Music Matters chapter seven

Public-facing note taking on Music Matters by David Elliott and Marissa Silverman for my Philosophy of Music Education class. 

This chapter addresses musical meaning and how it emerges out of context. More accurately, it addresses how every musical experience has many meanings that emerge from many contexts. Elliott and Silverman begin with the meanings of performance, before moving into the meanings of composition, listening and so on. They insist that performance is not an activity limited to an elite cadre of “talented” people, that it is within reach of anyone who has the proper support.

We propose that people’s capacities for and enactments of an intrinsic motivation to engage in different kinds of musicing and listening are extremely widespread phenomena, restricted only by lack of musical opportunities, or ineffective and indifferent music teaching. Indeed, developing a love for and devotion to musicing and listening is not unusual when students are fortunate enough to learn from musically and educationally excellent teachers and [community music] facilitators, and when they encounter inspiring models of musicing in contexts of welcoming, sustaining, and educative musical settings, including home and community contexts (240).

Musical performance, like all other forms of musical practice and experience, is a way of enacting “ethical-musical idealization” of our fellow performers and listeners, of actively constituting their personhood. In so doing, we practice ethical idealization of others and ourselves more generally–we literally construct our personhood. To restrict this opportunity to “talented” students is anti-democratic in John Dewey’s sense.

I would be happy to ban the word “talent” from all educational settings. It interferes with the growth mindset, for both the “talented” and “untalented” alike. Jared O’Leary asks, if musical talent is innate, what’s the point of music education for everybody? Why not limit music class to the students who are already good at it? It is more educative to assume that music is a matter of learned expertise, of skills that we can develop and knowledge that we can acquire. O’Leary recommends not using the word “talent” at all, and instead using “expertise” as our standard for measuring musical ability.

Musical interpretation is a crucial form of musical understanding generally. By interpreting the music, you internalize it and imbue it with your own expression and meaning. In classical music performance, most of the creativity lies in interpretive choices about tempo, dynamics and phrasing. In jazz, you have more freedom to interpret; you’re supposed to put a personal spin on a song, stretching and altering it as you see fit, and even dramatically rewriting it to suit your own expressive purposes. John Coltrane made some of his most personal and creative music by reworking familiar tunes like “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves.”

Recordings pose a problem for musical interpretation–they lock in our idea of how a song is “supposed” to sound. This is especially true in rock and pop, where the specific sonic qualities of the recording are as salient as the underlying performances, notes and lyrics. If we want to interpret a canonical recording like a Beatles song, we either have to imitate the recording as closely as they can, or accept that we will sound awkward. Fortunately, hip-hop and electronic music give us another option: to use the recording itself as raw material for new expression, turning its familiarity from a restriction into a vector for rich new emotional association.

There is a popular and romantic notion of musical composition as creating ideas from scratch, conjuring them from the air as if by magic. But no one composes or produces in a vacuum.The composer/producer is influenced by the reactions, real or imagined, of audiences, friends, collaborators, peers, rivals, journalists, critics, scholars, and strangers on the internet. We are always aware of forms, traditions, genres, and performance practices, even if we are actively trying to reject them.

In the age of recorded and electronic music, the word “composition” takes on new meanings. It might be the act of writing notation, but it can also mean inventing music within the recording medium. My colleague Adam Bell describes the way that bedroom producers create music through self-guided experimentation with software like Logic Pro. Bedroom producers do not operate in a vacuum–they are frequently trying to imitate a particular artist or operate within a particular style–but the software affords trial-and-error discovery of technical and musical skills. MusEDLab director Alex Ruthmann details the way that iOS apps like Madpad lower the barriers for novices to do this kind of self-guided discovery, by providing a diverse array of playful and intuitive interfaces based on novel visualization schemes and interaction methods. The MusEDLab’s mission is to create more such interfaces with a more explicitly educational aim.

Improvisation is the act of composing in real time. If composition is structured to some extent by existing influences, so too is improvisation. The more difficult and complex the song you are improvising over, the more tightly constrained you are by the need to rehearse a toolkit of riffs and phrases in advance. John Coltrane’s solos over “Giant Steps” are methodically structured around memorized stock riffs. By contrast, when he solos over “My Favorite Things,” he is more free to take risks, to play “wrong” notes, and to be open to stumbling into unexpected ideas.

I have done a great deal of improvisation in styles ranging from rock to jazz to country. The most challenging form I have encountered by far is freestyle rap. Not only do rappers have to discover sounds and rhythms in real time, but they have to do so using words that rhyme and make sense, that boast or tell jokes or stories. And contrary to popular belief, rappers do not ignore the pitch axis; pitch is a crucial component of a rapper’s flow.

Arranging is the formalized cousin of interpretation. There is a substantial overlap between arranging an existing work and composing a new one. Arranging does not just optimize a song for emotional impact; it can change the song’s stylistic context, or alter its meaning entirely. Arranging and remixing share this ability; we could really think of arranging as analog remixing. I find that arranging and remixing are best practiced not on music that I adore unconditionally, but rather on music that I have mixed feelings about. For example, I have always loved “Dancing On The Ceiling” by Lionel Richie, but aspects of its arrangement and production make me cringe.

My friend Barbara Singer has a similar relationship to the song, so we did an arrangement of it that kept its strengths (its uncomplicated joyfulness and catchy melody) while addressing its weaknesses (overly slick and complex production.) We took a guitar riff that appears briefly at the end of the track and used it as the backbone of our arrangement, having it run through all of the verses. Otherwise, we used a simple but propulsive beat, power chords on the guitar and synth bass. We also gave the song a more contemporary feel by processing Barbara’s voice through Auto-Tune. Having exercised my creative whims on the song, I find Lionel Richie’s recording more gratifying now; I feel like my objections to it have been addressed, and I’m content to let the original be what it is. More recently, I returned to that recording and took another interpretive pass at it, via editing, effects, and layering in more drums and bass:

Rock and pop musics adopt the strategies of nineteenth-century Romanticism, using non-syntactical aspects of the music for structural expression: timbre, articulation, and dynamics, rather than melody, harmony and form. This makes the music accessible, but that does not mean it is dumb. Once you’ve got the music theoretical toolkit assembled, writing a complex chord progression is effortless. Telling the truth when you sing a simple melody is harder.

Musical preferences are closely intertwined with social identity, autobiographical memories, and other extramusical considerations. So is musical meaning.

[M]usical preferences flow from individual and shared embodied-enactive appraisals of the sonic-textual details of several simultaneously related musical dimensions: the interpretation-performance dimension, the musical design dimension, the musical praxis-specific style dimension, the cultural-ideological dimension, and the narrative and autobiographical dimensions. Embodied appraisals of the cultural-ideological dimension may be especially powerful in listeners’ non-conscious preference decisions. Listeners are easily drawn to or repelled by specific social-cultural meanings, by the luster of associations they apprehend in or attribute to particular kinds of musical patterns (262-263).

Carl Wilson addresses these issues in some depth in his study of Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Musical Taste.

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

Wilson interrogates his own distaste for Dion, and explores the feelings of her fans. At the end of the book, he concludes that his tastes boil down to tribal allegiance. As a male, sophisticated member of the upper-middle-class cultural elite, Wilson is obliged to hate Dion, and his rejection of her is implicitly a rejection of her lower-class female fans. This does not make his distaste any less real or viscerally felt; it attests to the deep-seated role tribal identity plays in our most basic consciousness. Émile Durkheim’s theory of religion is that rites and totems are physical manifestations of the collective social consciousness of the tribe. The same explanation works well for musical products and practices.

Musical life takes place in a social context, so it necessarily carries an ethical component. Sometimes the ethical aspect is obvious and prominent. Is it acceptable for rich white people to appropriate the musical traditions of poor black people? Is it acceptable to do ironic parodies of musical styles that others take deeply seriously? Is it acceptable for young Polish people to make and enjoy klezmer music in Krakow? Even where the political and ethnic conflicts are less obvious, musicians always have some responsibility to artistic citizenship in context. Music has the power to foster ethical idealization and helps us constitute the personhood of others, if practiced ethically. It can be a tool for resolving conflict, for reconciliation with our historical enemies.

It’s difficult to distinguish the pursuit of musical competency from the internal goods of human flourishing and empathetic communal understanding, as well as self-growth, self-knowledge, flow, and musical identity formations (280, emphasis in original).

It is our responsibility as educators, therefore, to always be cognizant of the contexts of our practice, in all their complexity.