One of the cornerstones of arguments in favor of musical relativism is that musical interpretation is culturally conditioned and therefore subjective—one may not expect someone else with different cultural conditioning to interpret music the same way. So, the reason I interpret a particular musical form in a certain way is only because I have been culturally conditioned to interpret it as such. Someone else, on the other hand, may interpret the same music as something entirely different.
While I completely agree that our interpretation of music (as with everything) is conditioned by our experiences and backgrounds, to argue that musical interpretation is thus completely relative is to deny the category of “human nature.” In other words, while it is true that I and another individual may have different backgrounds, we share what is perhaps the most fundamental universal: we have the same human nature. We are both members of the human race, sons of Adam, distinct from the rest of God’s creation by the fact that we were created in the image of God. As Carl Trueman points out, “these aspects of human uniqueness provide a universal context for all human activity.” Trueman is emphasizing human nature as a defense for the validity of creeds written in vastly different times and cultures as valuable and meaningful for today, but it applies equally to other human activity such as music. He goes on to say,
Human nature is something which is more basic than gender, class, culture, location, or time. It cannot be reduced to or contained within a specific context such as to isolate it from all else. . . . Human beings remain essentially the same in terms of their basic nature as those made in God’s image and addressed by his word even as we move from place to place and from generation to generation. . . . Modern culture . . . prides itself on difference and on kaleidoscopic variety. Whatever the truth of this may be, it does not affect the essential core of identity that binds me together with human beings in modern China and with people in ancient Rome: we are all made in God’s image.1
In other words, such arguments for musical neutrality on the basis of a very fractured understanding of cultural identity ignores the reality that we all share a culture of humanity. Therefore, while individual background certainly plays a significant role in personal interpretation, sharing a common human nature means that we all experience on at least one level a shared conditioning. Thus this is the level on which we should endeavor to base our primary assessment of musical meaning: within this larger culture of humanity rather than factors unique to particular individuals or sub-cultures.
- Trueman, Carl. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, 63. [↩]