Theater Masks

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Musical Judgement

The song "Anytime" came on my ipod today while Caitie and I were coming home from dinner. It's a cabaret written song by William Finn expressing the sentiment that no matter what happens, the singer would be there for the person he's singing about. I believe the song was written for someone who is dying, though the lyrics are universal enough that they could apply to anything.

The song is one my absolute favorites - the melody and lyrics are both gorgeous.

It got me thinking - is there a way to judge music qualitatively? To Caitie and me, the song is beautiful (it's one of her favorites also, and we even heard the version she prefers - she likes the Norm Lewis, I like the Carolee Carmello, but both are great). Others might hear the song and think it's boring or pretentious or just not their type of song. By the same token, that person might turn around and put on a country song (Caitie likes that, me not so much usually, though I do like some old country a la Willie Nelson - music Caitie hates) or a rap "song" (neither of us like that) and think it's amazing and the greatest thing ever.

OK, so we all have different tastes. So I said to Caitie, "is there some music that everyone would universally agree on as being great?" After thinking about it, I said "what about Mozart?" Nearly anyone who studies or writes about music seriously would agree Mozart is great. Why? I have no idea, but he IS. There's something in the music that is, for the lack of a better word, great.

But then here's the thing -- that same person who would put on Jay-Z's latest might think Mozart is boring or pretentious. If that's so, can there be any music that is considered universally great? Is there a standard by which was can judge ANY music of any sort and say that regardless of opinion, something is "great?"

Now, I admit I'm writing about something here I have little actual knowledge of beyond knowing what I like and what I don't. What I find fascinating, though, is can this be stretched to other art forms -- painting, movies, theater, literature? Moby Dick is considered a great work, but, ironic as the following statement is, I find it dry as toast. Am I wrong? Is the book "great" regardless of my opinion, or can each person on their own define "greatness." If that's so, then how can we EVER pick a "classic" or a "great work" of art?

These are the things that keep me up at night. Any thoughts? Sound off below.


  1. Sounds to me like you are applying to work at Welton Academy.
    Excrement! That's what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We're not laying pipe! We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? "I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can't dance to it!"