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!)