In a comment to Friday’s classical music post, Chris Evo recommended a TED talk by Benjamin Zander that has the goal of convincing his audience that they love classical music:

If you’re not able or inclined to watch it, he goes through a Chopin piano piece in detail, and explains how it plays off our expectation of a particular chord sequence. He’s a charismatic guy, and it’s a great presentation.

It does not, however, convince me that I love classical music.

This isn’t a problem that’s limited to music, of course. As a general matter, a lot of people confuse lack of enjoyment with lack of understanding. If you don’t like something, they assume that you don’t understand what’s going on, and just need to have it explained to you.

The same thing comes up with pretty much every art form. If I say I don’t like a painting or a sculpture, I get an explanation of how it fits into the context of the form, and so on. If I say I don’t like a piece of classical music, I get to hear about music theory. If I say I don’t like a book or a movie, I get told about its influences and antecedents.

The problem here is that understanding and enjoyment are orthogonal. They are two different axes in the mental phase space associated with art, and motion along one does not necessarily involve motion along the other.

There are plenty of works that I understand, but don’t enjoy. To choose some examples from SF, I found Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Yellow Card Man,” nominated for a Hugo a couple of years ago, to be brutally unpleasant to read. I have no trouble understanding how the story works– I recognize how it plays off older traditions and I appreciate the technical skill involved in making it work, but neither of those things makes me want to read it a second time.

Zander’s performance is impressive, and the explanation is great in an “I see how you did that” kind of way, but it’s not going to make me run out and buy a bunch of Chopin tracks. I don’t dislike the song, but it’s just not my thing. And knowing how it works doesn’t change that.

I also bristle a bit at the suggestion that this business of playing off expectations of chord progressions is somehow unique to classical music. This is a general property of music, full stop. Either because of deep cultural indoctrination, or, if you like Just-So stories, because something on the savannah in Africa a few million years ago predisposes us to like certain chord sequences, we have certain expectations regarding the structure of musical pieces, and any competent songwriter will, consciously or not, make use of those.

This is not to say that understanding and enjoyment can’t complement one another– to choose a musical example, I enjoy Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” a little bit more because I can see the ways it works with older traditions of soul music (Stax, Motown, etc), and that’s a kick. But ultimately, the song works for me because it’s a good song in a style that I like. Whether I knew about its antecedents or not, it’s a good example of the kind of music I like.

If you don’t like that kind of music, knowing that it’s riffing off older songs isn’t going to make you like it. Liking it or not is not a matter of whether you understand what’s going on, it’s a matter of whether you like the song or not.

It’s hard not to fall into this trap– I’m sure I’ve done it myself. When somebody doesn’t like something that you like, there’s a powerful temptation to assume that they don’t like it because they haven’t understood it. But in the end, understanding and enjoyment are orthogonal, and telling people that they don’t like something just because they don’t understand it just tends to piss them off.


  1. #1 Tim Eisele
    June 22, 2009

    True, but every now and then, not often mind you, but sometimes, you run across somebody who says “I don’t like X because it has property Y”, and you realize that they are mistaken, and that there is some X that does not have property Y and that therefore they might like *some* of it.

    There might be some benefit in explaining to them in that case.

  2. #2 phisrow
    June 22, 2009

    I have run into situations where I enjoyed something more as I understood it better; but the reverse has also been true. I’m not sure that “orthogonal” is quite accurate, since they do seem to be related at times; but I certainly would say that there is no reliable correlation.

    I wonder how often the “you’d like it if you understood it” is based on the speaker’s personal experience of liking it more when they came to understand it, how often it is the “conversion psychology” of somebody who has seen the light and can’t imagine how you could be blind enough to not see it, and how often it is the result of “taste as superiority”, where people believe that liking X demonstrates their superior understanding of X, which implies that, if you understood X as well as they do, you would like it too.

  3. #3 megaloptera
    June 22, 2009

    I’m not sure I agree with this argument, partly because I am not sure what meaning of “orthogonal” you are using here. You seem to be implying orthogonal in the statistical sense, where it is generally accepted to mean “uncorrelated”. Assuming that meaning of orthogonal, I would strongly disagree. Understanding and appreciation are frequently associated, but not always so. Let’s take the example of civil rights in the US. A basic understanding of human rights and recognition that African Americans had similar rights as whites has developed into a full blown appreciation for the cultural heritage of African Americans in the US (I suppose one could argue that the appreciation pre-dated the rights, but I’m not sure it really matters). Has this understanding converted *everyone* to appreciate jazz and hip-hop? Certainly not given that the Aryan Nation still has members in the U.S. The point is: understanding is likely to bring appreciation for some people, but it would be silly to expect everyone to be swayed by understanding alone. In fact, if understanding always=appreciation then true art would die, because once music theory was learned, all music would then be appreciated and there would be no difference between “good” and “bad” music! And, as a child of the ’80’s I can tell you for sure–bad music is an unfortunate reality.
    I guess this points to the fact that humans are more complicated than the simple dichotomy between understanding v. appreciation.

  4. #4 Ray Ingles
    June 22, 2009

    I’d have to agree with the commenters – understanding and appreciation are not wholly orthogonal. They can diverge greatly, but they are not uncorrelated.

    As a simple example, the more you know, the more jokes you can get. You don’t have to like classical music to enjoy PDQ Bach (I know there are jokes I’m missing there) but it helps a lot.

  5. #5 John Novak
    June 22, 2009

    As everyone else is saying, “Orthogonal” is clearly not the word you want. You yourself admit that they’re not unrelated, Chad, when you say:

    This is not to say that understanding and enjoyment can’t complement one another– to choose a musical example, I enjoy Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” a little bit more because I can see the ways it works with older traditions of soul music (Stax, Motown, etc), and that’s a kick.

    Further, I can think of very few examples where understanding something more (in the context of art, not the context of, say, politics) caused me to ilke it less, but I can think of too many examples to count where understanding something more caused me to like it more.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    June 22, 2009

    I’ll stick with “orthogonal,” because it emphasizes the point that the two are not significantly and reliably correlated, at least for me. Understanding frequently has no effect on my enjoyment of a given work, and in some cases actively detracts from my enjoyment of a particular work– to choose another recent SF example, recognizing that “Pride and Prometheus” from this year’s Hugo ballot was a crossover between Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice made it significantly less enjoyable for me, both because I didn’t care for Frankenstein and because it kind of removed any suspense about the outcome. Or, going back a couple of years, finding out the extra twist at the end of Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” made me like it less, because it added to the “aren’t I just the cleverest thing ever?” tone that the story already had.

  7. #7 cisko
    June 22, 2009

    Quite a few people – myself included – find that they enjoy classical music a lot more after learning about its forms and history. It feels a bit like understanding a language; I began to see and understand the structures that support all the frilly notes.

    I get that you didn’t have that same experience, and I don’t doubt that you gave it a good faith effort. But the point here is that a good number of people do learn to enjoy classical (and jazz, for that matter) after learning more about it. So any argument that understanding is unrelated to enjoyment is just not going to be accepted by those who have had the opposite experience.

    It would be a bit crazy to argue that greater understanding will necessarily, inevitably lead to greater enjoyment. But that’s a long way from arguing that they’re completely unrelated. Even your Winehouse anecdote argues against this.

  8. #8 brian ledford
    June 22, 2009

    Would it be fair to say understanding modifies an existing fondness? I’m thinking more of sports here – I don’t enjoy watching baseball for example. And it’s not that I don’t understand the rules, or appreciate the athleticism. I just don’t like it. Ditto for golf and nascar. But I do like watching bicycle racing. which isn’t notably more exciting on a per minute basis. And I doubt I could make someone like bike racing by explaining how milram sets up the sprint for Allesandro Petacchi, or by comparing the different climbing styles of alberto contador and carlos sastre. If you don’t care, you don’t care.

  9. #9 Josh
    June 22, 2009

    Speaking as someone who DOES NOT enjoy most classical music despite a fairly well-rounded understanding of it, I think that the last commenter hits the nail on the head. Understanding can modify an already existing fondness, by giving someone a deeper appreciation for the nuances they never noticed before. However, there has to be an underlying attraction. I think that’s why people make the mistake of conflating understanding with enjoyment in the first place. Most people do not spend significant time attempting to understand something unless they have a prior motive for doing so. Usually this is an interest/attraction in whatever it is. Therefore, as they see their innate appreciation grow deeper, they assume that the same experience will hold true to everyone. As someone who was forced to learn to appreciate classical music, I can testify that it does not.

  10. #10 brian ledford
    June 22, 2009

    also, if I substitute hip hop [or whatever the preferred technical term is] for classical music, the non-orthogonal claim seems absurd. If I don’t like NWA or Tupac or [insert name here], no amount of learning about the history of the music is going to make listening to the songs enjoyable. I’m assuming “like” means “is on an ipod playlist” and not “admire the technical achievement.”

  11. #11 cm
    June 22, 2009

    The problem here is not with the choice of the word “orthogonal”–the problem is with trying to find a general rule for art appreciation.

    For some, or for some with some art, greater understanding does give greater appreciation. The clearest example of that must be Shakespeare. And this makes sense: certain kinds of art require a little “decoding” before one can “get” all the references, allusions, structures, etc. For myself, I know my enjoyment of certain poems has been greatly increased after reading an interesting analysis of it. Also, learning to count time signatures in music has increased my awe at, for example, “Starless” by King Crimson (13/8 time).

    For others, it may be that greater understanding seldom or never gives greater appreciation.

    The point is, people vary. Trying to put forth a general rule like the two are orthogonal strikes me as homogenizing people unjustifiably.

    By the way, this business was nicely summed up by Homer Simpson once:

    Lisa: Dad, you don’t understand!
    Homer: Lisa, just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand.

  12. #12 cisko
    June 22, 2009

    Brian, you seem to be arguing against a theory that “if you understand enough, you’ll like it”, but I still maintain that’s a much stronger claim than “understanding can bring you to like it”.

    I don’t buy the ‘existing fondness/underlying attraction’ argument. I was not born with an innate like/dislike for jazz. It made no sense to me when I first heard it. But after studying (and playing) it, I started to see what was going on, and my opinion changed.

    I would, however, buy into the converse: that there are certain works or genres that just don’t appeal and never will. Maybe violins just rub you the wrong way, or something. It happens. Radiohead is just never going to do it for me; Thom Yorke’s voice is entirely too annoying. But it does not follow that I can never come to enjoy anything by learning more about it.

  13. #13 Perry
    June 22, 2009

    I play loud rock music or soft acoustic music in bars for fun. I do not want to know about scales, modes, any of that stuff. Understanding things is my day job. Making music is my fun stuff.

    I do not like classical music very much. I doubt I would like it more if I “understood” it. It does not move me in the same way that a Jerry Garcia ballad does, and it never will likely. I like Dylans voice. Some jazz I like, some is noise.

    I think Chad is right, if not orthogonal, then correlated with no causation. At least for me.

  14. #14 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 22, 2009

    I accept “orthogonal” as at least a valid metaphor here.

    I knew barely enough music theory to be in my junior high orchestra and high school band. I was kicked off the high school orchestra for nonmusical reasons involving beer, ciagerettes, and a violin bow broken over someone’s head. Years later, I took an intensive year of classical guitar. That was so long ago that I literally have forgotten how to read music (though I still can, in my dreams).

    My limited understanding enhanced my appreciation of Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll, and Electronica, but not of Hip Hop. I had one Punk song with lyrics I’d written on MTV.

    I had some music criticism published, and was pubishing editor of a newspaper “Sound Options” with 25,000 readers, on Rock, Punk, Alternative, World Music, Classical, and Baroque, which was put out of business by a community college president (before I sued in Federal Court, and got the Trustees to fire said censorship-happy president).

    The issue of whether scholarly understanding, especially scientific understanding (i.e. the new Music Theory using the Mathematics of Orbifolds) helps or hinders aesthetics is an ancient and unresolvable debate.

    Consider also that self-taught non-academic composer/performer Django Reinhardt was sometimes consulted by mainstream composers, who could not figure out a good way to progress from one chord to another. Django Reinhardt would instantly improvise a solution that satisfied the academically trained visitor.

    Consider the unclassifiable works of Frank Zappa, who was trained to be able to conduct a symphony orchestra, but who unquestionably rejected the high art/low art division.

    Consider Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Tonal Relativity as he applied it to Bach. Oh, wait, that’s in an alternate world.

  15. #15 Greg
    June 22, 2009

    My personal experience suggests that there may be two factors that come into play here. The intellectual understanding (“there is the deceptive cadence that he was talking about, okay there is the dissonance resolving to the tonic…”) that well may be orthogonal to one’s ability to actually enjoy the music.

    But, while you are getting this understanding of classical, along with it comes exposure. If this exposure comes as the result of actually being able to perform the music at a high level, this exposure factor is strengthened, perhaps geometrically. I had the great fortune to have been truly first rate choir when I went to high school (in my sophomore year we were invited to perform at the International Youth and Music festival). The experience of practicing classical masterpieces, honing every detail and phrase as close to perfection as you can make it, and then performing it- listening to the magnificent sound even as you are contributing to it is a feeling that is hard to describe in words. If, by the process of coming to know about the music, you begin to _feel_ the music then, I submit, then assertion of orthogonality no longer holds.

  16. #16 Ponder Stibbons
    June 23, 2009

    I also bristle a bit at the suggestion that this business of playing off expectations of chord progressions is somehow unique to classical music.

    I didn’t watch the video, so I don’t know if Zander suggests what you say exactly. But Western art music from the 18th to early 20th centuries plays off harmonic expectations in a certain way. That’s what intro classical music theory classes try to get at. They aren’t exactly the same harmonic expectations as in pop or jazz, and what’s considered artistically good usage of those expectations also differs between genres. For one, plenty of pop doesn’t attempt harmonic originality (and I don’t say this as a condemnation of those pop pieces — it’s simply a statement of different aesthetic norms), whereas someone like Beethoven is pretty much always pushing the boundaries of the harmonic conventions of his time. So yes, most genres of music use harmonic expectations, but they don’t all use them in the same ways.

  17. #17 Ponder Stibbons
    June 23, 2009

    I also have to disagree with the commenters who say that theoretical understanding only helps to amplify an already existing attraction. I’ve had cases of disliking pieces of classical music for several weeks before eventually growing to love them at least partly through theoretical understanding. In those cases I was forced to analyse those pieces while taking music classes, and started out unhappy that those particular pieces were chosen, but was slowly won over by the sheer genius revealed in them as we went deeper into the pieces. Admittedly, it is possible that it was the mere repeated listening to them, rather than the theoretical understanding I gained, that was responsible, but when I ask myself now why I love those pieces, I always refer first to those theoretical reasons. I think it’s fair to say that people have different ways of enjoying music, and for those who take a more theoretical approach, understanding and enjoyment are less orthogonal (though obviously still not the same thing).

  18. #18 Eric Lund
    June 23, 2009

    There are multiple levels of understanding and appreciating art. At a basic level, you may think that a piece looks/sounds beautiful (or not), without understanding why. That’s where I am with respect to fine art of the 16th-19th centuries: I know that there is a code buried in the poses of the people shown, but I do not know what that code is. Likewise with some Russian folk music: I don’t know Russian, so I have no clue what the lyrics mean, but some of it sounds good.

    As you learn more about a given art form, you see/hear things in the music that you missed before. It usually won’t persuade you to like a piece that you didn’t like to begin with. I’ve listened to, and performed, a fair amount of 20th century classical music. I like some of it, and can’t stand other pieces. I can explain in a few sentences how to write a twelve-tone piece, or twelve bar blues for that matter, but I don’t care for either genre.

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