Why do we study music?

December 26, 2006

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Why do we study music? Music schools and conservatories around the world teach their graduates to “analyze” music. I have always wanted my teachers to tell me why what they were teaching me was important. “Just because” or “Because this is the way it has always been done” or “it is part of the curriculum” were not really answers. I sat down the other day came up with my own list. If you have any thoughts on this, please leave a comment.

  • By understanding the musical language of a particular composer, the study-er, or student, will be able to mimic it compositionally and identify it aurally.
  • By identifying procedures that composers do, especially in particular historical periods.
  • Teachers of music are able to codify the [Western] tradition and thereby test their students on this canonic information. Knowledge of how music works is academic power.
  • In the same way that a native speaker knows how a language idiomatically ”sings,” a performer of music, who may not a composer or improvisor, is able to convincingly convey how-the-music-goes through their performance more effectively, having study-ed the score.
  • Scholars are able to articulate the lineage, meaning, and originality of a composition through careful analysis of its melodic, harmonic, motivic, textural, polyphonic, societal and stylistic context.
  • For the amateur, or the music lover who is not a musician, but whose passion drives them to know more about the music they love, music analysis can be a satisfying intellectual endeavor. There are limits on what can truly be appreciated if the amateur can not actually hear and understand chord progresssions. This does not diminish the power that the music has on the amateur listener, he merely does not have the tools to describe it in terms of musical analysis.

[Excerpt of musical analysis by Ian Cross.]

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel Wolf December 27, 2006 at 5:13 am

Why do you we study music? To paraphrase my teacher N.O. Brown: To thicken the plot. To make music more interesting and to make out of us listeners more interesting people. Thinkening is Dichtung, which is also “to make poetry”. Short of making poetry about poetry, or music about music. This is Charles Seeger’s dilemma: why are we forced to used the language mode of communication to deal with the music form of communication (if music is communication in the first place?)? To follow Seeger to a logical conclusion, ultimately, the disadvantage of using language (or maths or graphs or whatever) to get a handle on our experience of music, is that we will come up against a limit, past which we are necessarily reduced to speechlessness. But it is our committment, if we are also committed to a life of the mind, and sharing that life, to continue to press that limit. Studying music is then often reduced to a set of very practical terms and tools for talking about musical materials and recognizeable features of musics assembled from those materials, and we also study the cultural and historical contexts in which musics are made.

I’m afraid that, personally, I’m both lost and disinterested in questions of musical meaning. Musics, it seems to me, “do meaning” very poorly when it comes to communicating information necessary to the everyday functions of human beings, but they do communicate meaning superbly in precisely those domains in which speechlessness reigns.

Brad Wood December 28, 2006 at 12:34 pm

Seeger, much moody with logic,
Weary, yet still pedagogic,
Sensed he’d soon reach a limit
When speech wouldn’t limn it
Music only, drawn onward, agogic

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