Why Music Is More than What We Hear

2011 Symposium2

What follows are thoughts that came to mind while watching this video:

As I watch these musicians, I realized that while I could simply listen to what they were doing and enjoy the music, for them, their enjoyment and experience of the music was as much in their movements as it was in the sounds they were making. Then, at the risk of sounding old fashioned, I thought, even though all of this music could easily be produced using computers and software, and the audio result could be as good or even better than what I am hearing in this video, the experience of making the music that way would just be a matter of keystrokes on a computer or midi keyboard. There would be none of the choreography and expressive movement I see these musicians engaged in. The making of this music electronically would be a non-performance one; a task of assembling and recording what will be a product ready to listen to only after it is assembled. I contrasted this to the task of performing the music, even for the purpose of being recorded. The performance is also an assembling, but in this case the task is a musical one that affords the musicians all the benefits and delights of expressively playing music and enjoying the physical experience, rush and excitement of allowing the music to move the body as rhythms, tempos, dynamics and pitches are interpreted kinesthetically.

There are, I observe, two kinds of movement in this video. There are the movements of the “pit” musicians. Large swoops and dips draw broad-stroked lines that recur with the pulse of the music, and with shapes that outline the phrases and interpret the motions and contours being played. There are also the movements of the marching unit. These are prescribed, not as free and personal as those of the pit musicians. The marching unit moves in unison, or at least sections do, and every detail of its movement is decided ahead of time and meticulously rehearsed. It is more intended for the audience than for the enjoyment of the band, and marchers rush from one spot to the next to form images that the audience but not the performers can see. At times these marching movements would seem to coincide with the music they are playing, while at other times they must feel as though they are in conflict with it. Yet even should that conflict exist, it is, by its very contrasting nature, highlighting in what way the music is or is not expressive of the movement.

Now compare the performers’ experience to that of the audience. The audience is recite-1gabr20seated, so any movement will be non-locomotor. The audience is perceiving but not emitting musical sound, perceiving but not executing movement expressive of the music. The audience’s involvement is one that engages their visual and auditory perception, and perhaps their nervous system to the extent that emotions arise in response to the music, but by and large their involvement with the music is not physical. Because their bodies are not engaged in producing the musical elements, their experience is less personal, less intense, and fundamentally different than that of the musicians they are watching and hearing. David Elliott discussed how the non-musician’s experience of listening to a musical performance  is different than that of a musician’s experience, because the former cannot physically and kinesthetically relate and experience second hand what the musician is doing to create the musical sounds. There is an aspect of experiencing music as a listener that is missing for one who has not played a musical instrument or sung publicly.

For those who have not rehearsed, refined, and presented musical performances, music is scarcely more than an object made by someone else to be looked at but not touched. It is instructive to note that young children intuitively want to touch visual art they see, and must be taught and restrained from doing so in an art gallery. From these children, though, we can learn that our creative and imaginative consciousness is not satisfied with mere objective observation. We long for greater sensory involvement, and an opportunity to gather in not just the appearance of, but the feel of the texture, the weight, and the reflections of light from angles only accessible if one lifts the object and turns it in the light. It is the same with music. People who only experience music on an electronic device through ear buds are only experiencing what can be heard, and even that in a way that is constrained by objects in the ears, and the regrettable compression that reduces the fidelity of sound in an mp3 file. The performer’s exertions, joy in making musical sounds, and physical expressions, to say nothing of simply seeing the music being made, as one sees a potter make a face, or an artist paint on a canvass, are all missing. After a lifetime of such depraved listening opportunities, is it any wonder that the value of live music has eluded so many, to the point where recorded music saturation as left them without a hint of what they are missing.

So what is to be done? First, “children of all ages” need to be encouraged and given the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument or to sing with enough competency to present music to others, be it a group of friends, or a venue full of concert goers. More than the 30 or so percent of students who participate in school performing groups need to be immersed in some serious music making that involves the kind of instruments that require physical exertion and involvement. That means that entering notes on a midi keyboard and then letting a computer play the result doesn’t count. Neither does lip syncing to favorite songs, or even singing along with a recording. There is nothing wrong with doing these things, but they cannot be allowed to suffice as the sum of musical experience that a majority of students have. This whole idea that selecting loops can constitute composing, and selecting instrument patches and programming midi tracks can pass for playing a musical instrument is nonsense and destructive to the interests of music as a cultural treasure and music education in general. If that is all there is to composing music, then why would any sensible person invest time in learning how to do it or take an interest in what others have created doing it? Live music will continue to be in decline as long as most of the people listening cannot relate on a personal and experiential level with what the musicians are doing.

Second, we must understand that listening to music in silence and motionless is unnatural, not fun, and not something any human being should be required to do. It is absurd to say that music, which is neither a living being nor an animated object, moves us, soars with its melody and runs in its fast passages, while those who hear all of these things, being fully human and capable of moving, soaring and running, must remain as an inanimate object and at the same time enjoy the music. Why not clap in the middle of a concert violinist’s cadenza? Why not get up and dance as the minuet movement of a symphony is being played? Why not even cheer when an orchestra begins a performance of an audience favorite work? And why must we scold people for clapping between movements of a concerto or symphony. They liked it, isn’t that what performers want, an audience that likes what they’re doing and wants to tell them so? We are not all 18th century aristocrats in powdered wigs and well tailored finery. We are 21st century concert goers in t-shirts and jeans entitled to allow our humanity to soar and be moved, along with our bodies. Music is much more than what we hear. It’s time we started configuring our venues, performances and music education to reflect that truth.


One thought on “Why Music Is More than What We Hear

  1. Pingback: Why Music Is More than What We Hear — mr a music place | I Write The Music

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