: stamina is needed by the pianist to keep the triplets going, and vocal control by the singer to maintain timbre of the high notes; (vi) the "tone-painting": that is, the ways in which the musical notes illustrate aspects of the story, for example the repeated notes representing the horse's hooves; the way that the "child's" entries are a semitone above the piano, this discord illustrating his distress; the way that each entry is higher and more distressed than the previous one; (vii) the vocal acting of Ian Bostridge: his use of different vocal timbres to differentiate the four parts, and details of expression like the snarl on "so brauch ich Gewalt"; (viii) the different choices Schubert made in this composition compared with Carl Loewe's setting of the same text.

(I recognize that this doesn't explain why I appreciate these aspects of the performance. But I think it's still useful to give an indication of how complex the phenomenon of music appreciation is.)

More "Stupid" Questions

by NancyLebovitz 1 min read31st Jul 2013498 comments


This is a thread where people can ask questions that they would ordinarily feel embarrassed for not knowing the answer to. The previous "stupid" questions thread went to over 800 comments in two and a half weeks, so I think it's time for a new one.