Understanding and Enjoyment are Orthogonal

In a comment to Friday’s classical music post, Chris Evo recommended a TED talk by Benjamin Zander that has the goal of convincing his audience that they love classical music:

If you’re not able or inclined to watch it, he goes through a Chopin piano piece in detail, and explains how it plays off our expectation of a particular chord sequence. He’s a charismatic guy, and it’s a great presentation.

It does not, however, convince me that I love classical music.

This isn’t a problem that’s limited to music, of course. As a general matter, a lot of people confuse lack of enjoyment with lack of understanding. If you don’t like something, they assume that you don’t understand what’s going on, and just need to have it explained to you.

The same thing comes up with pretty much every art form. If I say I don’t like a painting or a sculpture, I get an explanation of how it fits into the context of the form, and so on. If I say I don’t like a piece of classical music, I get to hear about music theory. If I say I don’t like a book or a movie, I get told about its influences and antecedents.

The problem here is that understanding and enjoyment are orthogonal. They are two different axes in the mental phase space associated with art, and motion along one does not necessarily involve motion along the other.

There are plenty of works that I understand, but don’t enjoy. To choose some examples from SF, I found Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Yellow Card Man,” nominated for a Hugo a couple of years ago, to be brutally unpleasant to read. I have no trouble understanding how the story works– I recognize how it plays off older traditions and I appreciate the technical skill involved in making it work, but neither of those things makes me want to read it a second time.

Zander’s performance is impressive, and the explanation is great in an “I see how you did that” kind of way, but it’s not going to make me run out and buy a bunch of Chopin tracks. I don’t dislike the song, but it’s just not my thing. And knowing how it works doesn’t change that.

I also bristle a bit at the suggestion that this business of playing off expectations of chord progressions is somehow unique to classical music. This is a general property of music, full stop. Either because of deep cultural indoctrination, or, if you like Just-So stories, because something on the savannah in Africa a few million years ago predisposes us to like certain chord sequences, we have certain expectations regarding the structure of musical pieces, and any competent songwriter will, consciously or not, make use of those.

This is not to say that understanding and enjoyment can’t complement one another– to choose a musical example, I enjoy Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” a little bit more because I can see the ways it works with older traditions of soul music (Stax, Motown, etc), and that’s a kick. But ultimately, the song works for me because it’s a good song in a style that I like. Whether I knew about its antecedents or not, it’s a good example of the kind of music I like.

If you don’t like that kind of music, knowing that it’s riffing off older songs isn’t going to make you like it. Liking it or not is not a matter of whether you understand what’s going on, it’s a matter of whether you like the song or not.

It’s hard not to fall into this trap– I’m sure I’ve done it myself. When somebody doesn’t like something that you like, there’s a powerful temptation to assume that they don’t like it because they haven’t understood it. But in the end, understanding and enjoyment are orthogonal, and telling people that they don’t like something just because they don’t understand it just tends to piss them off.