Not content to be defeated by a maxim, a team of European researchers is trying to devise a framework for talking about music accurately and succinctly. If talking about music really is like dancing about architecture, then the group at KTH The Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, is teaching the first steps. Their work was just published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.They go on to say:
Of course, we already have a whole lexicon for talking about music. You can describe its melody, you can talk about its tempo, you can even get into chord structure, put it into a genre, go on about instrumentation, position a piece within musical history, and so on.
With the exception of genre and musical history, most of these terms approach music from the point of view of music theory, which is certainly useful for composing and communicating ideas among music makers, but can leave the layperson out in the cold. The music theory lexicon just isn't adequate for describing the human experience of hearing music, which is probably why much of music journalism has moved away from it altogether.You should really click on that last link because it is obvious that the writer did not. The article, "Music Criticism has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting" makes precisely the opposite point, that,
One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music. Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.The author is stating very clearly that talking about music simply requires the necessary technical vocabulary, just as talking about nuclear physics, or figure skating or orchid growing or any other specialized human activity does. It is emphatically NOT the case that "the music theory lexicon just isn't adequate for describing the human experience of hearing music". The music theory lexicon, which is better described as all the technical vocabulary about music from scales, chords and timbres all the way to Neapolitan 6ths and hexachordal combinatoriality has been developed over a very long time (the words melody, rhythm and harmony all come from ancient Greek) and is perfectly adapted for the purpose of talking about music, as I guess I have been demonstrating on this blog for the last 1400 and some posts.
But the purpose of the article is not to actually know or discover anything true, but simply to promote the scientific research. The writer, Ben Richmond, describes the research in this way:
As is usual with this kind of journalism, we are not given enough detail to actually know what is going on. But it seems fairly clear that the researchers are coming up with crude descriptors to try and describe listeners' perceptions. But the big problem here, it seems, is twofold. In the absence of any detailed technical vocabulary the researchers default to vague, generic terms like "speed", "rhythmic clarity" (described as from "flowing to firm" which could mean almost anything) and "brightness" which probably refers to timbre. The second part of the problem is that the researchers then rely on the verbal responses of the listeners, who also lack specific technical vocabulary. So it is a case of vague descriptions of vagueness. Here is how one of the researchers characterizes it:
“By higher level semantic description we mean something that can be characterized in a few words , something like the final judgement of listening,” he replied via email. “It could be emotions, mood, if you like it or not, genre etc. Thus it is not related to basic parameters like tempo or melody.”Which is a whole lot of nothing, it would seem. The "higher level semantic description" is anything but. Then he lets the cat out of the bag by revealing what this is really all about:
We have the double agenda of both trying to contribute to basic understanding of music perception and contribute to the applications within music information retrieval”"Music information retrieval"? Whazzat? Ah, that is online music services like Spotify. So this is all some sort of convoluted way of figuring out how to market pop music. Well, ok then.
That reminds me of the old Frank Zappa quote:
Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read.And about that quote? It really is just an awkward metaphor. Writing about music is not like dancing about architecture. There's no parallelism there. Singing about economics is like dancing about architecture!
Here is a piece of music:
And here is a perfect written description of it:
You see, music already has an excellent written language. Oh, you mean you wanted it in English? That would involve some technical vocabulary.