Monday, January 30, 2012

The Experience of Music

I was just reading another essay by Peter Kivy, from the collection The Fine Art of Repetition: Essays in the Philosophy of Music. He was suggesting that teaching music appreciation to humanities majors in college and university is done wrong. It is taught like literature: read a novel, discuss the themes, place it in historical context, perhaps talk about the literary techniques used. You can do the same with Beethoven: listen to a symphony or piano sonata, discuss the musical themes, place in historical context, perhaps talk about sonata form. But the difference, as Kivy points out, is that literature has content that we can absorb, giving point to the exercise. Dickens, for example, might give us insights into the terrible lot of child laborers in the 19th century; Jane Austen into the intricacies of human relationships and so on. But with music, it is quite different. The main reason according to Kivy, is that a symphony by Beethoven does not have content in the way a novel does. You can point to nothing in the symphony that gives us specific insights into the human condition. I think this is probably true. I have posted before about how the meaning of music is non-specific here.

Kivy makes the very interesting point that music is a unique art form in three particular ways: going back as far as we like in human history, music has primarily been a kind of ritual. Second, it is a community art, not a private one and third, it is an active, participatory experience, not a passive one. He is saying that teaching the musical canon like we teach the literary canon will not really work. You will have the proper experience of Jane Austen by reading the novels accompanied by information about the historical context and the literary techniques. And at the end, you will have access to the content of the artwork. But, Kivy argues, taking the same approach to a Beethoven symphony won't have the same result, because it has no content in the way a novel does. Instead, he argues, the way to approach music is to recognize it is a ritual, it is communal and it is active, not passive. So to access music in a genuine way YOU HAVE TO PLAY OR SING IT! Now that is an interesting thought! It seems correct to me, because it reflects my experience with music.

My mother was a fiddler, a violinist who played Canadian traditional music. Growing up, I cannot recall a time when, if you reached behind the couch or under a chair you wouldn't come up with a musical instrument case: guitars, violins, mandolins, octophones, banjos--you name it. Even an upright piano. I didn't catch the bug myself until my mid-teens, but my whole life I have had the unspoken sense that music was something you did. This is why I have always felt that pre-recorded, canned music, the kind you hear in the store, the mall, so many places, is not really music in the important sense. Because music is something you do, not something you just hear, passively.

I think you might pick up some of the ritualistic and participatory nature of music from that video.

For most of my career I taught people how to play guitar, for part of my career I also taught classes in music theory and history (appreciation). I am pretty sure that if you don't learn how to play or sing to some extent, there are crucial aspects of music that will not really make sense to you. I suspect that it also helps if you learn to read music as well, but it is the playing that is important. My first experience of Machaut, for example, was playing lute in a three-part motet of his in an early music ensemble as an undergraduate--actually, that was pretty much my first experience with chamber music, unless you count playing in a rock band! I had listened to a lot of recordings of Mozart, but the most vivid experience was singing the Requiem in the university choir. Bach, of course, is music I have played, almost on a daily basis, for the last forty years. Listening to Bach and playing Bach are very different experiences and I think that if you have just heard Bach without ever having played (or tried to play) any of his music, you will only have a partial experience.

Music is something you DO. If you play or sing, even just a little, you will enter into the world of music in a way that listening to a thousand recordings or viewing a thousand music videos can never provide. If we go back to Beethoven's or Mozart's time, the audience for one of their concerts probably consisted of a majority of musical amateurs who could read music (to some extent), who played piano (a bit, at least) and for this reason, could participate in the concert in a way that the passive audiences of today do not.

Which brings up some interesting thoughts about teaching music online...


Jon Silpayamanant said...

Reading music is different than playing music. I've always felt that most philosophy of music piggy-backed on the Eurocentric privileging of notated music, and in this case, the analogy is apt.

I remember when I got the chance to hear George Crumb at a Contemporary Music Festival some years ago give a talk about his music. The Q&A session following that talk brought up an interesting question by a student who asked something along the lines of, when you listen to a piece of music (I think the example used was a Mozart Symphony), which recording by an orchestra do you prefer and why?

Mr. Crumb answered, if I want to listen to a Mozart Symphony, I'll take out the score and 'read' it to listen to it in my head. The implication being, if you really wanted to hear it with an semblance of how the composer really heard it, you have to hear the score in your mind.

I see nothing wrong with this. That a score can be a participatory experience in the actual physical realization of it through performance doesn't negate the fact that it can also be a relatively private experience in the manner Mr. Crumb describes.

As for literature, well, that can just as easily be 'read aloud' in performance and obviously some kinds of texts are designed specifically for doing this (speeches, plays, libretti) but that doesn't negate the fact that these kinds of texts are perfectly suitable for 'reading in the head.'

Sure, the two experiences aren't the same, but so what? Having multi-modal ways of interpreting texts of any sort (whether it be langauge notation, musical notation, mathematical notation, or dance notation) just shows the richness of the particular medium.

We have classes that analyze Shakespearean texts as pieces of literature, why not classes analyzing Beethoven scores as pieces of [music] literature? And what's wrong with that? I don't think folks have a problem understanding that analyzing a play in a class is the same thing as performing the play anymore than do most people have a problem that analyzing a symphony in a class is the same thing as performing the symphony.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think have a sort of cyclic process. If I just pick up a score 'hearing' it in my head is only easy if it is for guitar or perhaps violin, cello or piano. More complex scores, like orchestral ones, I really have to struggle to 'hear' just from the score. But I much prefer to listen to music with the score so I can see what is going on easily. If I hear something really cool, I may want to steal it! Just reading the score, I can certainly see what is going on, but I may wonder about the 'feel' of a passage.

Sure we have classes analyzing Shakespeare and also classes analyzing Beethoven. But we also have classes that do a less analytical examination of music and those are classes for non-music majors. The difference is that you can't do a real analysis of Beethoven without the students being able to read music, just as you can't do a real analysis of Shakespeare if the students can't read English.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

I think the big issue here is the asymmetry associated with what we typically refer to as 'music literacy' as opposed to 'language literacy'--most users of a language that are 'literate' in the language can usually read, write, and compose spontaneously in the language. That's not necessarily the case with users of music.

We might find some analogues in the language world with specialists in ancient or dead languages which are no longer really spoken--the language user can read and comprehend the language without necessarily being able to speak or compose in it in any way that approaches fluency.

And maybe that parallel says something about typical music education and our ideas of music literacy. And I think that's some of the issue that Dick Weissman talks about in his definition of music literacy--the ability to actually be fluent in a musical style or genre. Music students can read music with some degree of fluency, but aren't necessarily able to spontaneously compose or improvise in that particular musical idiom. And I think that's a sad thing.

Bryan Townsend said...

In my teaching I have moved from teaching the guitar, to teaching the repertoire of the guitar to teaching music. With my students nowadays, I end up teaching them composition as well. I honestly don't know why all music students don't compose...