COLUMN: The Sounds Of Music
Published: Sunday, October 20, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 20, 2013 23:10
As I nervously stared at the sheet music before me, a room of eager adult ears awaited my performance. My short legs limply dangled above the pedals of the piano, and my little hands hovered above the black and white keys with hesitation. Suddenly—plunk! I banged my fingers down, slowly poking out each note to the song I had spent months practicing with my teacher. I know now—15 years later—that that recital was undeniably dreadful, despite the applause from the audience. I remember my mom assuring me that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard—but she had to be lying, because I’m certain that my sloppy rendition of “Chopsticks” was far from musical.
I’d nearly forgotten my 13-year history of piano and guitar lessons, of theory training, and of annual showcases, until this past week’s lectures on music in my Perspectives II class. My professor threw out words like tempo, tone, and meter—they resounded sharply, like distant memories hitting me one by one in staccato. After I stopped studying and playing music, and began focusing, instead, on listening to and journalistically writing about it, these terms seemed to lose some of their definition. It was nice to be reminded how vital all of these technicalities were—how they, in a way, determined what was and what wasn’t music.
In class, we discussed music in a mechanical and philosophical sense, starting by comparing its structure to a novel’s. For a song to be musical, its melody must be plotted in such a way to bring about an eventual resolution, just like in a book, explained my professor. Things like rhythm, intervals, and beats are all melodically organized to build suspense and relieve tension, as a song progresses through its exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and final denouement. In this way, it’s the plot, or melody, of a song that makes music pleasing, not only to the ears, but also to the soul—kind of in an Aristotelian sense.
Clearly, though, not all music is enjoyable. We have preferences. I personally hate “Chopsticks,” considering my past with the song. And my grandpa, a jazz guitarist, hates rock music. He berates me for listening to it, claiming that it’s just a “bunch of noise,” like many stubborn old people do. But opinion isn’t enough to invalidate the musicality of a song, an album, or an entire genre. Rock music, like classical, pop, or any other kind of music is structured to sound melodic, to tell a full and complete story. So if it’s got a plot, it’s music.
We listened to two different pieces in Perspectives to illustrate the difference between songs with and without resolutions: Mozart’s “Einen Kleinen Nacht Musik” and Ligeti’s “Disorder.” The first demonstrated consonance—it ebbed and flowed, its chords rising and falling harmoniously in key, granting its listeners a sense of closure. The other piece was dissonant—it sounded like a cacophony of noise, with two incompatible scales competing to be heard, and then it just ended. There was no resolution, just rising action. It made me anxious.
This feeling of frustration reminded me how I felt this summer after listening to Julia Holter’s experimental album, Loud City Song, a suggestion by a fellow arts editor. After I texted him complaining about it, he told me that it wasn’t so much “easy listening,” as it was a “brain exercise.” Holter blended all sorts of dissimilar sounds—from violins to recordings of people running—to create her “music.” Tracks like “Maxims II” left me feeling particularly uneasy. Where was its beginning, middle, and end? Maybe I was just missing its purpose. Her work actually received critical acclaim. Even The New Yorker raved about it. And I’m pretty sure they know music when they hear it.
I don’t think my class’ metaphoric definition of music was wrong, but I think music like Holter’s proves that there are always exceptions to the rules. In music, as in books, there are plot twists, surprise endings, and unresolvable problems. When these conflicts aren’t addressed, things inevitably become less pleasant and incomprehensible. Maybe sometimes that’s the point, though. The great thing about music is that just because something is technically “musical” doesn’t mean you have to think it sounds good—obviously, you’re allowed not to like it.