Is Music Meant to Satisfy the Mind or the Heart?
To Satisfy the Mind and the Heart – The Time Test and Appeal Test
When I was younger, I thought of music purely intellectually in notes and chords. Naturally, this meant the music all around me, especially what was popular, seemed mind numbingly simple. Just about everything I heard featured at most four chords, a common time signature, etc.
As I get older, I realize that the fundamental assumption behind that line of thinking is that the purpose, or telos, of music is to be an intellectual endeavor of expansion and experimentation. The truth is, I still believe that is a big part of it. However, what took me longer to realize was what most non-musicians instinctively begin with, which is that music is also simply for making people feel good.
On this whole spectrum, I theorize that what a musician ought to aspire to is the perfect balance of being able to satisfy all parts of the human soul, in that it at once is experimental and creative enough to satisfy the mind and yet retains the accessibility and simply “sounding good” that can appeal to people with a degree of intellectual understanding of music.
The Rare Geniuses That Can Satisfy Both
In my mind, the Beatles and Bob Dylan are the perfect examples of appeal across “telos” and audience. The Beatles were at once praised by Leonard Bernstein and a general audience (even if it took them a little longer to catch up). In addition to being able to horizontally impress folks across the spectrum of musical knowledge, they have also stood the test of time. Time is a great filter, in my view, of quality as well, because it removes the passing fads and trends that may push one piece of music to the stratosphere for a brief moment before it disappears and is looked back at with contempt and disgust by the same people a year later.
These are just two of the “tests” in my view that create multiple lines of evidence pointing to what “good” music might be – the time test and the appeal to crowd test.
What happens when you only satisfy either the mind or heart, but not the other?
But returning back to the notion of appealing to all parts of one’s musical “soul”, or all parts of music’s purpose (mind and heart, for example), it might be helpful to think of examples of fully satisfying one and not the other. The Ramones, on the one hand, are a great guilty pleasure to me, and might exemplify a total satisfaction of music that sounds good but doesn’t do as much to be creative and further music for its own sake. However, it has a tremendous power to make one simply feel good, exhibited by how one can’t help but dance and sing long. And as simple as it seems mentally to replicate their basic power chords and progressions, I have yet to ever hear a band that can replicate the sound of Joey Ramone’s voice and the energy of the band. (This of course may boil down to some “technique” involving extremely subtle pauses and inflections, but the intertwining of technique with a more abstract sense of “feel” again demonstrates that different parts of music are tied to together.)
On the other hand you have “math rock” and even atonal music. The latter, I suspect, is based more in pure experimentation as rewarding in itself, in throwing novel chords and time signatures together in order expand music as a field. This is important in its own way, to satisfy the purpose of music for the mind.
And again, the Beatles with Rubber Soul, for example, are able to impress critics and a general audience alike, in their own time and then in ours. I can point to the novel sounds they created with the mixing of some Beach Boys’ like harmonies with unique rhythms and changes in their songs, and also use my gut alone to say “I like this – it sounds good.”
Of course, terms like heart and mind here are used loosely, but I believe I have painted a general picture that is somewhat useful for helping us think about what makes a good piece of music and what a musician might want to aspire to.