I’m in the middle of reading a book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin once worked as a recording engineer and producer and became fascinated with how human beings perceive musical sound, and so in his thirties, he went back to school to study psychology and neuroscience. I’m only about 125 pages into the book, but I am finding it fascinating.
One of the things he writes about is the difficulty of using language to describe music. He writes:
"Many people who love music profess to know nothing about it. I’ve found that many of my colleagues who study difficult, intricate topics such as neurochemistry or psychopharmacology feel unprepared to deal with research in the neuroscience of music. And who can blame them? Music theorists have an arcane, rarified set of terms and rules that are as obscure as some of the most esoteric domains of mathematics. … Yet every one of my colleagues who feels intimidated by such jargon can tell me the music that he or she likes. … Many of us have a practical knowledge of things we like, and can communicate our preferences without possessing the technical knowledge of the true expert. … It’s a shame that many people are intimidated by the jargon musicians, music theorists, and cognitive scientists throw around. There is specialized vocabulary in every field of inquiry. But in the case of music, music experts and scientists could do a better job of making their work accessible. … The unnatural gap that has grown between musical performance and music listening has been paralleled by a gap between those who love music and those who are discovering new things about how it works."
The reason I use such a lengthy quote is because I have noticed this same disconnect in my classroom. When asked something like “How many of you listen to music on a daily basis?” nearly every hand is raised. But then I ask, “What’s your favorite song?” Few people are willing to commit to an answer to such an exposed question, but if someone is brave enough to reply, I then ask, “What do you like about it?” Typical answers are things like “It’s cool.” “It’s got a good beat.” “It’s pretty.” These are not helpful responses, so I prod, “What’s cool/good/pretty about it?” Crickets usually begin to chirp in the distance. Then, even after ten or twelve weeks of class, some students will write, “I don’t know much about music…” and then proceed to write (often) ill-formed observations of concerts or recordings. Admittedly, my first response to this kind of cop-out in student writing is frustration. Of course you know something about music! You’ve been listening to me talk about how it works all semester! But once, I take my own ego out of the equation, I have to ask, how can someone who admittedly listens to music every day not know anything about it?
The problem is less one of knowledge than one of vocabulary. Many people lack the words to describe the musical experience. I can relate, but only to a point. To borrow an analogy from Levitin, something I do everyday but cannot claim expert knowledge of is eating. Can I enjoy a meal without knowing every ingredient that went into it? Of course. But, if I enjoy a steak, can I describe it? Sure. It is cooked medium-rare, it is juicy, tender, there’s a slightly charred flavor from the grill marks that sets off the savory, buttery meat. Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Next Food Network Star, but I think anyone can describe the food they eat, at least to certain degree.
So why is music so different? Is it, as Levitin says, the jargon? I ask students all the time to define things like melody, harmony, rhythm, etc. They know the terms. They know a melody when they hear one. But somehow, the notion of what a melody actually is gets lost along the way. So, once we can put our collective fingers on what a melody is, how can we describe one? If I say a melody is pretty, what am I actually saying? As it turns out, not much because that observation is only subjective. But, if I describe a melody as legato, with a wide range and a balance of conjunct and disjunct motion, and clear phrasing in an aaba pattern, that gives us something to go on, right? Or does it?
If I were to say that I was thinking of a specific melody while I wrote that description, is there any chance that someone could guess what it is? Doubtful, because it is too general. Many melodies feature the characteristics I just described.
So, if not to help us identify a specific piece, what purpose does it serve to be able to describe a melody using words? Well, in addition to helping you show off at cocktail parties, once you can articulate what it is you like about a specific piece of music, it makes it easier to find that same quality in other works. So a little knowledge can go a long way.
Yes, music does have somewhat of a mystique disguised in its funny words and mysterious notation markings, but if knowing just a little about how it works can enrich the listening experience, why don’t people take the time to learn? One thing I hear in my classroom a lot is, “Thinking too much about music ruins the experience of just listening.” Or, “I just like to let the sound wash over me.” Is that what music should be? Or is it something more?
Obviously, I lean toward that latter, or I would not have dedicated my adult life to studying, researching, and teaching the subject, but what does the typical person think? Should music be something that everyone can talk about in an intelligent way, or does thinking too much about it ruin the experience? Does the language that surrounds the creation and performance of music create a barrier to the common listener that causes them to feel excluded? If so, should musicians work to pull back the curtain?
An album that does some really interesting things from a musical standpoint and also comments on the act of music making itself is Making Mirrors by Gotye (2011). Yes, it’s the one with “Somebody That I Used to Know” on it. I’m sure you've heard that one enough for a lifetime, but the songs I find particularly intriguing are “Eyes Wide Open” (the bass line was played by hitting a wire fence with a mallet) and “State of the Art,” which comments on how easy it is to create music with computers and software and questions whether or not such a process is really making music.
What do you think? Are there things that stand out? Things you’d like to understand better?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.