9 Factors that Influence Aesthetic Choice

Explaining musical preferences.

Posted Jul 15, 2019

Aesthetic judgments influence our emotions and preferences (liking). Aesthetics is narrowly defined as the study of beauty. Beautiful music or artwork produces a pleasant feeling. The following describes a list of criteria that influence our aesthetic judgment in evaluating music or a piece of artwork (Juslin, 2019).

  1. Perceived beauty. Defining beauty is elusive. Beauty in art is eternally subjective, and it is personal. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. However, we like stimuli that are easy to process.  According to the “perceptual fluency hypothesis”, the more effortlessly the perceiver can process an object, the more positive is the reaction. The most pleasing sounds might be those that are neither too complex nor too simple a melody. 
  2. Expression. An expression is an authentic product of human experience. Expressive art reveals the artist’s most profound intended emotions whether they are pretty or dark. For example, music must be heard as expressive about the emotional character of the work and the projection of the mood.
  3. Skill. Mastery of technical problems is a prerequisite for the production of expressive interpretations. Skill of execution is viewed as inseparable from art. For example, we may wonder at the speed with which a pianist is able to play a difficult passage with ease. Skills in performance may arouse admiration or envy. For example, the movie Amadeus centers on the deep admiration and envy of the imperial court composer for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
  4. Originality. Artist usually strives to create something original (unique) or new in their works. A novelty in the music may surprise the listener. It is a joy to experience when a piece of music violates an expectation. However, novelty involves an “expiration date.” What is novel at one point in time may not remain novel for a long time.
  5. Emotional response. Does the artwork or music move you? The transferring of emotions from artist to audience is a key aspect. People prefer artworks that arouse emotions in them. The value of emotion is explicit in the aesthetic attitude that “we enjoy art for its own sake.”
  6. Message. Art often implies the conveying of an idea or intention. Messages in art frequently concern life, society, and nature, and are typically implied rather than explicitly stated. For instance, Bob Dylan's work is highly regarded because of its lyrics. His famous 1965 song, "Like a Rolling Stone," is about a lonesome person paying the price for his life of sin. The title is taken from the proverb: a rolling stone gathers no moss. It is a metaphor for someone who is unable to settle for any job or lifestyle.
  7. Style. Style is a crucial aspect of art. Style refers to the distinct manner in which an act is performed (or a product is designed). Often, an artist’s success is mainly due to a recognizable and distinct artistic style. Claude Debussy once remarked, "Music is the space between the notes." For instance, every conductor tends to have his or her own interpretation of a given piece of music. They become the music they are playing, and they let the character of the music speak through them.
  8. The sublime. The sublime refers to a certain aesthetic quality that prompts awe in the perceiver. Sensing overwhelming greatness. This experience is linked with feelings of insignificance before an extraordinary object or event. The sublime may be related to musical aspects such as complexity and beauty. The story is told of Berlioz, the early Romantic composer, while attending a performance of a Beethoven symphony, was so overcome by emotion that he was visibly trembling (Maor, 2018). The person seated next to him suggested that he should take a break (go out) so he can enjoy the music. To which Berlioz responded in disgust, “Do you really think I came here to enjoy myself”?      
  9. Fame. Aesthetic responses are powerfully susceptible to prestige effects, such as what we know, or think we know, about artists or their works. For example, in a live concert, we may easily perceive a solo pianist as a highly talented performer if the performance is greatly applauded by others. We rationalize and convince ourselves that the performance was great! In an experiment conducted by the Washington Post, Joshua Bell wearing jeans and a baseball cap nonchalantly played his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin during rush hour in the subway station. Joshua Bell is one of the finest violinists alive who regularly performs to sold-out crowds in the best concert halls. During the 43 minutes of his playing, there was no applause. Of the 1,097 people who walked by hardly anyone stopped.

In sum, these criteria explain why different individuals have different reactions to the same music or artwork (e.g., furniture designs). Personal experiences such as having a musical education can influence which criteria become the focus of attention, among other things. For example, familiarity with a piece of music may indeed increase liking. 

References

Juslin PN (2019), Musical Emotions Explained, Oxford University Press.

Maor Eli (2018), Music by the Numbers: From Pythagoras to Schoenberg. Princeton University Press.