I’m going to continue along the trajectory I began out last week, prefacing with some thoughts inspired by some conversations I’ve had this week. I’m an avid fan of the Platonic/ Socratic dialogues and I often find that there’s few better ways of exploring ideas than a good discussion/ argument.
I was speaking to a good friend of mine about some of the ideas that have been snowballing in my mind since last week’s episode concerning approaching music study from a purely experiential/ aural angle. This friend happens to be an extremely gifted classical pianist who, although agreeing with my premise that the absoluteness of the music itself alludes pen and papers best attempts, he ascribes more to the legitimacy to the process of harmonic analysis than I do.
Our conversation rested on the subject of harmonic analysis for a good stretch of time and never really resolved to any tangible answer that could satisfy us both (as most often such conversations go), and I think herein may lay the greatest split between the two ‘poles’ of musical thinking. The improviser and the prescriptive thinker.
Blog #2 A Brief Look at Harmonic Analysis
Briefly, here are some my honest thoughts on harmonic analysis:
Firstly, it’s worth noting that I used to ascribe plenty of value to harmonic analysis and only really effectively abandoned it after I was quite familiar with it and had used it for some time. One could easily say that my current perception of music is in part thanks to traditional harmonic analysis, which may have acted as a place holder until I was ready to come up with a more refined, personalized way of mentally categorizing sound.
If this is the case, it should be fairly easy to make a strong argument in favor of harmonic analysis, at least in so far as its use as a starting point. It certainly acts as a good placeholder, considering that being able to ‘just hear things for what they are’ takes plenty of time and focused practice. This idea seems to coincide perfectly with the usual tried and true building block approach to learning. Start with a simplified picture of what is going on, and then slowly expose yourself to more and more layers of complexity. That sounds good right?
The existing problem (for lack of a better word), from what I can see, is that it is not usually framed in this manner. It’s usually framed as the standard to which you must conform if you wish to understand music in any objective sense. I don’t deny at all that focused analysis is a path to understanding a piece of music deeper, in fact quite the contrary, I think it is necessary and all the more reason to question and to reassess the way it has traditionally been done thus far.
“No god limits man. It is man who limits man” – Pan (pagan deity). So many musicians see people like Chet Baker or Paul Desmond (perfect pitch, ect.) and chalk their abilities up to a deviation from the norm to be admired and revered, maybe even feared.
This may be true to a certain extent, there is after all, great variety in human psychological make-up. However, beyond those things which elude our control, it is exactly this kind of thinking wherein lies the seeds of mediocrity. Ones very perception of their inability – which is rarely based in objective fact and is more often related to the workings of the ego – is the very foundation on which ineptitude is built. The person who is irrationally critical of themselves may have an even more inflated ego than those whose confidence outweighs their merit; at least these whom we would categorize as supercilious can disassociate from their ego enough so as not to take their shortcomings and conversely their talents too seriously.
Don’t’ get me wrong, of course over-confidence is a wholly unsavory by-product of the ego. However, an excess of humility doesn’t differ too greatly in this respect.
This obsequious, ostensible humbleness (or diffidence) is not based in selflessness, as it may often appear – and as its practitioner may wish to convey -, but rather in taking oneself too seriously. The overgrown ego cannot withstand failure or criticism and thus won’t be able to express itself without rigorous and suffocating restraint. Reality itself is too imperfect a vessel for these super-egos’ dreams to be rendered into. Both of these excesses of consciousness are delusions of grandeur expressed in polar ways.
One argument put forward by my friend which I see as being particularly strong is that ‘often someone needs to know that something is there before they can actually perceive it.’ A thought which has specific relevance to the last blog, where I talked about people who weren’t fortunate enough to have intertwined musical language into their linguistic framework in their infancy; and consequently, how they are not able to perceive certain things which other ‘musically gifted’ people may take for granted as obvious or self-evident.
I realized that this assertion may be a point at which the two ideological poles can meet.
It is true the someone may not be able to perceive things ‘as they are’ without the aid of a simplified model to lay the groundwork.
This is a testament to how we take for granted the way that humans perceive reality in general. It would appear to us that we take in information from the world outside our bodies and that we are given a more or less ‘accurate’ mental image of the world as it is, considering physical limitations of the human body, arrow of time, etcetera.
This however, has been found not to be the case. The fact is, we are evolutionarily tuned to ascribing utilitarian value hierarchies to the visual stimuli which, to a non-human (or even non-animal) observer would ascribe no mode of differentiation.
For instance, there is an infinite number of definable features between any individual doors under the category; door. Upon seeing a door, we are able to instantly recognize it as such without the aid of any conscious deduction. We don’t take into account the numerous things which could render every door as a completely dissimilar object from the one previous or to follow. Instead we perceive them under the one idea – or ‘form’ to get Platonic about it - of ‘door’. Which saves us a lot of mental processing power.
The utilitarian value of an object is to human perception, the foremost defining feature and therefore simplifies reality into something that we can better digest. In this case, it’s so much the better as it saves us the time and energy of having to mentally reinvent the door at each new encounter with a door-like object. It uses too much of our attention to process infinity, attention needed for survival. So, your brain must play the part of a limiting mechanism; favoring stimuli which relates to survival or otherwise and categorizing objects starting from that basis.
*It’s interesting to note that that which we perceive as being mundane is often something to which an ‘slightly above subconscious’ amount of processing power is given, with little ‘reward’. Reward being, things and concepts understood/ accomplished. *
This is all stuff that is heavily expounded upon by Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell”, highly recommend reading, they’re usually published in the same volume as each other. I’m definitely going to have to revisit it before the next one of these blogs, where I’ll go even deeper into this.
Moving along in a similar vein, I was recently informed by someone I know that many of the problems that the people building AI are running into stems from trying to get it to perceive objects in a way similar to humans, that is, categorically. But they’ve apparently found that this isn’t as simple as making it able to simply visually calculate its surroundings in way which resembles human vision.
From what I understand we tried to make AI without completely understanding our own sub-consciousness. As a direct consequence, we are unable to render a surface-consciousness, or even a basic perception of reality as effective as our own. This is however, something I know little about so let’s get back to what I can talk about with confidence.
To return to the original subject…
If it’s true that one must use mental categories with which they can differentiate between the slushy chaos that is absolute reality, then it would follow that in order to perceive specific musical phenomenon, one must first have categories within which one can place aural phenomena.
Here, we can contrast our previous examples of ‘doors’ with musical phenomena such as the tonic, the sub-dominate minor, the dominant, ect. Like the door, or a Euclid, or like the color blue, there are infinite gradations of difference between objects which fall into the borders of any given category.
What do we mean when we say tonic? Aside from the technical answer, I would generally understand it as being something still, unmoving, a final place of rest, a constant/ common denominator.
At base, in harmonic analysis we are attempting to document the momentum, trajectory strength, the ‘pulling power’ of each sonic event to the next.
It only makes sense that we would, using a building block pedagogical approach, begin with the simplest and lowest resolution image of sound; namely the relationship between the tonic and the dominant. The yin yang, the left right hemisphere. Most still and most momentous. Rock and water.
We then continue to add further levels of gradation between all the previous poles – subdominant being between tonic and dominant – subdominant minor being somewhere between subdominant and dominant, etcetera.
I prefer to think of harmonic analysis like this: as a means of quickly attaining pragmatic harmonic sensibility which would otherwise take large amounts of time to develop organically.
*Organically meaning in the way similar to how a child learns language, not by studying grammar and spelling but by listening and participating. By osmosis, if you will. *
It’s a convenient way of building off of previous knowledge without having to go through everything that our predecessors went through in order to acquire it. It’s really a gift from the past with which we can either; choose to build beyond in order to leave even better gifts for our heirs, or we can treat it as holy truth thus limiting us from going beyond the imaginations of our great-grandfathers... to the likely scorn and distain of the future generations.
I have to make a point of clarification here, because it usually comes up in these kinds of conversations and it’s indicative of a common misunderstanding when it comes to this topic.
Traditional harmonic analysis is often conflated with being one and the same as ‘scrupulous study of musical material’. A common defense of harmonic analysis; “But what’s wrong with learning more about something and studying it deeper?” The critical error in this question is the underlying assumption that in rejecting harmonic analysis, one rejects the process of deep musical study. That there is no way beyond the established and published means. Of course, a conversation with any great master of improvising would quickly set one straight however we don’t all have that opportunity.
There is of course, the undeniable element of Eurocentrism here; especially considering the wealth of different approaches and conceptions of music found in cultures all across the world which have been swept under the rug in academia in favor of this European system.
If anything, harmonic analysis can surely be a useful foundation. But this could be true in as much as any foundation can serve growth. Plants can grow from soil as well as through concrete, including the varying gradations of density in-between. Is traditional harmonic analysis concrete or soil, or something between? I happen to think it’s not the most effective but rather it is the most pervasive because it conforms conveniently to our prevailing superficial view of reality. That is, we firstly accept our narrow view of reality as truth and then go on to treat the very words and symbols which we use to portray this narrow view as reality itself. We don’t appreciate the underlying pervasion of metaphor in all of our linguistic renderings, and so treat our abstractions as the things-in- themselves. We refuse to see the raw being, the Istigkeit, so much so that most people need chemical assistance in order to peel back only a small portion of their default, narrowed-down-for-the-sake-of-survival sense of reality.
We should allow ourselves to think with our bodies again. In your pinky finger is more wisdom than the entirety of your conscious ego - to crudely paraphrase Nietzsche.
I’ll leave off with a thought which I’ll pick up from in the next blog:
A contextual example…
The Microphones released an album earlier this year, and there is a moment where, after having rested on a ‘home’ or ‘tonic’ harmonic territory for so long, we are suddenly taken to what we would in common musical parlance call the four chord (the major chord based off of the 4th degree of the major scale) accompanied by some other artful changes in texture. This event, when listening, washed over me and made my skin prickle up, a long-anticipated breath of fresh harmonic air. The four chord is, of course, not without its spiritual connotations in our cultural associations with it – which brings up another dimension to contend with in addition to harmony and rhythm. The dimension of cultural baggage. This dimension is not only obviously present, but at each closer look, seems to increase in its omniscience. One could be brought to view music solely as a process of systematically gratifying, defying and toying with the (expected) expectations that the listener brings along with them.
Harmonic analysis would be content to ascribing the feeling of this moment solely to the fact of the long awaited four chord. This in itself should be a demonstration of its glaring limitations as a totalizing model. It either denies or ignores much of what is obviously present.
It’s a fine tool but let’s not use a hammer to fix everything in the house. We have many tools at our disposal and the fact that our universities only recognize (or rather legitimize) a singular tool is their own failing. Of course, things are changing and I think right now we’re experiencing the soft rumblings of much larger things in the decades to come.
I’ll leave it here for the time being. Thanks for reading, if any of you have any cool ideas or disagreements or whatever, feel free to contact me. Like I said earlier, the dialogue aspect of playing with ideas resonates with me so I’m very interested in hearing what other people think about these kinds of things. Of course, I didn’t go as deep as I wanted too, or didn’t elaborate on certain things as much as would have been ideal, but hopefully we’ll get there soon. There’s a lot of ground to cover and I don’t want these to ramble on for too long because they most certainly could. See you next time.
This is the beginning of what I hope will become a multi-part series about music pedagogy. I have noticed a lot of conversations being sparked lately about what the future of music education will look like in a post-pandemic world and I think that these conversations are much needed and long overdue. It’s clear to me that the existing structure has stopped working; whether due to rising costs, decreasing value of what they offer, rigid thinking, non-relevance to the modern world, growing bureaucratic over-reach, government cuts, or an intricate mix of all those, plus more.
This is something I’ve been thinking of for a while being a musician, a guitar teacher and having gone through the university/ college system myself. I figured I would try to organize my thoughts into this weekly – at least I’ll aim for weekly - blog. There will be many more of these, since the subject is so dense and because I’m effectively using this as a way to explore my own thoughts on the matter, but I’ll try to make it an interesting read so we can all win here.
In this ‘episode’ I’ll spend a bit of time on the private lesson industry, which will eventually lead into some thoughts on college/university. This is very much a scratch of the surface, but I look forward to digging deeper in the following weeks.
How many music teachers find themselves in a similar scenario? You feel like you’re giving everything you possibly can to a student and in your mind there seems to be no shortage of things for that student to practise. Yet lesson after lesson they come to you without having worked on the material sufficiently enough to move on to the next thing that you have planned. After all, humans learn best in a building-block approach, each block laying the foundation for the next. Though as we often see, this presents a challenge in the scenario that a student doesn’t put in the needed work into one of the blocks.
In this scenario the teacher is left with a number of options, the two most observable being;
The problem with these approaches, and additionally to many teaching approaches, is that it fosters within the student a dependence on the teacher and robs the student of the ability to self-learn.
One of a paranoid persuasion could almost be driven to see it as a conspiracy to keep students dependent on the school out of fear that if they had the means and the motivation to progress on their own, they would stop taking lessons. Conspiracies aside, this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that to many teachers, it just seems easier in the short term for a number of reasons. They want to avoid appearing too authoritative, they want the student to enjoy themselves and to continue to come back, they don’t want the kid to just lump them in with every other authority figure, etcetera. These are all perfectly valid concerns, and they can be achieved successfully with the aid of a little more tact.
The fact is, these results are best achieved by not informing your actions by those seemingly noble wishes but rather with the larger, more ‘meta’ wish to impart onto someone a deeper love and ability to understand music. The rest will come.
There’s an analogy to be drawn here between parenting and these examples. There are super strict parents, which suffocate the child’s growth and often cause them to experience a delayed adolescence in adulthood. On the flip side, there are parents who want to be the kids ‘buddy’ with similarly disastrous results. Obviously as a music teacher you’re far from being on the level of parent, but I think the analogy still holds.
I am very much of the “Catch someone a fish they’ll eat for a day, teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime” persuasion. We’re not simply teaching people music; we are teaching people how to teach themselves music. We are supposed to be giving people the tools to discover things for themselves, not just giving them things to train into their muscle memory so that they ostensibly appear to be able to play an instrument.
Where do we (musicians) go for musical knowledge/ wisdom? The source obviously, the music itself. If we don’t impart onto our students the ability to go directly to the music itself for answers, we have effectively failed them.
To use another, further removed analogy: when the printing press was invented, and subsequently when literacy became more common among the general populace, knowledge and power became consecrated more and more within the people and less so with the high classes of venerated priests of the time. Before then, people could only receive the ‘word of god’ through the mediation of select priests.
In the case of the written word; for an immense amount of time only a select few could access ‘the source’ that is, by directly reading the literature. Literary progress moved very slowly in those days. Being able to read, much like being able to really listen to music, is a mental commodity which effectively transcends every physical barrier the world has to offer – I say effectively because it takes time to learn, time which not everyone has – and its commercial value is infinite.
In short, literacy is power. When more people can read and write, the entire body of literature becomes richer. Similarly, in the case of music. More people than ever before have access to musical literacy and as a result there is music being created that people 20 years ago could have never conceived of (for better or for worse). Some of the most envelope-pushing music of all time is being made in our lifetimes thanks to increased access to information (the internet after all, is a kind of printing press). The problem in our field don’t stem from lack of innovation, but rather a lack of monetary compensation. I often feel like our world is becoming more and more visually oriented and that we live less and less in the aural world which is all the more reason for us to teach people how to listen. Teaching someone to play music without teaching them how to listen is like teaching someone how to write before they can even read.
It’s difficult for musicians to imagine that someone could perceive playing music as a completely visual task, but we forget that many people these days do not grow up with music around them. When you take those people and teach them an instrument without spending any time on listening, and you just give them work sheets and books and other visual things; and then you explain where everything is on the instrument in visual terms because it take less time that way….. they will not perceive the actual sound of that instrument. They will think “I played the notes on the page and put my fingers on the right spots so that was good” without knowing at all that the sound, and the emotional contentment therein was the whole point. It could sound terrible and they won’t know, because you never showed them what the guitar (or what instrument ‘X’) is supposed to sound like in the context of actual music. To that person you are essentially teaching them finger dancing if you don’t spend a significant amount of time on listening. The number of teachers who don’t assign listening homework to their students at all astounds me. I generally want to avoid coming off as judgemental, but it is really the bare minimum that they should be doing as music educators.
Too often it seems music educators have the tendency to think of themselves as high priests interpreting musical wisdom for their students to understand, turning the world of sounds and textures into blots of ink on the page. All the student will ever know are those ink blots unless you teach them how to listen.
Many of us (musicians/ music teachers) were taught how to listen organically, from infancy around the same time our brains were acquiring language. For those of us who were lucky enough to be exposed to music as babies, the world of musical sounds became intertwined with the world linguistic sounds. Because our linguistic frame work informs our perceptions of reality, those of us who have music intertwined in our linguistic framework have a much more lucid and somatic perception of music compared to those who don’t. Now, if you are one of these lucky ones – most musicians are, chicken and egg – you may find it incredibly difficult to imagine how someone who doesn’t have this advantage perceives music. Things that you take for granted as self-evident are likely not at all on the radar to those people who are less aurally inclined.
we all too often take for granted that we (musicians) know, on an experiential level what music is. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not. The fact is, no one in their right mind would become a musician without some extremely strong, invisible force propelling them. It’s not method books and scales and theory and ink on paper. As musicians, we know this on a deep level because we all have moments etched into our memory of music providing us with intense, inner experiences which can’t be effectively expressed on paper.
Many musicians of my generation are as of late, becoming keen on creating a new kind of pedagogical structure to compete with the existing ones, which I think is much needed and long overdue.
One small critique. I’ve noticed that what kind of approach we will take to be somewhat absent from the conversation. There have been plenty of valid critiques of existing structural problems in the university system but I worry that we are ignoring what is most important: what exactly is this ‘new education’ going to look like? Will we just continue the same old approaches under new names? Will we continue to sacrifice the experiential in favor of the academic? Will we continue to make the mistake of belittling music to the level of an intellectual exercise? My hopes are that we take a good look at ourselves, what propels us, and that we find a way to effectively nourish other people’s propelling force.
I’ll leave this one off with some epigrams by Heraclitus, one of the primary founders of dialectical thought. I find these to be applicable here:
Thanks for reading, look out for the next one. – Aidan