What is Music Saying?
By Wil Forbis
Music is often thought of as the most intangible of all art forms. This view is justifiable; music does have an inherent vagary. It’s hard to know exactly what a piece of music is about, especially if it’s instrumental music. Other art forms tend to have at least a conceptual hook a viewer can grab onto before approaching their more ethereal components. For example, even if you don’t understand the aesthetic philosophy of cubism (and who does?), you can look at a Picasso and recognize a guitar or stairway. Even if you don’t get the symbolism of a Kubrick film you can still enjoy the narrative. This is not so with music. Music seldom represents physical objects or tells obvious stories*.
* Obviously opera and Broadway musicals have stories, but they are general “told” via the lyrics and theater. It would be hard to ascertain these stories simply by listening to the instrumental music.
Of course, this vagary is one of music’s great strengths. Because it is not tied to direct representation the way, say, a painting of a fruit bowl is, music can represent things that are ambiguous by their very nature: emotions, drama, thoughts, ideas, philosophies. We may not be able to say what Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” or a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo are "about", yet we understand them in a certain intuitive and emotional way that is hard to match in other art forms.
I think intuitive may be the key word here. We hear a piece of music and we feel it has a point, a meaning, even if we can’t verbalize that meaning on the spot. I think this is due to the fact that behind various approaches to music there are concrete ideas and philosophies, some unique to music, some borrowed from other arts. I’ve been pondering this topic and find myself discerning a series of distinct approaches to western music, approaches utilized in everything from classical to modern pop. (I suspect a lot of this applies to non-western music as well.)
“Well, then Wil,” I hear you say, “Why don’t you write an article compiling your thoughts on these musical approaches so you can bore us even further?” You’ll be pleased to know I have done so. The approaches are…
The first approach to discuss here is one that produces music that is carefully thought out and composed. This is music where most every note, dynamic and rhythmic element has been defined and usually annotated. Classical music, especially composed by the big three—Bach, Beethoven and Mozart—is a good example of this. But so is much of pop: the Beatles, E.L.O., much of prog-rock, much of heavy metal, and much of the modern “Dr. Luke” style of modern pop music (e.g. Ke$ha, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry) where every note and beat is tweaked to perfection. This is detail-focused music where very little is left to chance.
That defines the style of music, but what is the philosophy behind it? I would say this is music that argues that beauty in the world must be created, not found. It is music that demands action from its creator. It is music that requires ego. The artist must believe himself* capable of creating something great and must see himself as the primary actor. It is only by training and talent, this music says, that composers can become good enough to take the raw elements of sound and sculpt them into something noble, beautiful, even holy. This is music that subscribes to the notion of the virtuoso---a musician or composer of supreme talent who operates above the middling masses of mediocrities.
* I recognize that women create great music and that there is an eternal debate of about genderization of words in articles like this. I tend to use male terms out of simplicity and a certain inherent chauvinism.
I would also argue that planned music is Hobbesian. The western philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought that the natural state of the world was savage and brutal. The only way man could wrestle tranquility and safety from nature was by imposing a strict order. Planned music is all about this order.
There is also a clear definition of roles in planned music. While it takes dozens of persons to perform a Beethoven symphony, each person has a clearly defined role (say, violin player) and clearly defined expectation of them (perform flawlessly.) The music and the roles people play in the presentation of the music are very structured.
The second approach is more free flowing and leaves quite a bit up to chance. This music is often more minimalistic and stripped down and also easier to play (not always). In some senses one might say this is a newer approach to music but I suspect it’s really much older; it’s the music ancient tribes played during seasonal celebrations. Modern examples would be blues, punk, grunge and some country and folk music. Think Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger, Howlin' Wolf.
There are several of philosophical elements to appreciate here. One is a certain relinquishing of control. Free music leaves more up to chance and doesn’t worry about capturing all the details. The results can be hit or miss but free music tends to embrace that exchange. Free music is also less ordered both in the creation and presentation of the music. In this music, musicians don’t have to play the music quite as it’s written on the page (often there is no page.) Instead, basic forms are presented and the musicians fill in the blanks on the spot.
Free music is anti-Hobbesian. It argues that, even without absolute control of the music, musicians can create beauty. This implies that beauty exists in nature*; it does not (always) need to be created by man.
* I’m using the term “nature” somewhat non-traditionally here. I don’t mean it simply to refer to things of earth, but rather the whole of the universe largely untouched by man. Some people would consider what I’m describing as natural to be the domain of God(s).
While thinking about free music I was prompted with this question: how does jazz fit into all this? Certainly jazz is a very free form - no performance ever sounds exactly like any other because jazz musicians are always improvising---varying the melody, creating solos and revamping the harmony on a whim. But I also think jazz is, like composed music, very ego driven music. There’s the idea that nobody could write music like Duke Ellington*, nobody could solo like Coltrane. This puts it at odds with much of what I described as free music above.
* Of course, how much of the Ellington songbook was really written by Ellington is a topic of debate.
In a certain sense I think jazz is composed, it’s just composed immediately on a subconscious level. It’s no coincidence it was popularized during the era of Sigmund Freud’s proclamation that the human subconscious was capable of complex (and often neurotic) thought. Jazz and related genres are not leaving the music up to chance or nature as is much of free music, but deferring to unconscious processes of the human mind.
There’s another style kind of caught between composed and free music. Certain forms of tribal and rock music subscribe to the idea that as the music is created and performed the musicians make subtle transformations to it. The Gnawa music of Morocco is a good example as is the music of jam bands like the Grateful Dead or Phish. Again, I would argue this music is presumed to be composed, but composed by a “group intelligence” made up of the push and pull between the various musicians.
We’ve been discussing different philosophical approaches to music. Philosophy is a cousin of politics; can we segment music in a political sense? As much as I’m loath to use the rather simplistic “left/right” split that has poisoned all modern political discourse, I think it has some use here. Composed music is fundamentally conservative. It advocates order (you could say it’s at times authoritarian) and it advocates clearly defined processes and roles. This is not say that composed music cannot be innovative, but it tends to quickly calcify the rules of its own innovations.
Free music of course is more liberal and egalitarian. It is not designed to shine glory onto the composers or players. A lot of free music is purposefully simplistic---punk and folk come to mind. The conceit seems to be that the music should be something everyone can contribute to; skill level should not act as a gatekeeper. This can create some remarkably communitarian music but it can, like a hippie drum circle, quickly become boring.
Much of political philosophy asks how to balance the needs of the individual with those of the group. The composed/free divide is correlated to that. Composed music celebrates the individual, whether he be a classical composer or prog-rock drummer. Free music celebrates the group and ties individual musicians contributions into a greater whole. (Modern free music tends to frown upon virtuosic displays of music prowess like the heavy metal guitar solo or violin cadenza.)
It’s worth noting an obvious point here: a single piece of music can draw from both approaches; indeed I suspect most music does. The music of the Rolling Stones is very free and loosely constructed (Keith Richards doesn’t play the same guitars solos every time nor does Charlie Watts play the same drum fills.) Nonetheless, there’s something very ego-driven about their music. A Rolling Stones concert is at least partly about bringing glory to the Rolling Stones. The strange balance between egalitarianism and idolatry is part of what has made rock and roll so fascinating from the start.
To complete this I have to ask myself where I fit into all this. I am a musician and have written 100+ works of music. Am I a proponent of composed music, free music, or some oddball in-between like jazz? In my early days I think I was much more of a “free” musician---I played in several loose funk bands and much of my music involved a certain amount of on the spot experimentation. Nonetheless, there was always a heavy amount of composed music. In the two big projects of my 20s---a funky prog-rock band (Spastic Jazzbo) and a hippie-funk band (Dr. Zoom)---the presumption was always that all the players would play basically the same parts for every performance.
That tendency has only increased as I’ve gotten into electronic music. The modern Digital Audio Workstation allows an almost fascistic control of the resulting sound of recorded music and I have embraced it (within the reins of my limited budget.) Perhaps, as many people do, I’m becoming more conservative as I grow older.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.