This Does Not Compute

Now that I’m in my fifth year studying music in graduate school—having recently been entrusted, moreover, with the sculpting of neophyte musicians—it’s not so easy for me to remember when it was all new. I don’t mean music itself; it’s sort of impossible for me to remember not having music in my life in some capacity or other. Rather, I mean music scholarship, all the way from the AP theory test to Feminine Endings. I feel at home in these waters today, but my first few teaching experiences have been a great reminder that there’s a first dive for everyone.

More recently, however, I’ve started to develop an amateur’s interest in linguistics, a social science that turns out to have very little in common with music. I’m diving in, but this time I have one of those old-timey brass helmets with the glass front on, so to speak: I know, more or less, how the academy works, and the vagaries of scholarship are familiar to me, so I’ve got a leg up on 17-year-old Colin. (My complexion is also a lot better than his, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The funny thing about studying linguistics after years of focusing almost entirely on music is that it was very quickly clear to me that one hand isn’t always talking to the other in that field: Texts present different definitions for the same term, warring researchers defend competing theories, and the ideas that one scholar presents without disclaimer are condemned as hopelessly out-of-date by the next. Naturally, music is just the same—but these contradictions are so ordinary to a longtime music student that they hardly merit comment. It really bothers me when two linguists use the same term for different phenomena: I’m trying to learn here, guys! Terminological discrepancies are one thing, but I’m beginning to sense that linguistics is an area of inquiry fraught, like many, with deeper rifts and apparent antinomies. I doubt that I’ll ever reach the same comfort level with linguistics scholarship that I have in music, but it would be great to get to the point where my brain can reconcile some of these contradictions. Reconciling contradictions is an important 21st-century life skill, after all.

3 thoughts on “This Does Not Compute

  1. rskendrick

    As I say to my son all the time, words mean things (this is usually when he’s using bad words!).

    Seriously though, what is the current ‘best practice’ for what we call new art music… ‘concert music’?, ‘art music’, ‘contemporary music’.

    Modern music and classical music appear to be out, because they imply a certain time period or a certain ‘sound’ of the music. But even ‘contemporary music’ implies something in the pop world that we don’t mean. ‘Art music’ sounds a bit stodgy… maybe it is ‘concert music’?

    Anyhoo, my point is, we’ve got our own terminology problems.

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

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  2. philmusic

    It is typical of language to reinvent itself every generation more so for academic language. It has been my observation that behind the jargon and hair splitting is the very simple concepts of like and dislike.

    There is something else too.

    Consider Hugo Leichtentritt defense of Schoenberg’s music: Its good therefore tonal.
    In response to Schenker, and his students, who said this about Schoenberg: Its bad therefore not tonal. Both schools of thought share the same underlying tenant (paradigm) that tonality is the basis of a successful composition. So, it doesn’t occur to either of them that they might both be right as in; Its good therefore not tonal.

    Many still maintain that “consonant” music is tonal and good and that “dissonance” music is non tonal and bad.

    The paradigm shift that non-tonal music can be a marvelous entity all on its own and isn’t really tonality is still not universally accepted.

    Dr. Phil 5 by 5 Fried, PhilFried.com

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  3. mclaren

    “Modern music” certainly raises the spectre of modernist music. This style has now receded into the past and with its emphasis on absence of functional harmonies, lack of discernible melody, lack of a regular rhythmic pulse and a general absence of perceptible audible organization, it bears little relation to the output of most contemporary composers.

    “Classical music” definitely conjures up the specific period from the 1780s through the 1880s.

    Various alternative terms have appeared, only to submerge beneath the surface of popular culture: “postclassical” music, “serious” music, “postminimal” music, “non-pop” music, and so on.

    None of these have proven adequate. “Postminimal” music appears to excludes The New Complexity. “Postclassical” seems problematic, insofar as it applies to most music composed after the start of the 20th century. “Serious” music runs into problems for the same reason as “non-pop” music — these terms appear arguable and dependent on the viewpoint of the observer. Terry Riley used to give concerts to tens of thousand of people: should we call his music “non-pop”? Harold Budd and Brian Eno sold a lot of records of ambient music — ought we to call their music “non-pop”?

    How can we fit computer music into the classical pigeonhole? Or ought we even to try?

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