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.
- Silverman, Marissa. “Rethinking Music ‘Appreciation'”
- Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music, xxxvi
- 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.”