The Language of the Tribe

I began working on a commercial scoring project with a video artist this week, and although the collaboration has been very fruitful, it has also been riddled with minor awkwardness and misunderstandings that come with trying to communicate musical concepts to non-musicians.

Let’s start with the word “classical,” which even among classical musicians might be taken for any number of things. But I have never heard the term bandied about in so cavalier a manner as a series of conference calls in which several knowledgeable and creative film artists urged me to make the music sound “more classical” or “less classical” in certain spots, which prompted all kinds of grasping follow-up questions that never seemed to clarify the precise “classical” element desired (Mozartean phrasing? Allusions to codified 18th-century affects? Or is that a way of saying they wanted something in a regular meter that sounds kind of common-practicey?). After my first try, the client requested something more “dark and very rubato,” which I apparently was unable to produce after a few more tries. After doing the logical thing (requesting the client select some representative clips as examples), I discovered that the client had simply desired a slower tempo for the music but had not been able to specify as much. And although I have precious little commercial scoring experience, I’ve more than once fielded requests for a spot to feature a specific instrument, only to find that the well-meaning but epically misguided client had been thinking of another instrument entirely.

All during this current project I’ve found myself thinking: Wow, I’m working with another creative person who has devoted himself to thinking about his work and the world around him in much the same way as myself; you’d think it would be relatively easy to communicate, but I could tell he was lost in my sputtering of composer-speak just as I would be lost (but fascinated) in his world of lenses, filters, and light sources. As much as we’d sometimes rather not be, artists are in many ways the ultimate insider-specialists, replete with our own jargon words as well as a fleet of normal words deployed with finicky meanings—words like line, interval, rest, subject, or cadence. When I was enrolled at the Cleveland Institute the marketing office decided to have huge banners printed in support of a renovation project that read: “CIM: Building To A Crescendo!” [sic.]; apparently a good portion of educated adults still have no idea regarding the proper use of this musical term. Even the word song is frequently used as a loose replacement for “composition” or “piece of music”; no problem in normal conversation, but this colloquial use of the word has been a source of misunderstandings in more than one collaboration.

All the fumbling conversations of this week have been great reminders of how concepts and terms that seem self-evident to us music specialists must seem foreign not just to those working in other artistic fields, but to the even wider population for whom any artistic pursuit might seem personally foreign. Most non-musicians with whom I’ve spoken about music are eager and quick to engage, but on occasion I can sense the resentment or just plain mystification after I unintentionally drop some jargon word. I’m preparing a talk for a college visit next month and have been concerned about it being understood by a bunch of non-musicians; I thought I needed to simplify the material, but perhaps the material will be plenty intelligible if I scour the talk for any stray bits of music jargon?

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4 thoughts on “The Language of the Tribe

  1. philmusic

    One of the challenges of working with or for untrained musicians and others is that you can do what they want but they can’t explain what they want. At least in common practice terms you can understand. Many times the vision is completely arbitrary. If you point that out your toast.

    So sometimes they seek out artistic “types” to fill the bill. So, many times they will jettison a trained person and use someone else who knows exactly what they want before they what it (those folks might then sub contract to you).

    There is also, unfortunately, sometimes a need to show who is boss. This is done by leaving you guessing the instructions.

    For this kind of work one must hone one’s political and social skills.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s type o’ page

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  2. Lisa X

    Nice post, important topic. When I first got involved with what you all would like to call pop music, playing with musicians you’d call untrained, I was very embarrassed to find out I didn’t know many of the most basic terms of the trade like: DI, buyout, split 7″, door split, one sheet, etc. I can thank my music degrees for that.

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  3. danvisconti

    philmusic writes:

    There is also, unfortunately, sometimes a need to show who is boss. This is done by leaving you guessing the instructions.

    YES. This is exactly what happened. Another bout of guessing games today but I forced his hand by framing my responses in terms of specific musical excerpts. Being too open-ended with these types seems to multiply the option-paralysis (and opportunities for game playing).

    @Lisa X: yeah isn’t it crazy that not even all people in the music world are on the same page? Maybe that’s partly because of the diversity of music fields replete with their own respective conventions and verbiage; but with music school specifically it’s funny what’s passed off as an even moderately well-rounded education. The frequently-offered argument that those aspiring to become orchestral violinists don’t *need* to know about anything that doesn’t directly relate to their honing excerpts for an audition is kind of like saying that humans don’t need anything other than air, shelter, and nourishment.

    Certainly there is an economic imperative to spend the bulk of our time honing certain particular skills, even for punk rockers–but our lives and music acquire a great deal of depth and richness merely by having experienced a wide gamut of styles, playing and practices, even if we never directly attempt to incorporate them into our own stuff. Thanks for pairing some sample “pop” jargon words with the more conservatory-style ones I listed.

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