One Little Explorer

My exploration of music.

Month: June, 2012

The Return of the Amateur Musician

Berthe Morisot – Eugene Manet and His Daughter in the Garden

Yesterday I had a long conversation with my friend, also a music student, about music. Specifically we considered the fact that some classically trained performers feel they have the right to an audience. We both agreed that while we desired them to have audiences, it is nonetheless the performers’, and musicians’ in general, responsibility to ensure attendances.

We dismayed the diminishing financial success of concerts and lamented that fewer and fewer people had had the opportunity to experience our art. Which led us to ask, what could musicians do to publicise themselves? It is an often asked question but the answers given are generally short sighted, tending to aim directly at increasing revenue from performances and music sales. There are issues to address in these areas but I don’t think that they are the most important.

I think foremost that an appreciation of music, particularly classical music, is born out of familiarity and education. Few people grow up hearing classical music, so it’s not surprising that as adults they have little interest in attending concerts.

Of those who do experience classical music from a young age many have their first encounter with music through learning an instrument. Unfortunately, many resent it. Why is this? I think it boils down to a lack of empowerment. Some don’t want to play music in the first place leading inevitably to an antagonistic relationship with music, or at least some style of music. Those that are motivated to learn music find that they are often expected to follow lesson structures and practice regimes dictated wholly, or partly, by teachers and parents.

So why is empowerment important? I think that students who feel that they are in control of their experience are more likely to have a continued passion for music. Conversely I think students whose entire experience of music has been outwardly imposed upon them are likely to abandon music as that scaffold of routine and regimentation is inevitably withdrawn.

I think the solution in part is to encourage music making which is spontaneous and self instigated. Most people don’t become professional musicians, so why should music education be geared solely towards this end? Without the pressure to be of or towards elite standard, amateur musicians can enjoy themselves more readily and be less concerned by playing for other people, especially friends and family.

This is ultimately where my friend and I saw a dire need: the return of the amateur musician; where amateur didn’t mean non-skilled but merely non-paid. With more amateur musicianship and more outgoing amateur musicians I think I music culture will begin to recover from what has been over a century of declining audiences.

Finally, I’d love to hear your opinions/observations on this issue. So comment below!


Multidisciplinary Musicology – Science, Philosophy and Subjectivity in Music

Edouard Manet -The Railroad

Since my second year studying music at university I have had it in the back of my mind that I would like to follow some sort of academic career. At that time I had a plethora of interests – I still do – that I could have chosen follow but no single one seemed satisfactory in itself. I didn’t want to be a musicologist, a philosopher, a historian or follow any other academic specialisation. So the thought lay there in the back of my mind as I let my studies be determined solely by whim.

I am now in my third year and only now are my aspirations beginning to coalesce. I’ve been inspired greatly by a number of authors such as Douglas Hofstadter (author of Gödel, Escher, Bach) and Jarrod Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) who have succeeded in synthesising many usually dispersed fields of academia to create valuable and exciting new insights. Hofstadter combined Mathematics, Physics, Literature, Computer Science and Neuroscience to meditate on the nature of intelligence while Diamond employed Linguistics, Molecular Biology, History and Botany to answer the question  “Why did Europe conquer the rest of the world and not the other way around?” I found both these expositions in the realm of hybrid academia highly engaging and convincing.

After encountering these works I found myself wondering “Why doesn’t this happen more?” Surely there are incredible things to be discovered by challenging academics to interact with each other outside their own and closely related disciplines. I decided, perhaps not surprisingly, that I would like to take an analogous approach to studying music.

While I am not deeply entrenched in the academic culture of musicians, I am in contact with it frequently. My general impression is that musicians are extremely academically introverted, to the point that many performers are reluctant to study harmony and other, as they see them, extraneous subjects. Musicologists are rarely as extreme but, compared to their counterparts in fields such as History, English, Political Economics and to an extent Philosophy (philosophers are also somewhat prone to suffer this blinkered academic vision) they are less inclined to apply the insights and techniques of other fields to their own work.  One caveat, these observations are of course not without exception and I have encountered very interesting work by both musicians working with other disciplines and other scholars enlisting the advice of musicians. Nonetheless, I think that these observations are at least to an extent accurate and certainly enough to prompt a new methodology.

The approach I would like to take to studying music is a multifaceted one. Essentially I would like to incorporate additional, robust methods of analysis drawn from mathematics and the sciences, to compliment, not replace traditional analysis. I think these new types of analysis (new, at least, to the field of musicology. The techniques involved are not extremely advanced.) Will provide increased analytical power, especially, I speculate, when applied to music where the traditional methods of analysis break down, for example in non-tonal and non-western music. Additionally I think working with a better understanding how music affects the listener is of great philosophical and analytical interest. There are also the syntactical and semantic elements of music which have been studied in depth by musicologists but could no less be bolstered by an injection of interdisciplinary steroids. Already I have listed too many possible approaches to take all at once but this is a testament to the number of new syntheses to be made.

I don’t believe that the lack of interest in extending the bounds of musicology is solely due to benign neglect. Indeed I think many musicians do not see music as something to be studied at all. They play music, they hear music, it is beautiful, what else is needed? This reminds me of a fable I vaguely recall in which scientists, or some similarly investigative class of people, destroy something beautiful by the mere act of trying to understand it. Music has long had a connection with the divine and with that association the implication that it is something that cannot be understood by humankind. This view is pervasive today, in countless variations. Of course, religious musicians commonly incorporate music into their faith but even in this increasingly secular society many musicians, and listeners for that matter, who have little or no religious inclination cling to the idea that music is ethereal or divine and separate from the rest of the world just as Plato thought over two thousand years ago manifesting in his famous concept of the ‘Music of the Spheres’. I simply do not believe this. I love music like nothing else, and I take immense pleasure in playing music, and I feel privileged to experience it, but I don’t think that it lies on a higher plane to anything else. It just is. And I think that this is more than enough for it to be. And thus it is by no means untouchable.

If it is enough for music just to be then why study it? Personally, I feel that I enjoy music more the more I understand it; I know others like this and I know some who are not. The more we study music the better we as a society can understand it and enjoy it. Most importantly and understanding and explanation of why music is beautiful (if it is possible) leads to an understanding of why it is important for it to be preserved, fostered and made accessible to everyone. Also if music is studied from a broad spectrum of fields of thought as I have suggested, not only will the process of studying itself encourage us to make exciting discoveries, I am confident that we will learn something profound about ourselves.

How imperfect is sound? Part One.

Pierre Auguste Renoir – Gabrielle and Jean

Note or noise?

Take a heap of sand. Now, take one grain away, is it still a heap? Of course. But what if we continued to do this until there was only one grain of sand left? Would it be a heap? Our intuition tells us no, but this seems to be the logical conclusion of our reasoning.

This dilemma is commonly know as the Sorites Paradox. You might wonder why I’m talking about this in a post about sound. To answer that I first need to say a little about the nature of sound, specifically, the relationship between pitch and timbre.

A pitch is a single frequency, for example, the note A is generally placed at 440 hertz (cycles per a second). We perceive these cycles as sound. However, in all but the most controlled environments we will never hear a pure sine wave. In addition to the loudest (usually) and most perceptible frequency, known as the fundamental, there are a series of mathematically related overtones. It is the relative amplitudes (volume) of these overtones that give a sound its unique ‘colour’ usually referred to as timbre. For example, the same frequency played on a violin, will emphasise a different set of overtones to those that would be emphasised if it were played on a guitar.

Now, back to the paradox. In sounds such as those I have described about, the overtones themselves are sine waves (some overtones may have their own series of overtones, but this is not important for our purposes). Based on this fact, theoretically any sound can be broken down as the sum of a set of sine waves at varying amplitudes. Now we can rephrase the paradox in terms of sound.

Take a sine wave of a specific frequency. Add an overtone (another sine wave), is it still a note? Yes. Add another. Is it still a note? Of course. Eventually, we will have summed up so many sine waves that the sound we have constructed is equally loud across all frequencies. This is the very definition of noise.

When, then, does a note become noise? It seems there is no satisfactory answer, but the paradox in itself has some interesting implications.

It seems odd now, to me at least, to speak of ‘right notes’ and ‘wrong notes’. But what it also shows is that pitch and timbre, so rigorously separated ideas in western music, in reality are inextricable from each other. This correlation between pitch and harmony has been explored by some modern composers, such as Olivier Messiaen, who have used harmony to generate timbres, as well as other composers who have used the overtone series as the basis for their melodies.

An Expedition Begins

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – A Girl With a Watering Can

Hello Reader! Welcome, I hope you enjoy passing through here on your own little adventure. This is a blog primarily for my thoughts on music, which range from philosophical discussions about just what constitutes music, or a part of music, to posts about how we should study music, to posts about anything else to do with music or anything else applied to music. So quite broad.

About me? I’m a Classical Guitarist/Music Student/Philosophy Student/Insatiable Intellectual Dabbler from Australia and I’m just about 21 years old.

The first few posts I have moved here from my personal blog, Vestigial Thoughts, if you like what I say here, you may like what I say there, though it is in quite a different vein. So again, welcome, I hope you’ll gain something from being here and I look forward to your contribution!