Hey check it out, new column! Look at all these words about music:
Notes on Notes
More Than a Feeling: It’s Time to Change the Way We Talk About Music
Probably Unnecessary Prologue
When I was in the 7th grade, I decided to start playing bass. I saw the guy from Alien Ant Farm looking cool with his giant 6-string bass in their “Smooth Criminal” video. And there goes all my credibility before I even start. Anyway, after about 2 weeks of playing, I was invited to join a band. The only problem was, all I knew how to do was adjust my strap and make rock poses in the mirror. I also knew the notes in the verse to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but I hesitate to say I really knew how to “play” it.
Our first band practice was a complete disaster. I had no idea what I was doing. But on the bright side, my strap was the exact perfect length. The guitarist decided that instead of trying to learn all of their song (which sounded suspiciously like “Crazy Train” now that I think about it), I could just learn a quick intro on bass, then mime the rest with my volume off. Which sounded good to me. I figured no one would know.
I practiced my intro all week, and nailed it on the day of the show in front of a quad packed with middle-schoolers. Then, as I was coasting through the rest of the song, playing bullshit, I noticed our assistant principal walk over to my amp. He leaned in close to listen, and looked up at me as soon as he realized no sound was coming out of it. We locked eyes, he shook his head, and smirked. He knew exactly what was going on. He (and probably the rest of the crowd) could tell something was wrong.
Later that day I was expelled. Just kidding. Ha ha a joke.
The point is, everybody—even crusty old Assistant Principal Simon—is an active listener of music. But we have a problem articulating what we hear and how it makes us feel. We know when something is out of place in a piece, but instead of exploring that feeling, we resort to shallow terms like “selling out” or “soul” when discussing what we hear. I want to go deeper than that. I want to go into song and point out exactly where a band rolled off the volume knob and started miming. I want to explore how every note contributes to a song as a whole. Or more selfishly (and probably more honestly) I want to be able to talk about music with as many people as possible. I want to analyze music. Let’s go.
What’s Wrong with Music-Related Writing as it is?? Huh?
Honestly, nothing. Nothing at all. I love reading about music as much as I can. It’s fascinating hearing other peoples’ take on the music I love. This isn’t to criticize those who write about music, because there are people out there who can do it more artfully and competently than I can. The issue is with scope and variety. Most music literature as I see it can be split up into two categories: either listener response or contextual writing. You can either hear someone’s personal response to music, or you can learn more about an artist’s background.
This isn’t to say exceptions don’t exist. In fact, the speaker at this TED Talk was able to discuss music with more beauty and passion than anyone I’ve seen, without having to resort to the types of discussion I talked about above. He taught that audience to love classical music not by divulging his own personal take on it, and not by giving them the background of it. He was able to engage a room full of strangers in gaining a deeper understanding of music by altering our usual talking points. He explained the goal of the music, what it was trying to accomplish, and what musical conventions it used to show that. Bravo.
But we’ll get back to that later. Right now we’re discussing why this is an exception.
Honestly, I’m not satisfied with learning more about the artists I already love, or being recommended new ones based on the responses of other. I hope to introduce more analysis into the mix. (Music reference, hooray.) I want to explore music, not form an opinion. I want to look at a song in terms of what it accomplishes, backing up my interpretation with evidence. Musical analysis is about looking at music, and discovering what it says about life, art, or its time. And most of all, I want to give others, even casual listeners, the ability to do this too.
PS Music Theory Analysis could be considered a way that music is written about and discussed. I am avoiding analysis of strictly music theory here on purpose. While you could learn a great deal by breaking down a song and analyzing how it works theoretically, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. Analyzing a song in this way would almost certainly be fascinating, but it could be extremely alienating to audiences who don’t understand music theory, and who don’t have the motivation or desire to learn what amounts to a new language just to appreciate a song they enjoy.
I want to focus on the emotion of music and how songwriters are able to affect us on a deeper level in conjunction with an analysis of theory. Theory is only one part of how they do that. I want to talk about the ideas behind music, if that makes sense. Obviously, music theory is important, but think of it this way: isn’t there more to Shakespearean sonnets than iambic pentameter? Why should we view music any differently?
Okay, Well Why Doesn’t Music Analysis Already Exist?
Well, it does. But not exactly in the way I’m describing. And not to discount other writers of this topic, but much of their discussion revolves around Classical music. I’d like to bring some of their ideas, along with some of the ideas of contemporary film and literature critics, and smash them all together to create an accessible way for people to understand more about what they hear, and feel comfortable discussing the genres they most enjoy in a more thoughtful manner.
The fact remains that music analysis is in no way prevalent. There are no music analysis blogs, and there are no music analysis books at your local bookstore or library. Trust me I’ve looked.
We like to think of music as an entity outside of other media. Music is considered primarily a matter of personal taste. And it is. But so is all other art. Think about it this way. Let’s say you had a friend that disliked The Godfather, but you loved it. You probably couldn’t convince him otherwise, but you could tell him why you think The Godfather is a well-made and effective movie. Now imagine your friend hates Stankonia by Outkast (or any other critically acclaimed album), but you love it. Could you explain to him what makes it so effective? Taste is obviously important, and I don’t think this is a matter of trying to change someone’s personal preference. But music doesn’t start and stop at taste. We’re doing it a disservice by not going deeper.
It seems that with the countless genres, subgenres, and the ever-changing landscape of experimental music, there is no common ground. People simply like what they like, for whatever reason. I disagree in a way, but it makes sense.
Classical composers were no help in making music seem less like it’s too nebulous for analysis. (That’s fun to say out loud. Try it. Too nebulous for analysis. Someone call Andre 3000.) It’s hard to believe that a piece called “Concerto in C Major” or one called “Symphony #9” could have some sort of message to be conveyed. Their titles are descriptions of the sounds you will be hearing, not a representation of their meaning. Additionally, a majority of the Classical pieces still celebrated today were commissioned. If the most renowned, timeless music wasn’t created due to some great, cosmic moment of inspiration, but a sack of gold coins with a dollar sign on it, what does that say about music as a whole?
And music is enjoyed in such hugely different ways. Some people dance to it, some people mosh to it. Some people make it on hand-crafted, hundred year-old instruments; some people make it on state-of-the-art computers. Some people put it on in the background while they do other things; others put on headphones and listen to each note intently. Some people like Triscuits, some people like Wheat Thins. You get it. People are different. There’s such a huge disparity in the music appreciators’ world, it seems as if there’d be no way to talk about things on a grander scale.
There are countless other reasons that make it pretty clear why we look at music as a more personal thing than we do other forms of art. Music also holds a certain mystique. There’s a certain magic that seems indescribable when you hear your favorite part of a good song. Sometimes it seems like that magic will be taken out if you think about it too hard, but I disagree. I think that “great song” feeling is what should bind us music lovers together, instead of compartmentalizing us.
That is the bigger issue here. By limiting our response to “like” or dislike,” we can close ourselves off to growing and learning more as music appreciators.
So How Can We Talk About Music, Smart Guy?
I’m glad you asked, rude headline. By the way, folks, I’d like to welcome my sidekick, Rude Headline. He’s the worst.
So let’s get down to it. Enough generalizations and sweeping statements. If there is a problem, how can we improve our musical discussion? This can be accomplished through the discussion of musical themes and tropes.
Up until recently, I wouldn’t have had an answer for you. I felt like Assistant Principal Simon. I knew there was something amiss, but I couldn’t do anything but keep looking for the problem. I was aware that the shelves in my local bookstore’s music section were filled with history lessons and biographies, but I didn’t know what was missing. That is, until I read Film Crit Hulk’s discussion of art in his column about video games on Badass Digest: Hulk Vs. The Bat-Shit Evolution of the Modern Warfare Series. Holy shit. A film writer’s article about video games being cited in a music column? I need to lie down.
Hulk very wisely said, “ART IS ABOUT THE CONSTANT CONTROL OF THEMATIC MESSAGE IN ALMOST EVERY SINGLE ASPECT OF THE PRESENTATION.” I’m not sure if I 100% agree, and I’m hesitant to get into discussions of art mostly because I’m not as smart as Hulk, and the discussions tend to drift towards “I like it, therefore it is art.” Regardless, I think he is absolutely correct in saying all great works of art have this in common. They have a message and a point to make. Most importantly, really effective art has unity, and every choice made during its creation helps it get its theme across. This realization felt like Hulk was grabbing my head and putting it right up to the amp and saying, “Look! No sound is coming out!” But, you know, in all caps.
I realized his point about unity is true of great pieces of music. It has to be possible to listen to a good song and point out exactly why a single guitar effect, a drum beat, a synth sound, or a lyrical phrase contributes to the song’s theme and overall intention. To break down a song, an album, or whatever down far enough to discover and communicate exactly why we love it. That is what I’m calling” Music Analysis.”
But when trying to approach writing in this fashion, I hit a snag that I think relates directly to the issues in how we discuss music. Music, like any other medium, has tropes—certain shorthands and conventions that an audience is familiar with. An artist can use these to convey an idea or emotion more efficiently. A trope is basically a cliché, but not as overused and distracting. Artists in music can use these or subvert these in order to better illustrate their themes.
For some reason, we don’t discuss these tropes. We don’t have names for most of these tropes, or an awareness of how they’re used beyond a gut-reaction. I really believe this lack of discussion of musical tropes is why music is not analyzed like we do other media.
Currently, becoming familiar with a new genre means learning an entirely new musical vocabulary that many do not have the time and energy to do. This is because we do not have a cultural awareness of how different genres and sects of music use tropes. As such, the only way to learn to love a new type of music is to listen to it enough to instinctively understand how it conveys emotions to the listener.
That’s exhausting. No wonder it’s so much easier to discover bands similar to the ones you already enjoy. It’s why people mainly listen to the bands they liked when they were a teenager—back when they had the spare time and energy to devote to a new type of music. It’s why the music world is so full of cliques. And it’s why it is so hard to discuss music with those that have different tastes. You’re talking in a different language.
Tropes are one example of what I’m getting at. Music has a message. Our love of music is more than a knee-jerk reaction. Emotionally affecting music is composed entirely of decisions made by the artist that contribute to an overarching idea or emotion that we take away from the piece. Once we can recognize and discuss these ideas, it will be that much easier to discuss and share the music we love with others, and it will be that much easier to learn and grow as an appreciator of music as well.
Hopefully, a good example will make my points and my intentions a little clearer. So stay tuned. I am going to put all this bullshit where my mouth is. And when I’m done eating a bull’s shit, I am going to analyze Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and why it’s successful as a work of art. I’m going to examine its significance to the average listener, and what has given it such lasting appeal.
Thanks for reading.
Go to hell,
PS if this wasn’t enough words for you, here are even more in this post over here. Enjoy thanks bye.