Each year, I do a little project with my budding young theorists to introduce them to music aesthetics and get them thinking about the important questions. We analyze a piece by Schubert or Brahms and then something by Gershwin or Cole Porter and then a popular song.  Then we have a discussion about which one is “better”. Then they write a little response.

Naturally, it is an unfair question, but I find it pedagogically helpful to ask impossible questions. It forces students to articulate their thoughts – which is really what I’m after as a teacher. This year, the freshman did Brahms’s Wiegenlied, Gershwin’s “I got rhythm”, and Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”.  More fruitful was the sophomore class. We compared Schubert’s “Heidenröslein” with Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”. The similarity of lyrical content allowed for more direct comparison between the songs.

Now, post-modernist kids aren’t apt to make normative judgments, so sometimes I have to put on my 20 league anti-post-structuralism boots and do some stomping around on their ideas. We do bring up Woltersdorff’s idea of “fittingness” and purpose in writing. Cyrus is not producing music for aesthetic contemplation in the same way that Schubert is. Nevertheless, they don’t like making statements like, “this is better.”

After reading their responses, I will have my boots on on Monday to ask them some more questions.

1. Why are you in music school if there isn’t a better way to do stuff? What exactly is going on in your lessons if you aren’t learning a better way to sing or play your instrument?
2. Why did I reject that fugue theme the other day? I thought it was because I saw that it’s development would not be contrapuntally fruitful. If everything in art is just “in the eye of the beholder”, why am I beholden so much bad counterpoint?
3. Does Wynton Marsalis really play trumpet better than this guy?

Now, I am the biggest fan of the Portsmouth Symphonia that you will find, but this is a different aesthetic than Western Music.

I love them, but I take off my post-structuralist stomping boots when I listen. They are about something different. They are about everything being beautiful “in the eye of the beholder.”