Salviati: As an atheist, I think I'm qualified to answer your question! I have to say that I do not believe there is an absolute truth in musical matters. Music and musical value is something that lives in our heads, not some absolute truth that can be discovered. Though I do not believe in absolute musicality, this does not mean that I am completely amusical. I have my own musical taste; I recognize it is subjective, but it is nevertheless my own. And I really do believe these things. Just as I have my own subjective appreciation of beauty or morality. I do not expect everyone to share my judgment that Beethoven is greater than Bach, but I really do think Beethoven is greater than Bach. So my musical taste is not 'anything goes' [though I do love that song]. I have musical tastes, and I will defend my taste (or modify it if I become convinced by an alternative view or exposure to new musical ideas).
Simp.: Salviati, I never would have suspected you of being an aural relativist!
Salv.: Nevertheless, it is so, Simplicio.
Simp.: So your basic view is that musical taste is subjective to the individual? Under what circumstances would it be musically aesthetic to listen to Fran Drescher reading a phonebook while sheetglass is shattered and chalkboards are scratched by rabid ferret claws? After all, the musician's subjective aesthetic sense liked it.
Salv.: I wouldn't know how to justify that. It sounds terrible. People like that should probably be locked up for their own good. Fortunately, I think most people would also agree with me, and musicians like that would not prosper.
Simp.: So it's all about popularity? And if any composition gets a majority vote it just becomes musically right?
Salv.: No, I already told you I don't believe in an objective musical rightness. So it can't be made by popularity; after all... "My Humps" reached #3. Popularity simply results in something becoming normative in a particular culture.
Salv.: Look, if I had been born in China, I might prefer Chinese opera to Wagner. As it is, I prefer Wagner to Chinese opera.
Simp.: So how do you choose between them?
Salv.: Choose? I don't have to choose. My musical taste is... my musical taste. I really do like Wagner more than Chinese opera!
Simp.: But if you are an aural relativist, by what possible basis did you make that determination?
Salv.: I don't understand. I believe I like Wagner, because I like Wagner. Why would I need a basis for something I experience directly?
Simp.: But... but... but...
Salv.: Let's turn things around. How do you form your musical taste?
Simp.: The Word of God, of course! God dictated his Infallible Criticism to the inspired scribes, from the Book of Genesis (pre-Collins) to the Revolution of St. John Lennon.
Salv.: Oooh, I quite like some Beatles tunes!
Simp.: See, that is the Holy Spirit working inside you, telling you the difference between musically good from bad. You could not know the difference without God.
Salv.: Hmmm... I'm a little doubtful of that. It doesn't seem like there's a little Jiminy Critic sitting on my shoulder telling me good from bad.
Simp.: I'm telling you it's the voice of God.
Salv.: So the voice of God wants me to like Iron Maiden?
Simp.: No! No! That is your fallen human nature, rebelling against God! If you listen, you'll hear it telling you that Iron Maiden is bad bad bad.
Salv.: I'm afraid I must contradict you. When I listen to Live After Death, all I feel is unalloyed pleasure.
Simp.: Ugh, well what other kinds of music do you like?
Salv.: Oh, pretty wide taste. Classical, blues, big band, classic rock, electronica, pun...
Simp.: Electronica!! Unnatural! I should have known this is what aural relativism would lead to! The Holy Criticisms stand firmly against this abominable practice.
Salv.: What's the harm?
Simp.: Ugh! Music generated without real instruments. That's not real harmony, that's just some guys fiddling about in a dark studio with their zeros and ones. Sterile! Nothing can come from it.
Salv.: See, this is what I mean about changing norms. Just look at film soundtracks. Long ago, electronic music was pretty underground. You had to kind of know the secret code to hear a little theremin here or there, and understand what the filmmakers were implying. Science fiction films, being somewhat unconservative by nature, were a bit more open about their hints of electronica. Then, of course, there was the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange. There was a huge furore over the film and it was banned in places for its perversion of Purcell and Beethoven. But now electronica has become pretty mainstream. Most people just don't have a problem with it. Times change. Different music becomes normative.
Simp.: I know and I think it's disgusting what's happening to the music of this country. Normative? Abnormative is more like it! I even had to burn all my Jennifer Knapp CDs when I found out she was using a drum machine.
Salv.: Yes, and many people disagree. And that's all aural relativism really is... a recognition that people disagree in matters of musicality. I mean, if it'll make you feel better -- you seem a little distraught -- maybe there is an absolute scale of musicality. But it seems clear that we have no way of determining what it is, because if we all had access to this absolute truth, we would not disagree with each other.
Simp.: Can I ask what you think about contemporary country and western?
Salv.: I don't like it.
Simp.: I'll pray for you.
(inspired by this.)