Is beautiful music universal?

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What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

— from “Leisure”, by W. H. Davies

Yesterday, I received one of those forwarded emails purportedly about an “experiement in context, perception and priorities” carried out by The Washington Post on January 12, 2007 involving the renowned violinist Joshua Bell.

The amazing tale in the email turned out to be true.

IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?

It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

While I find the WP account of the experiment interesting and I think we should pause to admire beauty around us, I disagree with its conclusion which is based on the premise that there is such a thing as universally beautiful music. Call me crass if you like, but I honestly don’t like the selected classical pieces.

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