I have a confession to make. I cannot endure country, Top 40, or hip-hop music for any lengthy period of time. You might as well waterboard me before subjecting me to their overly repetitive and simple riffs.
When I was younger, I would rail against these genres mercilessly, ridiculing the artists and their fans alike for being musically ignorant amoebas who can hardly count to four, nevertheless keep a 4/4 beat.
But as I got older, became a skeptic, and embraced the idea of critical thought, it dawned on me that I was wrong for doing this.
Aside from the fact I was just being a jerk, one must first understand that claims are generally broken in to two groups: quantifiable or subjective, and I believe they are essentially, mutually exclusive.
Quantifiable claims are things that can be proven to be true—a scientific claim of fact. But subjective claims have no right or wrong answer, they are merely opinion.
The reason I was such a music snob, is largely due to the influence of my former high school band director. A charismatic man who taught us the value of striving to be greater tomorrow than you are today, no matter how good you may already be. Think of Dr. Lee played by Orlando Jones in Drumline, and you’re really close.
It’s not that he taught us to be music snobs, it’s that he taught us the incredibly complex challenges advanced music can offer, the science of music—or what’s known as music theory.
Along the way, I learned about great musicians like Steve Morse, a guitarist and jazz major from Texas A&M, so talented, that from 1988-1993, he was voted Guitar Player Magazine’s Best Overall Guitarist. After winning it five straight years, including 1993, a year he didn’t even release an album, he was removed from the competition.
Let’s be clear, that was not best rock, jazz, classical, or country guitarist, that was “overall” guitarist. The things he can do with six strings and a block of wood are scary. See just a smidgen of his prowess in this video.
The more I learned about great musicians like this, the more it upset me that people like Eddie Van Halen were hailed as the best guitarist ever. He’s good, but not “Steve Morse” good, and I believe Eddie himself would agree. But where Van Halen sold millions of albums, someone like Steve Morse was hardly known outside the music community. The idea that the most technically proficient musicians are rarely the most famous is a travesty of justice to me, so how could this be?
For instance, if we look at sports, Larry Bird was one of the greatest NBA shooters of all time. He was also one of the most popular. His raw talent, just like Michael Jordan after him, garnered him the recognition he deserved. So why is this often not true of musicians?
It boils down to understanding the difference between quantitative versus subjective claims.
For instance, here’s a claim I would happily make that would garner a lot of opposition. Dream Theater, a band who met and studied at the Berklee School of Music, who now employ a keyboardist (Jordan Rudess) who was accepted and studied at Julliard at the tender age of 9, and who have won several Guitar Player Magazine, Modern Drummer Magazine, etc., awards are a better band than the Beatles will ever be, and I can essentially prove it.
First things first though, if we’re making a quantitative claim, the word “better” has to be defined—the word is quite ambiguous. In my claim, it refers to more technically proficient.
We would quantify that Larry Bird was better than other NBA stars by using his career statistics. But how can we quantify one musician as more technically proficient than another?
It’s simple. I could choose any Beatles song (and I do mean any), and challenge Dream Theater to play it. Knowing both band’s works as I do, I can all but guarantee that Dream Theater could easily perform the chosen piece within an hour or two, playing it note for note at the same tempo or faster than the Beatles recorded it at, without breaking a sweat.
Now if we flip the tables and ask the Beatles to replicate a Dream Theater song, the Fab Four would be hard pressed to replicate more than 1-2% of them, even if they were given months or even years to achieve said goal. This song should illustrate my point.
I’m not being overly mean to the Beatles, nor overly generous to Dream Theater. Any knowledgeable musician, if familiar with both bands, knows I’m being very fair and accurate here. It’s not that Dream Theater are superhuman (although it seems like it at times), or that the Beatles are incompetent, it has everything to do with the amount of hours both bands put in to mastering their instruments.
The Beatles, like many other famous bands, made catchy songs, sold a lot of albums, and did all they needed to do to make a damn good living as musicians. They likely never felt the need to go further.
Aside from Dream Theater’s Julliard and Berklee educations, something the Beatles did not do, having met Dream Theater on a couple of occasions, I can tell you that they are driven to challenge themselves technically and musically; there is clearly less focus on just selling records.
So why was I wrong for calling Dream Theater “better,” and behaving like such a music snob? While I defined “better” as more talented, I could just as easily have defined it as most record sales—then the Beatles obviously win in a landslide. I began to understand that the whole concept of “better” in relation to art, is innately flawed. If you’re going to use that word, you cannot use it for subjective things.
This was the impetus for my understanding of the difference between art and science.
While sports statistics are quantitative, music is an art form, and therefore largely subjective. It can be quantified to some extent as I did above, but unlike sports, technical prowess is no guarantor of success in music because art as a whole is not about achieving a measurable goal, but merely satisfying the artistic thirst of the user. This is something the Beatles must assuredly be declared the winners of, much to my dismay.
This knowledge began the transition of my love for music into my love for science, as the latter began to seem infinitely more attractive and important.
Art is like science without the burden of having to be correct and accurate. So in my mind, unlike science, art can never truly be important.
When lives are at stake and problems need solved, we don’t call painters, musicians, poets, or philosophers, we call doctors, engineers, and physicists. A 911 call will never yield the work of an artist.
So then I asked myself if science is “better” than art. Are art and science at odds with one another?
Actually, many scientific endeavors started with arts like philosophy or movies. A person simply dreamed without limits, and those dreams posed challenges that science brought to reality. Many scientists were inspired by the arts as children, such as scientists inventing things they saw in sci-fi movies as a child.
So how does this all affect me? My love for complex music is still great, but I no longer insult those who love the simpler stuff. My preference for the conservative-biased Fox News doesn’t prompt me to insult MSNBC watchers. My passion for Ferraris and Corvettes no longer prompts me to insult people who drive Porsches and Lamborghinis.
While I still maintain my preferences, I understand the difference between what I can quantify, and what is truly subjective. Not only am I more accurate in my perception, I’m no longer compelled to insult people for their varied tastes, but instead, often ask them why they appreciate something I do not.
Their answer may not sway me, but many times, it opens my mind to new and interesting things, some of which, allow me to grow my own creative mind by pointing me in a direction I would have never discovered on my own. If there’s anything a scientifically oriented person likes most, it’s learning new things.
So if you find yourself being a snob, calling one artistic endeavor better than another—stop! More often than not, claiming something is “better” is an inherently flawed thing to do. It is an ambiguous word, that without being clearly defined, and applying only to a quantitative bit of data, should never be used to compare one thing to another.
Coke isn’t better than Pepsi, but Coke’s sales are. Know the difference.