“I realized that there has to be a problem with education—any form of formal education. I collected enough evidence that once you get a theory in your head, you can no longer understand how people can operate without it. And you look at practitioners, lecture them on how to do their business, and live under the illusion that they owe you their lives. Without your theories and your learning they will never go anywhere.”
This comes from an economics book subtitled “Can Mathematical Theories Destroy the Financial Markets?”. You can read the quote in context here. He’s not talking about music, but Nassim Taleb’s work is all about the limitations of academic theories, and it got me thinking.
Like a lot of people in the classical music business today, I have a degree in music*. I studied Schenker, Adorno and Piston just enough to write an essay. A particularly crazy professor made the whole class analyze every chord in Beethoven’s ninth symphony so that we’d understand how great it was**. In short, I dabbled in musicology for long enough to think that classical music was complex subject to be understood, and that I had the tools but perhaps not the time or inclination to improve upon the already profound understanding imparted by my studies.
It seems like I’m not alone. Rob Kapilow has made a career out of making analysis lectures accessible to public audiences, teaching them to listen for the thematic development in Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi. His shows are fun. He’s very good at it.
The premise that music is to be understood seems to underpin many other accessibility initiatives too***. Whenever a conductor stands at the podium and has the orchestra play excerpts of the music to illustrate his introduction, that’s almost always what’s going on.
Does that really add to anybody’s enjoyment, though?
When we struggled through harmony class, spent important drinking time agonizing over a Beethoven score, skimmed Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music the night before a test and reduced everything to V-I cadence in the name of Schenker, we did it thinking this would be useful, that it was important, and that a set of theories devised years after the event gave us real insight into the thought-processes of long-dead composers.
Ten years later, we can’t forget these theories and have no idea what music sounded like without them. Descending scales sound good, not because of how they make us feel, but because we know the difference between Ursatz and Ersatz. We harbor the guilty suspicion that, if we’d paid more attention to all that stuff about retrograde inversions, then serialism would sound good. We can confidently say that pop music is bad because they have parallel fifths all over the place, but Radiohead are good musicians because they know about 5/4. Beethoven’s ninth is great because of a key change that happens somewhere in the first movement, and anybody that says otherwise is a philistine.
For the most part, though, we enjoyed Beethoven before we knew about sonata form. We found Mozart playful before we knew about modulation, and our reaction to Vivaldi was largely unchanged by our studies. We didn’t know any of this stuff when we decided that we like classical music. I think Nassim Taleb would agree that there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that it will be any different for the rest of the audience****.
You don’t make people like classical music by teaching them about it. You get people to like it by doing it really, really well. That’s where the magic comes from.
I’ll leave you with Richard Galliano playing Bach. The album is coming soon. I’ve no idea what my crazy professor would have said about this, but I know I love it.
* Not being a proper academic, though, I can put unfounded assertions in footnotes, thus: the classical record business is largely populated by two kinds of people – those that couldn’t get a job making music and those that couldn’t make a living selling anything more worthwhile.
** I don’t offer the Beethoven example as evidence of his craziness. On our first day, he walked into a lecture theater full of students, stood at the podium for perhaps ten minutes staring blankly into space, said “Kids. Never take acid.” and then left the room. End of lesson. Petit mal seizures were to become a common feature of his teaching.
*** Indeed it seems to be the main alternative to the “trick them into coming and they’ll come back” idea discussed (and, I hope, discredited) in my first ever post here.
**** The fallacy here is cum hoc ergo propter hoc – people who like classical music know about it, therefore if we teach people about it, they’ll like it. In fact, all the evidence (and common sense) points to the opposite being true: that people learn about it because they like it.