Beginner’s Burden

I was happy to reconnect with a friend and former student yesterday, a lifelong guitarist who had learned to read music over the year of our working together. One of the things that always made my meetings with him so memorable was my friend’s touching concern that, by learning the basics of music notation and triadic nomenclature, he might lose touch with his current visceral understanding of music and, as he termed it, lose touch with the “mystery” that makes music interesting and moving to him in the first place.

As Colin Holter mentions in his recent post about teaching, one of the greatest difficulties a teacher must overcome is his or her own inability to remember what it was like not to know the kinds of things that have become matters of course in our own everyday lives. Fortunately, remembering lessons with my slightly skittish friend has reminded me of what appears to be a near-universal hang-up among musical innocents: the fear that understanding how music is put together will somehow lessen our enjoyment or appreciation of music.

Especially since music has the power to move us so deeply, it’s understandable that this sentiment often arises. As in Keats’s accusation that Isaac Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it, the underlying assumption here is that experiencing something directly and having an analytical appreciation of the same are incompatible ends.

I don’t feel that way now, but I’m sure I harbored some of the same suspicions myself when I began studying music. In fact, I think the thing I enjoy most about studying music is the way that minor mysteries of ignorance have a habit of giving way to deeper, more substantive mysteries. In other words, I’ve never been more aware of how much I don’t know, but what I don’t know is now a heck of a lot more interesting (and awe-inspiring) than the boring informational deficiencies I once grappled with as a beginner. Far from “explaining away” what I find emotionally compelling about music, I’ve found that my college education in composition has only deepened my capacity for appreciating it. Still, it can be immensely difficult to reassure the beginner, until all that new information gels into something useful that can be related to actual sound (and seems less like a secret plot to replace aesthetic appreciation with musical jargon!)

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5 thoughts on “Beginner’s Burden

  1. barakperelman

    So I have to ask the question, what meaning is there in identifying a chord or a key or a modulation or stating that a piece is in ABA or ABCA etc. ?  The answer, of course, is there is no meaning in such analysis and technique.  Labeling a chord or a key or outlining the sections of a piece, this is easy, anyone who takes the appropriate courses and studies these conventions can do it, because it is objective and two dimensional, that is the interpretation does not go beyond the page.  But the fact of the matter is that none of these great composers wrote two dimensional music, and so to really understand the work at hand has nothing to do with a key or a note or what theorists call form (which any good composer will tell you has nothing to do with form).  Composers think very deeply and are in constant questioning and philosophical development, and to really analyze a piece or pieces can be very difficult because what we see on the page is only the gateway to what we can’t see but have to realize for ourselves and then one can understand the work anew, and that is the only thing keeping it alive.

    “All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green. ” -Goethe

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  2. pgblu

    if I may put on my cynical hat for a moment, it must be said that many students adopt the ‘ignorance is bliss’ position ostensibly for the reasons you cite, but actually because they fear or loathe intellectual work. Not saying that’s the case with your student, of course.

    When do I most often get manifestoid emails from students with such messages as “music was meant to be played, not studied.” ? Shortly before the theory midterm.

    But you’re right: analysis is no substitute for music making, any more than writing a cookbook is the equivalent of eating.

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  3. Jay.Derderian

    The beautiful mysteries, for me, lie in the theory and forms. Once I gained an understanding of these things, the very nature of these ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s’ and chords and melodies became the philosophical goo-ey center that I love.

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  4. scottleee

    I would have to politely disagree with an aspect of the first comment. Analysis can be very meaningful, and sometimes as rewarding as listening to the piece itself. Many times the analysis of a good piece of music is not “easy” and even 5 of the most educated analysists will come up with 5 different interpretations. A professor of mine once said that analyzing is not about finding concrete answers; it is about raising the right questions.

    Scott Lee

    http://www.scottleemusic.info

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  5. rtanaka

    So I have to ask the question, what meaning is there in identifying a chord or a key or a modulation or stating that a piece is in ABA or ABCA etc.?

    Here is where a little musicological knowledge would come in handy — the idea of the ABA can represent a number of things: 1) starting from home, leaving somewhere, then coming back, 2) representation of shifting power-relationships (i.e. war), 3) a discourse of contrasting ideas, which then leads to a compromise, 4) how one’s individuality handles itself in the face of change, the B section, etc. These are themes that are central to Western societies and have been used and re-used over and over for centuries.

    In my opinion the reason why people tend to be skeptical of music theory is because whoever is explaining it to them often fails to explain how the ideas relate to real-life situations. It is my experience that composers and theorists are often indifferent or even hostile to musicology and music history, since it strips them of their genius narrative and places them within a social context. But I think that musicology is the missing link that’s needed in order for theory to be relevant again…we shouldn’t really let our egos get in the way of our understanding.

    Learning tonal theory is empowering not only because it allows one to understand heirarchical relationships, but also because 90% of the classical music out there relies on these forms in order to function. Learning these generalities gives the musician the power to play these musics knowing that they can anticipate some things if it is a piece written by a certain person from a certain era, so that they can focus more on the details of the work.

    Lot of the theory articles I read out there seem to derive their research from individual composers and sometimes even individual pieces but their approach is so insular that the structures derived have no meaning outside of its own self. This will turn any reasonable person off for obvious reasons, but it seems to have been something of a standard practice for a while.

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