“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.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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.



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  1. April 26, 2010

    Arg. First this post from Mind the Gap:

    And now this. Most disheartening, especially since I’ve been burning a lot of time this year writing program notes to already composed pieces instead of writing new ones…

    Unfortunately, my gut says there’s some truth here. Musicology is not particularly useful to musicians. And learning how to hear deeper structures in music hasn’t increased my enjoyment of the music. (Although the repeated listenings required to hear those structures have endeared certain pieces to me that would have otherwise been forgotten after a single listening, which is a different matter all together.)

    I still think musical illustration and a well conceived program note is a useful thing. I don’t expect that it will win over converts to classical music, but for the folks in the early stages of discovering an interest, it provides a toehold, a taste of the thought process that goes on behind the

  2. April 26, 2010

    That depends on the commentary, doesn’t it? The music ought to speak for itself but if your audience is new to the type of music you’re bringing them (as happens with my ensemble, I Fagiolini, sometimes) the danger is that they hear the style and noise of the music before the piece itself. I agree that telling people about structure for its own sake is perhaps dull for a concert audience but anything that is relevant to helping to listen to the piece (including the sort of context that doesn’t always fit well into programme notes) can be helpful. There’s a nice BBC radio programme I guest present on sometimes – Discovering Music – and it does this very well.

  3. properdiscord #
    April 26, 2010

    I’m in complete agreement with you both here, and I’m not advocating cutbacks in music education – although perhaps a change in focus would be productive.

    Getting people to try it and making it easy for them to learn more are two legs of the stool. Unless the third leg – a compelling performance – is there, the whole thing falls down.

  4. April 26, 2010

    I spent much of my musical life (I grew up in the 60s and 70s) poo-poo-ing structure and listening to “common practice” music from the melody downwards. It wasn’t until I reached my mid 30s and started playing a middle voice instrument (the viola) that I began to understand anything about harmony and voicing, and it wasn’t until I started writing music that I understood anything about structure. Now that I’m in my 50s, I see and hear music in a totally new way, and I find that I really appreciate quality when I hear it–even in the “war horses” that I used to dismiss as overplayed or trite. I know so much less now than I thought I knew when I was younger, but I enjoy the music that I play and hear so much more.

    This is stuff that you just can’t teach. It’s stuff you “get” eventually. I can try to “teach” it to my students, but I know that it is something that they won’t “learn” until they are ready to learn it for themselves and essentially by themselves.

  5. April 26, 2010

    Agreed. I’ve often felt that everyone’s marketing and outreach efforts were/are predicated on the notion that educating people will somehow make them like classical music better. This holds for no other fine art form: Painting? No, just show me famous pictures. Dance? No, just show me women in tutus. Theater? No, just give me some guy sounding like Olivier. Literature? No, just tell me a good story and make sure your nouns agree with your verbs. Why classical music embraces this idea is basically 180 degrees away from how it should be. Do you like music? Yes? Then come in! We play music! Loudly! All kinds of it! Sometimes with 2 pianos and 2 timpani onstage! And a horde of violins! Who else does that?!

  6. Peter Chun #
    April 26, 2010

    This is like many things in life: two contradictory things are both true. There are people who learn about something because they like it, as well as people who acquires the taste for something because they learned about it. It’s not so hard to believe both scenarios.

  7. April 26, 2010

    While some excellent points have been made, there seems to exist a misconception between music theory (how a piece is constructed and analyzed) and musicology (music history). One trend in musicology that is prevalent these days is understanding the historical context of a work and the forces around a composer that can and did influence a person to write a certain work a certain way. These cultural forces do indeed have bearing on a piece of music and understanding elements of performance practice is essential to understand how a work is played, how style often is trumped by harmonic motion and how performance factors are complicated by what sorts of instruments they played. The 19th century often deified composers, & this sterilizes them of their humanity. A Baroque continuo player who understands harmony will know where dissonances are in order to emphasize them & what to de-emphasize. Not that we should be slaves to treatises on how music WAS performed, but ignoring a lot of these factors can make for dull performances. While I would agree, always explaining sonata form or, God help us, Schencker can get esoteric & turn off audiences, but if someone loves a piece, they will seek out more information.

  8. mclaren #
    April 26, 2010

    The vast majority of so-called music “theories” produced during the 19th and 20th centuries constitute ufology, pure pseudoscience with nary a scintilla of credibility or relationship to observed reality. That’s not my uninformed opinion, it’s the conclusion of Sorbonne music professor Laurent Fichet in his book Les theories scientifiques de la musique
    Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1996. You can read a review of Fichet’s book here.

    “The final section of the text is a twenty-page conclusion, which Fichet commences by noting the yawning chasm between the hopes raised by the theories reviewed and the actual progress they have made to music theory, and that this shortcoming is particularly apparent for those theories from the preceding century. In fact, Fichet concludes that the only theorist from that period to have made any real contribution to music theory was Helmholtz, with his theory of dissonance. He notes that, while notions of what is considered `scientific’ have changed over the last two centuries, this nevertheless does not excuse the number of mathematical and logical errors and inconsistencies contained in these purportedly `scientific’ theories of music, and that several theorists (notably Ansermet) attempted to give a scientific flavor to their writings in an attempt merely to give them some credence of rigor and certitude.”

    The vacuous pseudoscience and empty numerology of cranks like Heinrich Schenker represents a formidable barrier to appreciating any piece of classical music. Sadly, this meaningless numerology has grown apace in graduate music programs because of the frenzied need of colelge music departments to make their grotesquely expensive postgraduate programs seem “rigorous” and credible by comparison with the hard science masters and doctoral programs.

    As for musicology, the growth of liner notes probably relates to the incredible diversity of classical music being produced today. Musical traditions now differ so drastically from one island universe of contemporary classical music practice to another that audiences not familiar with these widely divergent types of music are apt to be completely at sea. They have no idea what to make of the music.

    Consider a MAX/MSP concert. You’d better have some inkling when you go into this kind of contemporary music concert that you’re going to be listening a lots of bleeps and blorps generated by guys with laptops moving mice. If you expect to hear a string quartet playing I IV V I triads, you’re in for one helluva shock.

    Or consider a performance of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet Number 2. If you don’t have at least some vague suspicion that this music will last 6 hours and consist of a lot of reptitive reiterations of the same material, you may panic by the end of the first hour.

    Or consider a performance of one of Johnny Reinhard’s pieces. If you don’t realize Reinhard has left the conventional western tuning behind and is likely to be performing in a tuning with (say) 37 pitches per octave, you’re going to panic.

    Astronomers have pointed out that there are regions in the universe so far part that light from those places has not yet reached us yet. As Leonard B. Meyer predicted in his 1967 book Emotion and Meaning In Music, we’ve now reached a fluctuating steady state in which vast numbers of radicaly irreconcilable music traditions coexist in contemporary music, with no mainstream to provide a guide. By analog with the cosmology situation, we could say that the sound from most of those island universes of different contemporary musical traditions has not yet reached out ears. Thus, the need for liner notes.

  9. Gary Bachlund #
    April 27, 2010

    I note — no pun intended, though I do sometimes note — that there is a world of difference between doing and chatting about doing. All the chatting about doing in the kitchen, assembly line, bedroom, garage et al doesn’t get too much accomplished. But in the Musicology Biz, there is great bemoaning of there not being enough academic and business poitions for musicologists to ply their wordy crafts. Program notes and books about are fine, as long as there are enough folks to snap them up. When that clientele is sated, the remaining sales — as Proper Discord notes — come when someone wants to know something more about symphony X and opera Y. Until then, and until somone stumbles onto “those island universes of different contemporary musical traditions,” I wager there has been enough said. As to audiences, Elaine Fine’s remark reminds that “the crystallizing experience” of which Menuhin spoke is something which must await new listeners and new audiences. All the words which might precede the doing of the music, or even accompany it, are not that experience, but at best enhance it. At worst, they sometimes put folks off, as I have seen in performances when sitting with audiences. Only this month, I sat next to a couple who were chuckling at the “liner notes” for something they found amusing in an ostensibly serious lecture. I inquired, being not so shy, and learned that they thought the words were just so much filler for the 5 Euro program, no worth and no bargain. Did they enjoy the concert? Yes. Would they buy more programs like this one? No? I found that most instructive. Experiencing music is not done by reading words about music, anymore than learning what strawberries taste like comes from a dictionary.

  10. April 27, 2010

    I think the take-away here is that music theory and musicology are valuable, but not substitutes for listening to music. They aid our understanding and are most useful when found by the curious, but should not stand in for other outreach efforts. This is why I was no good at musicology – I kept boiling stuff down too far.

    • Gary Bachlund #
      April 27, 2010

      Agreed. In my dotage I find a recollection rummaging about from my early college days in which one particular music library had more books about music than scores of music. I found that strange then, and sad as I recall it now. Stravinksy was correct to observe that people talk about music because to talk music itself is rather a non sequitur.

  11. April 28, 2010

    for whatever it’s worth……..when I learn a piece, I’ll break down passages into 20 or 100 reps. 100 if the passage is impossible. Basically, I’m trying to crack the facade to get to the essence. The piece always gives. Sometimes, as with the Stravinsky Sonata, it’ll take a couple of years for it to divulge itself. Sometimes, as with Winterreise, it just needs to spill its guts. The way it’s put together (and I’m a geek so I get totally off on structure) is never important or evident to me until the piece reveals it’s emotional soul. And then the structure, or the way I’ve processed the structure, becomes clear. It’s kind of Gothic, really, (architecturally) where the skeleton becomes glaring but only after I’ve been inside. It seems I’m constantly iterating “music came before music theory”.

  12. April 29, 2010

    You did a great job summing up Vivaldi’s music: wysiwyg. I laughed for a while and then started a remix of Winter–which I got bored with really quickly and quit.

    Radiohead is maybe not the best example for parallel 5ths–they can be quite contrapuntal. Nirvana, however…

  13. John B. #
    April 30, 2010

    That’s a great theory, PD. But it’s not very useful in practice.

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