Measuring Musical Excellence

Philosopher James Ross explores “Musical Standards as a Function of Musical Accomplishment.” It’s a radical idea: We don’t measure music by anything outside music itself. Music is assessed and valued by standards that are internal to the performance of music.

It sounds like relativism, but it isn’t. Ross insists that “performative and compositional excellence are objective, interpersonally assessable, and preceptually accessible.” Still, “the basis for justification and appraisal has to be vantaged within the historical (and hermeneutical) circle of refined composition/refined performance that is the development of the art itself” (89).

The “conditions of excellence” of a craft arise from its practice: “There is no access to the ‘right’ way of playing arpeggios or chromatic fourths, or lip position for trumpet or trombone, apart from the ways that have survived criticism and been incorporated into ‘how to do it’ and draw admiration from this who understand” (91).

Objective the standards may be, but they aren’t fixed. What counts as excellent changes as instruments improve and new methods are tried out. Ross observes that “with the progression from the harpsichord to the pianoforte, skills at dynamic modulations were required that previous lay beyond instrumental capability” (93). Composers experiment with new techniques.

For a time, the standards of excellence are thrown out of gear. But that only means that refined standards of excellence will emerge in time, as certain instrumental and compositional innovations pass the only test there is – musical practice.

Performers advance in technical proficiency: “When Lizst played in his own way, what was previously undreamt to be within the capacity of a pianist became something that was to be, eventually, part of the training for pianistic mastery” (94). Performers learned new skills, which in turn opened up new possibilities for composition involving “crossing hands or interlacing fingers” at “incredible velocities” (94).

Ross is interested in music, but not just music: “The close circle of appraisal is not peculiar to music, but common to every human activity whose potentialities develop from prior accomplishments.” In music, “there is no authoritative access to what constitutes performative musical excellence from any standpoint disengaged from the critical practices of musicians, teachers, performers, conductors, and even audiences” (102). Insofar as the same principle applies elsewhere, it means that “cognitively challenges and justification challenges that would demand an independent access to the subject matter. . . are misconceived” (102).

(Ross, “Musical Standards as Function of Musical Accomplishment,” in Michael Krausz, The Interpretation of Music: Philosophical Essays [Clarendon Press, 1993]. Thanks to Jonathan McIntosh for alerting me to the essay.)

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