Formulating the Proposal for Music Accessibility

What is so appealing about the great composers? Great artists and producers? It seems to me that we can educate about music history, music theory even. We can explain the revolutionary minds of great composers. We can discuss the profundity of selected masterpieces. We can do all of this, and students will continue on believing what they want about music, dismissing music that seems all too distant from the everyday world. There is no use in delivering blame, as they know as much as I do whether or not a situation would arise in their futures requiring them to enjoy music of a certain flavor. The principle is not similar to being bombarded with mathematical principles and only choosing certain ones to memorize, because eventually all of those skills will come to some use, in application or in theory. But perhaps a musician, or anyone else for that matter, is presented with a musical concept or a piece of historical knowledge. He (or she) can choose to remain in the comfort zone, and even if he is asked to perform a work by a certain composer, he can continue on living afterward with his opinion. The requirement to learn anything is moot.

By accessibility of music, it is not the necessity for more understandable music to which I refer, but rather the need for works currently deemed as inaccessible to public comprehensibility to be introduced and taught in an engaging manner. Proposals for music school reform are plentiful, though in many schools where Music Appreciation classes are provided to non-musicians, the question often awkwardly becomes one of whether or not teaching such classes can be truly relevant to students. Music Appreciation as a class seems to be most effective when simply having students share music that they love with each other.1 While I believe this to be a crucial element in education in music, the question again arises whether or not art music should be studied, and perhaps more importantly, whether or not a medium so transient as music can reasonably be analyzed.

Music cannot be analyzed in the same way as other art. Sure, there is music that attempts to express extra-musical elements, but those elements are never precisely clear unless it is that certain sound that is being referenced. For example, the sound of cannons in Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” is obviously representational of, you guessed it, cannons firing. Before the 20th century, the attempt to construct abstract musical expression was not a feature of the visual arts, but even in the movement toward abstraction, even in seeing the shapes in Kandinsky’s “Composition VII,” what we see with our eyes on the canvas can always be at least somewhat relatable to real life subjects, while music at best can be seen as an attempt to give order to sound, but without the real-life subjects upon which to model.

So how can we get people invested in music who are not already invested in it? Music is a common interest in so many people’s lives. For many, it is a daily habit to immerse oneself into a playlist of endless songs, either to pass the time or to serve as the background moodsetter. Music is an abstract language, and simply speaking beyond the simplicity of the “happy major” and the “sad minor,” it is difficult for people to understand music without its association with words sung to it or the film which it accompanies.

And perhaps music is meant to be such. Millennia have passed and we still have yet to determine the logic behind our indulgence in such a strange pastime. Music is language that we do not wish to explicitly define, as we have with our verbal languages, otherwise we would not need words to communicate that which music can. Listening to spoken languages other than our own is perhaps then a music to us, and even poetry can have that same effect. But again, those words are assigned values that can then be translated into a language which we understand. Is this so with music? (Un)fortunately not.

Perhaps we can begin with describing form. It is music that follows specified form that can then be broken into further smaller pieces. But what does form communicate to the average Joe? Perhaps the music can then allude to another piece of the same form, but otherwise I do not see how the layman’s understanding of form brings further insight into their lives. Copland expressed that he would rather the listener be “sensitive to the musical tone than to know the number of vibrations that produce the tone. Information of that kind is of limited value even to the composer himself. What he desires above all is to encourage you to become as completely conscious and wide awake a listener as can possibly be developed. There lies the kernel of the problem of understanding music.”2 It is true then that the greatest need for the listener to understand music is for him to actually listen, wholeheartedly, to it. While I agree with this statement, there is still a part of me that wants, more than to share the mysteries of world masterpieces, to have those answers for myself. This is another great strand of faith onto which I hold. There is an analysis of music apart from that which “mutilate[s] the spirit of a work” that can leave behind greater wisdom in reality and brings the veneration from the artist to his art.3 This is the experiment upon which we embark.

  1. Silverman, Marissa. “Rethinking Music ‘Appreciation'”
  2. Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music, xxxvi
  3. Varèse, Edgard. “Jerom s’en va-t’en guerre.” The Sackbut, 4. The full quote is: “By its very definition analysis is sterile. To explain by means of it is to decompose, to mutilate the spirit of a work.”

Your Best Reality

Did you know Wang Leehom and Wong Fu made a video? I didn’t, until just now, after finishing up finals and getting ready to leave with the band to the bowl game, and then after taking a long nap, when I was aimlessly wandering YouTube and stumbled across this gem.

Wong Fu loves to leave me things to ponder but I found this one particularly meaningful. What if this international singer were just another street performer, like we think we are?

“Do you want to be famous?” the girl asks.

“Perhaps the version of me in an alternate universe can be famous, but not in this one,” he responds.

He seems to enjoy what he does after all, making music in the middle of Times Square, singing anything but the Chinese music that would make him renowned. But her dream is to become a reporter: she has something to share and won’t let some alternate version of her have all the fun. It is unclear whether time lapses, or we just switch to our reality, where she becomes that reporter, and Wang Leehom indeed becomes famous, as they continue their interview and he ponders whether it was fate that brought him here, or perhaps something else.

“Why not make everything in life become the way you want it to be?” I feel her questions are wise, in that they imply that we are creators of some sort and each have our own purpose. In this course of thought, I really believe that we can take the resources in life we now already have to design whatever future we desire. Everyone can create, whether it is music, art, beautiful experiences, or the joy of others. I know that I at times forget this principle, even making myself busy to the point of forgetting what really brings happiness. I hope that I can start now in opening up some of my time, allowing more time for chasing dreams. This time of year allows us to reflect on life’s important things and renew our goals. I’ve only learned recently that we can’t do everything at once, but we still must make time for the important things, and if that means chasing your dreams, then that should be a part of your goals.




Throughout the semester my physics professor has shared spiritual thoughts each class, which may strike some as odd, but I’ve always found them to be immediately relevant and thoughtful. Today he shared his last thought, entitled “What Science Has Taught Me About Religion”. He began that science has not taught him very much about religion. However, it has taught, over and over again, that we really don’t know anything. This is one thing that I wish I understood more clearly. Because there’s something about it that makes learning become interesting.

If I don’t eventually end up living with an observatory in my home, I at least will need a house overlooking the sea. Or at least be nearby, where I can always be reminded of the sheer vastness of the unknown. Too often have I read through a book, thinking afterward that I finally knew what that book was about. Reading every line in a book won’t reveal what is between those lines, even if the Internet claims to. Or taught a class, thinking that my knowledge of that subject would be comprehensive. I wouldn’t dare teach something that I didn’t think I thoroughly understood myself. We’ve simplified physics down to countless laws that explain how the world works, but they do so imperfectly – there have always been missing pieces, new things to be discovered, that may completely change the way about which we see things.

What of our imperfect system of music? These laws that have been figured out, that ultimately tell us very little. Our beautiful artificial system built on irrationally-numbered frequencies, eventually carrying us to one of a dozen dominant-tonic relationships. Perhaps I could learn that after filling the gaps of my previously unknown music history that I may not have wanted to discover, I can still listen to music as I once did, as I learned to understand each piece and they in turn grew to impact me. Perhaps I may also learn that because I have so much to learn, I don’t need to know everything at once.

It is perplexing to my mind what range of thought is trapped in this tiny physical brain or ours. The way we think, we could fit within it an ocean, deep in thought and infinite in complexity. I want to be in harmony with all the sciences and arts, wisdom and knowledge. But even if learning were simply consuming any of this information as one does with water, information will not process into wisdom without intense effort. Just how slowly this process must be, and how great a mind must be to know anything of himself. Even if I feel that only by some higher being absolute truth can be revealed, how much truth can that even entail? It can either flow as a river, or be distilled as dew. I wish I could know just how much I don’t know. I wish even this statement made sense to me, because at once I think I understand it, while I know that isn’t entirely the case.

This is the way the mind flows, deeper and deeper into the unknown.

Finding True Beauty

I feel I must ask again with President Spencer W. Kimball, where is that Beethoven and Brahms among us? Anyone, irrespective of religion, race, or time, who has such mastery of their musical language as to produce truly sublime works of art?

I believe I am beginning to see more clearly the purpose behind all of this. I used to believe in a key, a secret if you will, that the great masters could use to create beautiful music. That somehow upon my search I would be able to unlock what they had. But I had all the music that I wanted in front of me, and I couldn’t figure it out. It has to be in the chords, or the chromaticism, or the colors, or perhaps a combination. But even with all of that laid in front of my face, there really wasn’t a reason why the end result should be beautiful. I looked at the music, and it looked like any other old piece of music.

As I continue my search for the purpose of music, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the ultimate goal of music is indeed to be beautiful. Beautiful; this is not to be confused with pretty, or cool, or relaxing. These other descriptions fall under subjective aesthetic judgment, suggesting that this beauty can change with time or perspective. I speak here of true beauty. This is beauty on a whole different level, that withstands the test of all time and people.

But how can there possibly be true beauty?

It’s hard to say. True beauty is rare, extremely rare. This skill cannot be taught by anyone in this world. I would venture to say that of all those composers whom we know that wrote enjoyable music, only a small handful of those pieces they wrote are truly beautiful. To the hearer, this music cannot grow old, but neither did its beauty have to be forced; that kind of beauty is relative. True beauty can be recognized by any, the educated and the uneducated, the poor and the rich, and will remain so no matter how much a person studies and learns the techniques and materials of music, only because this beauty has no human explanation. Read through the score you will, analyze the form you will, the harmony, the counterpoint, and thoughts pouring through the performers’ minds as this music is played. The answers still won’t be there.

But yet it can be recognized! There is great power that lies in the “simplice e bella” Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. There is something truly moving about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s or Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. These pieces are not pretty. They are profoundly beautiful, in the same way beauty in a person is not found in a Tinder photo, but in the living, breathing miracle of that person. The lives of these pieces are immortal.

I am not asking for perfectionism. I am asking for truth. I want the composers of today to have hope. This world is lacking in truly beautiful music. There is plenty of good-sounding music, a skill which can be taught and copied by anyone. You can go and create this music and still make the world a better place. But true beauty; I believe it can yet be made, by truly seeking what is good and sharing it, changing people’s lives forever.

The Pianist Gratis

Here’s my proposition. I want to come play the piano with you. For free, as a friend.

I can’t remember how long it has been since I’ve been here in music school. Specialization has required that I fill a very controlled niche in the school where I belong. In fact it’s been so long that upon returning home from my mission, I had nearly forgotten why I loved music in the first place, and I’ve only just remembered.

The first and foremost aspect that I have loved about being a musician is being a collaborative pianist.

There are many reasons behind this. It is not that I enjoy following or being followed, although I usually resort to the former, but it brings to the table the true meaning of musicianship: real people, flaws and all, think and speak together on a higher level. There are also reasons behind the lack of calls I have received as of late to do this work, the primary being that I am not currently in the piano studio taking lessons. I understand that being a red flag for many of you, considering all of the possible piano majors you could collaborate with. But there really are so many anyway, how would you know which ones to try out? Can you even call them up and ask to try them out?

A beloved memory of mine is once being called into a local vocal studio to sightread accompaniment for all of the students in preparation for their performance at a national competition. They sang everything from Mozart to Hammerstein. I refused to look at the pieces prior, because the notes on the page are music to me, and the energy that comes from transforming it into reality is incorruptible. It will pull you forward no matter how tired you are, because it is music that you are creating at full force. I will perhaps note that I was neglected to be paid for this gig. But that actually mattered little to me, as my hobby had become a cherished, useful thing for them to enjoy.

I was at a loss after returning from my mission because I had forgotten where to find the music. The sheets of notes I was reading didn’t seem to contain music. How strange it seems to me, that rush didn’t return even after I had given a good listen to piano, orchestral, and chamber repertoire. It was choral music. It was the sound of harmony created by nothing but people and their God-given gifts. This is expression on a higher level, one that can be shared by all people. After that the basics began to flow again. The sounds of a French ballad sounded so sweet that only a few days prior that seemed nothing but an arrayed set of pitches. I now enjoy music of every instrumentation and genre. This energy is flowing back to me because it is what I have been doing for a lifetime.

So how do you know I’m not just a guy that plays the organ at church?

“I have never met such a young student able to play such difficult music without even having to blink an eye! His sightreading skills are magnificent and his technique and dedication are the best I’ve seen. I highly recommend Josh–he is talented and really a joy to work with. He is easygoing, professional, and a fantastic accompanist! He is one of the best.”

– Jennifer Berry, Choral Director at Frederick County Public Schools

I’m not doing this for gigs. I’m doing this for me. I speak to you on a professional level, but this is something that I feel I must volunteer. Don’t dare be afraid to ask for my help! I am here to serve whether in the practice room or the recital hall. I understand that you may ask for a piano major to accompany you. Piano majors accompany me. That’s wonderful! I will be there when they cannot, I will play through your music with you to give you the bigger picture. I will be there for when you practice and need some advice. It will only help, and that is the only way I will allow it to be. Although I believe that all college pianists are drastically underpaid, that’s never what I wanted for myself. I need this to be part of my lifestyle, and I’m not willing to let go of it again.