14 November 2007

"The Chomsky Effect"

When one listens to a philosopher, scientist, mathematician, or whoever, argue for a thesis, one should always distinguish between (a) the thing-being-argued-for, and (b) the argument-for-that-thing. Sometimes (a) is insightful, illuminating, and even true, yet lacks (b) a good argument for it (for example, an argument predicated on solid empirical evidence). There are many cases in the history of science in which hypotheses that scientists propounded and, on occasion, vehemently defended turned out to be true (as far as we know at present), although the reasons these scientists cite for the veracity of their position turned out to be horribly mistaken. On the other hand, sometimes a thesis, position, or theory itself is profoundly misguided, although the exponents of these theses, positions, or theories articulated brilliant arguments for them. There are also many cases in the annals of history in which sometimes bizarre and even repugnant positions were made to seem rather plausible by clever genius. Between these extremes are any number of possible combinations. The moral is: when comparing two competing theories, for example, one ought to consider both (a) and (b), recognizing that theory X might be true even if though lacks the same cogent, well-formulated arguments that Y has.

A distantly analogous situation can be found in music. First of all, songs can be analyzed and critiqued from different perspectives. One perspective is its composition; another is performance (either live in concert or in the studio). Sometimes a song is “good” because it is composed rather well; other times because the performance is superb, e.g., sung by a good singer, played by a good guitarist, conducted by a good conductor, and so on. One has probably experienced someone (say, at Monday “Open Mic” night) who, sadly, cannot sing or play guitar. The cover songs they play, although compositionally identical to the songs professionally recorded by talented musicians that, let us say, actually wrote them, are nonetheless insufferable. Yet they are, compositionally speaking, no different. Similarly, that same individual could write a wretched song with a desultary melody, bad harmonies, and so on, that when recorded by professional musicians and with euphonious sounds might be rather pleasing. The moral is: when evaluating a song, one ought to disentangle its performance and compositional aspects, judging each separately. (Indeed, it’s quite possible that a brilliant song writer can’t sing, and therefore his/her songs sound horrible—yet they are quite original and innovative in the compositional sense.)

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