Views of Music

Is music an object or an experience, or both? All views have filled pages of scholarly writing, and the answer that any music educator settles on will perhaps influence how s/he teaches music more than anything else can. If you believe that music is an object, then you will teach about music, and have your students make intellectual observations and discoveries from what they hear or what they see in a printed score. If music is an object, then it evokes an intellectual response. Students listening to music as an object will analyze structure and form, describe music with words such as foreceful, dissonant, flowing, or even disruptive. They will witness the music but not become emotionally evolved with it.

Before you object that music always conveys feelings and emotions, I will remind you that a listener bent on taking it in as an intellectual exercise will easily overlook that expressive content, and perhaps even deny that it is there at all. The emotions felt while listening to the music, they will argue, are your emotions, stirred up by some association you have, something that the music reminded you of, but not by anything specifically in the music itself. The field of musical aesthetics is founded on this very idea of an emotionally detached listener. Hanslick insisted that music was merely patterns of sound that when instrumental, were incapable of communicating emotions. These patterns could be regarded as having beauty, but that beauty did not transmit emotional content.

When someone listens to a symphonic movment, for example, and follows the motifs, themes and theme groups, and then tracks them through the development section or a series of variations, they are regarding the patterns, perhaps admiring the craftsmanship with which they were formed, and perhaps taking great delight in “appreciating” the composer’s prowess. I myself never cease to marvel at Beethoven’s inventiveness at taking very little and making very much of it, and with such skill. All of this admiration and enjoyment has nothing to do with emotional conveyance; it is all the stuff of aesthetics, or music as an object.

Musical performers can easily devote themselves to making their ensemble performances transparent and well balanced, so that all of this craftsmanship is as evident and clear to the audience as possible. If any thought is given to expressing emotion, it is assumed that it will happen naturally as an outgrowth of the clarity of form. The music is intentionally presented as an object with th expectation that the audience will notice or perceive the musical architecture being presented. Beyond that perception, there is no desire for the audience to experience anything more, or certainly not to add to the presentation by singing, clapping, or dancing along. This is the view of music as an object.

While music as an object presents, music as an experience engages. While music as an object restricts music as a matter of observation, music as an experience elevates music to being a matter of interpretation; what does the music mean? While this question is again a deeply philosophical one, for our purposes we will be content to say that when music is regarded as an experience, then the audience, the listener is expected to actively do something and to be actively affected by what they do. Without doing something, a listener is confined to only obervation and therefore prohibited from experiencing music.

People experience music by doing physical things that effect their emotions. They dance, sing, clap, move, and more. In the process of doing these things, they become excited, calmed, happy, saddened, aggressive, or tranquil, or any number of other things. A physical response to the stimuls of music occurs which lead to physical and emotional feelings that are then attributed to the music that initiated the participation.

When we ask students to determine a composer’s experessive intent, we are asking them to experience the music according to what they believe the composer meant, based on what response the music evoked. The composer’s expressive intent, so far as it can be determined is constant, no matter who is listneing. The listener determines that intent through the filters of his or her own musical and personal experience, and so it can take on different shadings from person to person, but within the context of what is and what is not found in the music, it will not vary to the degree that serious disagreement is likely to occur.

This process of listener interpretation can be broken down into two parts: what does the composer mean (expressive intent), and what does this music mean to me. In practice, any interpretation, whether that of a listener or a performer, strikes a balance between these two parts. At one extreme are the “authentic” performances in which period instruments are used and every note is nuanced as closely as possible to what scholarship shows the original composer and/or performers did. At the other extreme are those performers for whom every musical work regardless of compoer’s intent, is a vehicle for personal expression. Somewhere in the middle is where students should be taught to inhabit when developing a musical interpretation.

As audience members, we have attended performances displaying both extremes, and many more that found an acceptable balance. I remember when Karl Richter’s performances of Bach were highly regarded by scholars, but were to me dry and dull affairs of works I otherwise enjoyed when conducted by others. On the other hand, I recall a recording Leonard Bernstein made early in his conducting career of the symphony “From the New World” by Dvorak, and thinking it barely resembled what Dvorak wrote for all of Bernstein’s distortions of tempi and dynamics. Thankfully, the dry, dull way of performing Bach and the wrenching excesses of highly romanticized interpretations have faded, and we are privledged to have countless recordings of this great music performed at the highest level.

Now I must answer the question with which I started. Is music an object, and experience, or both? The answer is that it is both, but not in equal parts. It is an experience that must be tempered by objective reason that informs but does not overtake the experience that infuses music with its emotional vitality. Music appreciation teachers can easily err on the side of too much object, and conductors can easily err on the side of too much experience. We need both, but it is critical for every music educator and future music educator to settle this matter for themselves: where in that area between object and experience do I want to be, and how will that decision inform how I teach music to my students. That is a worthwhile and necessary exercise every music educator should complete.


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