Conscientiously Blind To A Real Aesthetic

Does technical knowledge of music help or hinder a listener’s experience? Sir Donald weighs in:

I was once severely rebuked by a friend when I pointed out a specially beautiful example of “double counterpoint in the twelfth” in an orchestral work. My friend dryly said that there was no beauty in such a merely scholastic device.

My memory cannot testify whether I was too polite or merely lacking in the presence of mind to point out to him that there unquestionably was great beauty in this piece of double counterpoint in the twelfth and that it could have been attained by no other device. My friend’s prejudice against technical pedantries undoubtedly made him conscientiously blind to a real aesthetic values in this case.

What say ye?


  1. Pete Tindall

    I have always enjoyed classical music in spite of being a musical ignoramus in the technical sense. To address this I recently started a Learning Company CD course called “How To Listen To And Understand Great Music”. I’m about 1/2 way through and I must say that learning about the underlying structure of music has certainly enhanced listening to it. I’m able to see the common thread that links the stuff that I like. Like my trade, geology, if you understand the process you are better able to appreciate the results.

  2. I agree with you Miss mussel. All beautiful things have some kind of structure. Recognizing and naming that structure does not diminish the beauty. Or, as Gerty might have said “A double counterpoint in the twelfth is a dou”….well, you know

  3. Brendan

    The reason the anti-theory position is dumb is that if you listen closely to a lot of music you will start to become familiar with and recognize certain musical devices, and “technical knowledge” mostly consists of knowing the names for these. Why should it matter if you know the name? I distinictly remember listening to Bach in my early teens, and hearing his final (very dramatic) deceptive cadences and thinking, “Oh yes, one of those,” without knowing what it was called. How does learning the name take anything away?

  4. Miss Mussel

    Apologies for the tardy reply. Miss Mussel also thinks that the anti-theory position is dumb. Engineers learn maths and physics; doctors study anatomy and biology. Both are on an ongoing quest to discover and describe how something mysterious works exactly. What’s so different about music?

    The danger is in the commodification of knowledge, not the possession. To be more clear, those that are not “in the know” tend to feel that their listening experience is in some way inferior to the aficionado because they can’t describe a plagal cadence or scordatura, perhaps because those that are “in the know”, tend to feel superior about their knowledge.

    This is hogwash on both sides.

    Everyone engages with the music uniquely according to their life experience, personality and intellectual knowledge. No experience is inherently better than another. It just is.

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