Mystery score

Mystery score

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hoisted From the Comments

Here's one of the comments on my previous posting, Help Wanted:
Music, of all the arts, is the one that does not and should not require explanation or education. If it works at all it should talk directly to the inner listener, beneath the layers of pretension or persona.

If the music has more going for it that simply satisfying the short-term pretensions of elitists and pseudo-intellectuals then it will survive on its own merits, if not it will die out as the fad passes and audiences move on.

Also, music is not literature. A child doesn't need to know anything to enjoy and appreciate music. I'm not talking about instant gratification, nor am I saying that the experience cannot be deepened or improved with time, but you do hear people criticising those who don't "understand" certain strands of modern music where the suggestion is that they lack the intellectual capacity or taste (whatever that is) to appreciate it.

Music ultimately should be able to transcend education and intellect and culture in a way that literature, for instance, cannot (or cannot always).
Here's the short version of my reaction: what bullshit.

Here's the longer version.

All music is culturally mediated, that is, we understand, or think we understand, that with which we grew up. I "know" something about western tonal music - and I use that term in its most technical meaning - because so much music since 1750, not just notational concert music, conforms to its melodic, harmonic, and structural conventions.

But when I listen to Indian classical music or Chinese classical music, you bet I need some help. I have no gut-level understanding of the structural or melodic conventions of Indian classical music; I didn't grow up with it, the scales and tunings are different, the structures are unfamiliar.

It's not a failing of the music that I need that help. It's my personal lack of experience with and exposure to that music.

I think - no, I know - that many people aren't willing to put in a little work to understand music that doesn't immediately appeal to them. That's their failing, not that of the music. My anonymous poster cites children's supposed ability to simply understand music without explanation. Hello - I'm an adult. I want to know and understand things in an adult way. It's seriously anti-intellectual to use children's understanding of music as a model for what is good music.

Let's try another approach. Take these two statements.
  • Wow, that's great music. I want to learn more about it.
  • I just don't get that stuff. I want to learn more about it.
My anonymous commenter would have me believe that in the first case, nothing is wrong, but in the second case, the music is at fault. Sounds like bullshit to me.

17 comments:

Osbert Parsley said...

I agree that no-one should blame a piece of music for his own failure of sympathy and understanding. Interpreting music in a meaningful way is a complex process reliant on a number of cultural and aesthetic conventions, and we need prolonged exposure to make sense of a truly alien style.

Yet what I do find valuable in the anonymous comment above is the reminder that musical comprehension is not "understanding" in the usual sense. Understanding microtonal music is not the same as understanding Spanish or quantum mechanics, as the heart of the process is experiential rather than propositional. It's in this sense that I have some sympathy for the comment above, even though the bulk of it is rather problematic.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Osbert, thanks - experiential understanding is, indeed a big part of listening to and understanding music. One of the things I'm trying to get across is that with more experience and listening, I'll understand music using microtonal materials better.

Osbert Parsley said...

Indeed - and, speaking of microtones, are you familiar with the Huygens-Fokker microtonal pipe organ? It has 31 notes per octave. There is an information page here (in Dutch), and a neat page here that lets you "play" the 31-note keyboard on your computer. The actual instrument in Holland can be connected to a conventional 12-note keyboard which can recreate various temperaments by selecting various combinations within the 31 notes of the octave.

So. Cool.

Tom DePlonty said...

>> One of the things I'm trying to get across is that with more experience and listening, I'll understand music using microtonal materials better.

Will you understand it better, or just more quickly? If you wanted to, could you get where you wanted just by doing a lot of listening?

For my part, if J. was only objecting to the idea that some kind of (verbal) explanation is *required* to understand music, I'd be completely sympathetic.

He or she seemed to be going a lot further ("talk directly to the inner listener") and I'm with you calling bullshit on that.

rootlesscosmo said...

My suspicions are roused mostly by the appeal to the special wisdom and sensitivity of children. This point was raised in some commentary on Joshua Bell's DC Metro stunt; grownups were reproached for dragging the children away, thus crushing their "natural" understanding of music, or beauty in general, or something. There are a lot of questionable things about that argument, including the likelihood that those kids would also have wanted to stop and watch a juggler, a guy in a Barney suit, or an Airedale taking a crap, none of which really qualifies for Sublimity.

Michael Walsh said...

...a guy in a Barney suit, or an Airedale taking a crap, none of which really qualifies for Sublimity

I would argue that taking a crap can be a sublime experience, though I will grant you it is probably only sublime for the performer and not the audience...

I think I have a similar "deaf spot" for microtonal music (although I like the near-microtonal collisions in Riley's Harp of New Albion), but I confess that the few examples I remember had the problem of being too short for me to get comfortable with the language, without sufficient hooks for me to want to keep listening, and with no sense of a story arc that let me think the end of the work was anything more than the performers having had enough of it.

Good art can be appreciated on several levels, and not all of them at a first hearing. Bad avant-garde art has a tendency to be smug in its newness and exclusionary to an audience trying to catch on.

Anonymous said...

Lisa,

My reply will have to consist of 3 separate postings due to length...

First, I think you may have misconstrued part of my text.

To restate: I sincerely believe that an intellectual understanding of the technical side of a composition is utterly irrelevant to its emotional purpose. Perhaps it's greatly fascinating to some people, which is fair enough, but for me it seems kind of trivial next to the fact of being profoundly moved on an emotional level. Of course, the intellect can aid the artistic purpose, so far as it can provide the framework for the composer to articulate himself, but then it counts for nothing without inspiration (which is where we get into the non-physical realm). It can also aid the listener so far as, if you have an intellectual understanding of music, you are more adept at actually hearing it and being aware of what it is.

But again, this is not an end in itself, rather, once you hear, you can then be touched by the music if it has anything to say to you. Someone without an intellectual grasp of symphonic form or whatever will perhaps not be moved so easily, simply because the music may not "sink in" at first... but after a few listens, they too can "hear" the music, and without necessarily rationalizing what is going on structurally, the emotional message is available to them too. So the intellectual aspect helps in terms of decoding the sound on a physical level as do ears, but the point lies beyond that.

I don't consider the structural architecture of a piece of music to be irrelevant, as I think it appeared to some people. Far from it, I think it's extremely important. Utterly crucial. And to build the architecture of a large-scale work I'm sure would require great intelligence on the part of the composer. My point is, as far as the listening experience goes, what is important is that the architecture is FELT, and whether it is consciously observed is academic!

Of course, this gets confusing if someone is conscious of the structural implications of the music, notices how much power this gives the work, then assumes that they feel that power because they are aware of the musical thought behind it. I would suggest that this power is accessible to anyone with a natural musical "ear" and the patience to listen, and that the relevant "connections" will be made on a subconscious level, which is where the visceral power of the music really operates. And musical "knowledge" is a different thing entirely from an ear for music.. although to confuse matters further, many people with a musical ear are likely to have acquired some knowledge, and then credit this knowledge with their ability to appreciate music beyond a banal pop piece or whatever. I would suggest they could love classical music without this "knowledge"... Perhaps they would have had less motivation to listen in the first place, but again, I believe the emotion is communicated with or without "knowledge".

Anonymous said...

Lisa,

My reply will have to consist of 3 separate postings due to length...

First, I think you may have misconstrued part of my text.

To restate: I sincerely believe that an intellectual understanding of the technical side of a composition is utterly irrelevant to its emotional purpose. Perhaps it's greatly fascinating to some people, which is fair enough, but for me it seems kind of trivial next to the fact of being profoundly moved on an emotional level. Of course, the intellect can aid the artistic purpose, so far as it can provide the framework for the composer to articulate himself, but then it counts for nothing without inspiration (which is where we get into the non-physical realm). It can also aid the listener so far as, if you have an intellectual understanding of music, you are more adept at actually hearing it and being aware of what it is.

But again, this is not an end in itself, rather, once you hear, you can then be touched by the music if it has anything to say to you. Someone without an intellectual grasp of symphonic form or whatever will perhaps not be moved so easily, simply because the music may not "sink in" at first... but after a few listens, they too can "hear" the music, and without necessarily rationalizing what is going on structurally, the emotional message is available to them too. So the intellectual aspect helps in terms of decoding the sound on a physical level as do ears, but the point lies beyond that.

I don't consider the structural architecture of a piece of music to be irrelevant, as I think it appeared to some people. Far from it, I think it's extremely important. Utterly crucial. And to build the architecture of a large-scale work I'm sure would require great intelligence on the part of the composer. My point is, as far as the listening experience goes, what is important is that the architecture is FELT, and whether it is consciously observed is academic!

Of course, this gets confusing if someone is conscious of the structural implications of the music, notices how much power this gives the work, then assumes that they feel that power because they are aware of the musical thought behind it. I would suggest that this power is accessible to anyone with a natural musical "ear" and the patience to listen, and that the relevant "connections" will be made on a subconscious level, which is where the visceral power of the music really operates. And musical "knowledge" is a different thing entirely from an ear for music.. although to confuse matters further, many people with a musical ear are likely to have acquired some knowledge, and then credit this knowledge with their ability to appreciate music beyond a banal pop piece or whatever. I would suggest they could love classical music without this "knowledge"... Perhaps they would have had less motivation to listen in the first place, but again, I believe the emotion is communicated with or without "knowledge".

Anonymous said...

Part 2:

I completely disagree that music can only communicate on a superficial level without the necessary "background knowledge". I would argue the complete opposite - what can be gained from a technical understanding of the score or the historical context of the music is INCIDENTAL and superficial. The fact that these things can be "understood" without actually hearing a note should suggest that they are ultimately extraneous to musical communication. In my view it is that which can only be understood by hearing the music which holds its true power.

Some people have suggested that an intellectual grasp of the music is necessary to fully unlock the emotional power. I think this is an illusion caused by the fact that the two often develop in tandem... but I don't believe one causes the other, rather, they are both promoted simply by LISTENING to the music in greater DEPTH. Furthermore, such things are trivial next to the fact of being profoundly moved on an emotional level, and are really more conceptual details rather than musical expressions.

I also reckon we shouldn't place too much emphasis on the composer's "intentions"... simply because composers don't really understand how music works any better than we do. Of course they understand form and technique, but like the rest of us, have only intuition to differentiate between a dry and formal piece and something with real strength of feeling. The best music is not composed through some guy developing his own "grand scheme" of communication.. rather, it happens when the composer allows himself (or herself) to be guided by the universal communication of music... (i.e. be inspired, compose what feels right, without having to ask why)

I'm not saying enjoying music intellectually is not valid.. but I am saying it is secondary to what music can really do.

Anonymous said...

Part 3:

I completely disagree that music can only communicate on a superficial level without the necessary "background knowledge". I would argue the complete opposite - what can be gained from a technical understanding of the score or the historical context of the music is incidental and superficial . The fact that these things can be "understood" without actually hearing a note should suggest that they are ultimately extraneous to musical communication. In my view it is that which can only be understood by hearing the music which holds its true power.

Some people have suggested that an intellectual grasp of the music is necessary to fully unlock the emotional power. I think this is an illusion caused by the fact that the two often develop in tandem... but I don't believe one causes the other, rather, they are both promoted simply by listening to the music in greater depth. Furthermore, such things are trivial next to the fact of being profoundly moved on an emotional level, and are really more conceptual details rather than musical expressions.

I also reckon we shouldn't place too much emphasis on the composer's "intentions"... simply because composers don't really understand how music works any better than we do. Of course they understand form and technique, but like the rest of us, have only intuition to differentiate between a dry and formal piece and something with real strength of feeling. The best music is not composed through some guy developing his own "grand scheme" of communication.. rather, it happens when the composer allows himself (or herself) to be guided by the universal communication of music... (i.e. be inspired, compose what feels right, without having to ask why)

I'm not saying enjoying music intellectually is not valid.. but I am saying it is secondary to what music can really do.

J.

Anonymous said...

Oops!

I may have double-clicked without realizing. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Lisa and others,

Do you have any thoughts on what I've written ? Disagreement ?

J.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Haven't had a chance to read everything through. I just now realized that there are a pair of duplicates (i.e. total of four postings, but only two different texts). Did you intend to post a third?

You say this: "I completely disagree that music can only communicate on a superficial level without the necessary "background knowledge"."

Nobody's making that argument. At least, I'm not.

Tom DePlonty said...

To restate: I sincerely believe that an intellectual understanding of the technical side of a composition is utterly irrelevant to its emotional purpose. Perhaps it's greatly fascinating to some people, which is fair enough, but for me it seems kind of trivial next to the fact of being profoundly moved on an emotional level.

A couple of thoughts:

Lisa's original query wasn't about how microtonal music is put together ("the technical side of a composition"), she was asking for advice about how to listen. It's not the same thing. Your objection seems to be based on a misunderstanding in the first place.

The "intellectual/emotional" dichotomy is very crude. There's more to perception and reaction than than the rational intellect on the one hand, and emotions on the other. You listen to music with your whole brain - at least, I think you should try.

For you, "being profoundly moved at an emotional level" is primary - that's fine. To other people, that may be just one aspect of a complex experience, and only part of what they value about the experience. Who are you to tell them they are wrong?

Anonymous said...

Tom,

>>You listen to music with your whole brain.

I agree with that.

>>For you, "being profoundly moved at an emotional level" is primary - that's fine. To other people, that may be just one aspect of a complex experience, and only part of what they value about the experience. Who are you to tell them they are wrong?

Sorry, but I believe that Music is the romantic art. And it follows that the greatest music has been, is, and always will be, romantic.

Passion, emotion and sentiment. It is in the expression of these things that music is supreme.

J.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Well, that is your opinion. Got anything to back it up? What do make of the Well -tempered Clavier in the context of music as a romantic art? What would JS Bach think of that assertion?

I agree completely with what Tom said.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And getting back to this...

Osbert, belated thanks for the Huygens-Fokker pointer.

Tom, I think I'd understand, well, more experientially. Just doing a lot of listening might do it, yeah. I'm just not sure.

rootlesscosmo, haha, yeah. Children understand music they've been exposed to. I don't have a natural ability to comprehend either Mozart or ragas. I've had little exposure to Indian classical music, and so I don't have a grasp of the conventions.

Mike, that is an interesting and shrewd point about needing works long enough to start heraing what's going on.

J - you're putting up some nice straw men there. I'm not arguing that intellectual understanding is necessary for music to make an emotional impact. No one is.

And, again, what Tom said. I was asking for help with actually hearing what's going on.