Ted: "its obviously absurd to apply a standard that doesn't exist for food to something so poorly understood as art. Any prescriptive aestheic science is mere pretense."
Then are you prepared to say you do not consider "Nessun Dorma" to be better music than "Chopsticks," or Shakespeare's sonnets greater literature than "Little Orphan Annie?" I don't believe you would mean it, even if you brought yourself to say it. In the area of literature, standards of excellence have been reasonably well established, and we are not puzzled that some writers are considered great and others mediocre or bad. Although little has been objectively established to justify musical standards, we all do have passionately held standards, and so we need to keep looking for a basis for musical discrimination. It's there, somewhere. I suspect that because of the phenomenal work being done in research on the brain, it will not be long before a partial basis is found, as Judith suggests, in neurophysiology.
But in the meantime, I cannot ignore -- or consider it meaningless -- that some music lifts me to the skies, some makes me weep with a mixture of pain and joy, some bores me to the point of physical pain, and some makes me want to run screaming from the room. I spent one memorable evening of my life listening to African music (until I did run from the room, screaming inwardly if not outwardly) and another, very recently, at the Los Angeles Opera's performance of Puccini''s "Il Trittico." I would take a session of waterboarding before I'd suggest that there was any equivalence in my estimate of the two experiences.
My point is that we all do make judgments about music, and we don't need to apologize for it -- while granting that we cannot demand that others share our judgments (unless they are civilized, sane, perceptive, discriminating, fastidious, sensitive, intelligent, and informed).
Well, I didn't even recognize that quote you questioned as my own words. I would certainly qualify "Any prescriptive aesthe[t]ic science is mere pretense."
Let me think out loud here. First, I do believe that for the most part aesthetic judgements can be informed, justified helpful and plausible. I think that one can easily say that Lucia di Lammermoor
infinitely outclasses "Happy Birthday to You" or that "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" easily edges out "War, What is it Good For?" But the judgements are relative, since the units are undefined, just as in the way that one can assign relative ranks to emotional responses without having a way to assign them absolute numerical quantities.
The problem that I run into is specific prescriptive commands such as "you shouldn't enjoy rap/rock/Stravinsky/Wagner" or assertions of objectively proven superiority such as "Mozart is obviously superior to Beethoven." The analogy with food here would be that while one can say objectively that one needs protein and that properly-cooked beef is a good source, one cannot say that Filet Mignon is so objectively superior to hamburger that to prefer a hamburger over a steak is an act of immorality.
My "beef" so to speak is then with people who make prescriptive assertions such as "you really shouldn't like X" or that fact that he likes X over Y shows that he is, for example, morally depraved, an imbecile, or - especially - not as good as me
I prefer to approach aesthetics from the standpoint of two questions - "what makes me like this piece?" and "how can I enjoy this piece?" Questions of "Is X better than Y" are secondary to questions of "what is good about X?" and "what is good about Y?" I find prescriptive assertions, that someone should like X or should not like Y to be wrongheaded and often in bad taste. For example, the title of this thread itself is presumptuous.
Finally, as for African music, I can certainly imagine wanting to run out of the room after listening to, say, certain types of primitive drum music. I know a Sioux Indian who absolutely loves Sioux drum chants. They are totally rhythm driven, with no melody or harmony, and to me un-listenable. Yet she does enjoy the music. And I do not suspect that it is due to any moral or intellectual faiuling on her part.
If you (pl.) would like to hear some African music that will not send you out of the room screaming, I strongly suggest you check out "Festival au Desert" at youtube. (I cannot suggest a specific clip, since I cannot listen to youtube on the computer I am using at the moment.)
Here is a neat future performance of Lucia di Lammermoor: