Friday, January 04, 2008


I often wonder about where the line between subjectivity and objectivity can be drawn. I remember attending a seminar for work one time where the host was trying to make the point that people think differently and you need all different types of people at an organization (and no one way of thinking is superior).

By a quick survey, he divided the room into groups of people who thought objectively and subjectively. He then asked "which group is right?" His answer was that we were both right. Well, I know which group he belonged to.

But back to my original statement, I think of music and how we can objectively call one song better than another. We would all say the superiority of one song or one type of music exemplifies subjective opinion but I can't help but wonder how exhaustively true that concept really is. If I were to randomly mash a bunch of keys on the piano is it merely a subjective opinion that it is less of a musical masterpiece than say.... Claire de Lune? It almost seems reasonable to me to say that Claire de Lune is objectively better than my random notes which were arrayed in complete dissonance.

Well suppose we took it a step further. Is it totally subjective to say that Mozarts' "O Fortuna" is better than the microwaved pop-song that Kerry Underwood is singing? I'm even inclined to ask if that is subjective, how can anything be objective?

The funny thing is that we (most of us... well all of us who are sane) would say morality is an objective thing and good music is subjective. Yet we have much more agreement on what is good music than on what is right and what is wrong.

In music, certain chords go together, and certain notes in a scale, if played in a particular sequence, always sound good. Musicians constantly return to these standards over the years. If you asked 100 people which bass line sounds better (after playing one with alternating 1 & 4 and a 1 & 5) 100 of them will say the latter. Is it merely subjective that 1&5 makes a better bass line than 1&4?

Anyway, I don't know the answer - just pondering.


Thos said...

If you refer to something as objectively better, you would have to be able to identify objective standards by which the conclusion is reached. For a standard to be objective, many people would have to be able to apply it and reach the same conclusion.

I think you're touching on truth here, that the distinction is somewhere between completely bogus and completely notional/fictional. It's a handy way in conversation to distinguish between what is mere taste (say, whether Billy Joel or Paul Simon is better), and what is something more widely agreed upon.

Peace in Christ,

StBasil said...

I agree with Thos. There is some objective standard of beauty. There must be. It corresponds to our innate desire and recognition of beauty. However there is a subjective aspect involved. Something may be more of less beautiful to someone subjectively but there is some objectivity involved because many people will reach the same conclusion as Thos said.

I think beauty corresponds to objectivity insofar as beauty is the good, what we perceive as good. It may be more objective to say Mozart is more beautiful than the random keys on the piano but there may be more subjectivity involved in discussing whether Mozart or Bach is more beautiful.

I don't think we can say there is no objectivity to beauty. There is because it corresponds to ultimate ideals and goods to which we all look.

Pax Christi tecum.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Thos & Basil Good points.

Thos said...

The terms objective and subjective come up all the time in law school. Many court-made tests used one or both of these terms. E.g., something like this, 'one has to have a subjective expectation of privacy that is objectively reasonable in order to establish a cause of action.'

In that example, the terms merely mean that the individual has to actually think X, and "society" would agree that X is a reasonable thing to think (the objective part).

I looked the words up in my Black's Law Dictionary (the Mack-Daddy), but it doesn't define the terms. It does have "Objective symptom". That's a symptom which a doctor can discover from examining his patient, as opposed to subjective ones which are those which the patient tells the doctor about. Again, measurability seems to be key.

For your example of music, a symphony is objectively better than your key-banging if you've defined some standard of "better". The standard could be the mathematico-musical expectations applied in a course on composition (which would expect some proper rhythm, proper harmony in a recognizable key, etc.). But the standard could be "creativity and originality", in which case your key-banging composition could be objectively "better". But where there are no standards, you're left with only subjective opinions.

Which denomination is best?

Peace in Christ,

TheDen said...


Objectively speaking, I'd say you're wrong!

Just kidding.

Seriously, good post. I personally think that everything is subjective in terms of music and art. I saw a photograph of a tricycle in a driveway that sold for over $100,000.00. I looked at the picture and thought--you've got to be kidding me! I also hear some of today's mmmbop music on the radio and it hurts my ears.

In regards to morality, I think that tends to be subjective too. You and I would agree that abortion is wrong where the president of Planned Parenthood would think that abortion is moral.

What is objective, however, is good and evil.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because they wanted to be like God.

What's objectively good? Everything that comes from God (as told to us in Genesis 1)

What's objectively evil?
Everything that is not derived from God. Everything where man's choices and actions are a result of self over God. Everything where man chooses outside of the grace of God. Or more succinctly: sin.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Well I think that abortion is objectively wrong and I think the picture of the tricycle is objectively worth much less than $100,000.

I think you have to draw the line somewhere. It's easy with these extreme examples but less so when the difference is smaller. Like Basil said, its much more difficult when we're talking Mozart versus Bach as opposed to Mozart versus random keys.

But I guess what I was trying to say is that if we can say Mozart is better than random keys, then we could also say either Mozart or Bach is objectively better (though we may not be able to agree on which one is or may not posses the musical genius to determine it scientifically). The point that Im grasping at is that there exists somehow, someway an objectivity about music.

But in practical terms it is much easier and useful to think of all art as subjective.

TheDen said...

Well, thinking a little bit more about it, there's a scientific standard called the "golden ratio."

When components are matched up to the Golden Ratio (1.61...) in art and architecture, they are generally deemed more aestetically pleasing.

Perhaps the Golden Ratio can be applied to music as well. I'm sure there's some ratio that can be applied.

I still like to think that everything is subjective except for good and evil.

Note that when the Pope talks about abortion, he doesn't call it "morally wrong" but rather, "intrinsically evil" and has a much more solid foundation for his argument (in my opinion).

Thos said...


Ask any Music Therapist about whether some music is objectively better than others, and I bet they'll say yes.

Peace in Christ,

Anonymous said...

"I often wonder about where the line between subjectivity and objectivity can be drawn."

Yes, but exactly where to draw it is subjective...

Wait. Nevermind. :-)