Whew, what a first day!
I taught two sections, back to back, one with 12 students and the other with 7. Nearly all of my students came in with a background in making music – many of them rappers, some hip hop producers, some singers, some instrumentalists – but almost nobody mentioned having a background or interest in classical music. By and large, their training has taken place either in church (as part of a choir) or via YouTube (by watching and learning from musicians' tutorials), and most of them have never learned to read music.
"Learning Music Backwards"
This isn't the main point of my blog post, but I do want to highlight a particular exchange I had with one of the students. She mentioned that she had learned music "backwards" – by learning to play half a dozen instruments through watching YouTube videos and figuring things out on her own, but never actually learning to read music. For this reason, she felt somewhat frustrated about having to "relearn everything from the beginning," and wished she had done things "the right way" first.
It's kind of a funny thing to say, you know? We don't learn to speak our first language(s) as toddlers by academically studying the alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, style, and classic literature BEFORE beginning to speak it ourselves; just the opposite! We speak it for years by listening, imitating, experimenting, failing, succeeding, and even (as in the case of my own 3-year-old kid) by constantly making up stories and lyrics, grammatical-errors notwithstanding. Only then, after having all this experience playing around with language on our own do we take formal classes. And it's because of all that experience that the classes make sense to us. The classes solidify concepts that we'd learned through intuition, while correcting mistakes that we'd become so used to making that we hadn't even thought about them. When we learn about "nouns" vs. "adjectives," we already have a vast store of vocabulary to draw on for examples. When we learn new vocabulary, new expressions, and new sentence structures, we already have a strong foundation to immediately implement them in our daily conversations.
So when my student admitted to learning music "backwards," I suggested that she hadn't done it backwards at all. Sure, "from the college's perspective," we agreed that she hadn't done things in the "proper" order, but who says "the college's perspective" is the only viable perspective? I'm actually really excited to hear that she learned to play several instruments just from watching YouTube videos and experimenting on her own. Her learning was driven by curiosity, by self-motivation, and by the willingness to just go out there and make music happen. As we learn the nuts and bolts of music theory this semester, she'll be able to relate what we're learning to her previous experience singing and playing piano, guitar, ukulele, and other instruments that I've already forgotten.
And no less important: as several of my students who had learned to play instruments from watching YouTube videos agreed, there's only so much one can learn from a YouTube video. To be sure, there's also only so much one can learn from a classroom teacher. Classrooms bring so many learning opportunities that one just can't get online, and YouTube brings so many learning opportunities that one just can't get in a classroom. So I'm really happy that not only this one student but many of my students already have experience learning things via social media, and are now coming to a classroom to fill in some of the gaps that they've missed along the way.
Anyway, tangents are fun, but let's go on with the main theme of this blog post: what is music?
What is Music?
As I see it, music theory is not about rules and terminology. It's about sharpening how we talk, think, make, and listen to music. Rules are not rules; they're ideas and conventions that people have discovered work really well. Terms are not terms; they're vocabulary words that help us plumb music more easily and deeply.
So this is the essence of my teaching: as we learn about musical "rules" and "terms," we do so to deepen our thinking about music, to expand our creative toolbox, and to develop a more discerning and critical ear.
What better way to set that stage than by telling the students in my intro music theory class that "I don't know what music is," and then spending the rest of the class period asking them to enlighten me?
Music vs. Sound Effects
We began our discussion with a YouTube video.
In this classic scene from Disney's Pinocchio, what do we call the sounds that are keeping Jiminy Cricket awake? Are they music, or are they sound effects? (or both?) (or neither?)
(If you haven't seen this, watch the 1-minute video before continuing with my blog post. It's really something!)
Initially, my students had mixed reactions. Some thought it was music. Some thought it was sound effects. Others thought it wasn't music but had musical qualities, while others simply weren't sure.
Quickly, however, they came to a general consensus that anything can be music, depending on the context. A raindrop can be music. The sound of the lights flickering overhead can be music. Even the sound of clocks. (One student insisted that snoring is never music, but that was a minority opinion.)
For example, one student suggested that a sound becomes music when it is combined with other sounds. That is, a clock by itself is not music, but multiple clocks playing different rhythms at the same time is music. In response, I asked: "is a solo piano melody not music, if it isn't combined with other instruments?" "Is a cappella singing not music?" "If a cappella singing is music, then why isn't a cappella clocking music?"
On the other hand, as another student suggested, the sound in this scene was clearly not meant to be music. After all, the entire point of the scene is that this noise is preventing Jiminy Cricket from sleeping. And yet, Jiminy Cricket is not the only entity that is listening to the sounds in this scene: we, the audience, are hearing it, too, and even quite enjoying it! This led my students and I to question the very ontology of music: is a sound that we call "music" always music? Is a sound that we call "not music" always not music? Or, can one and the same sound be considered in some contexts music and in other contexts not music? Can one and the same sound be music to my ears and not music to yours? (By and large, the students argued that music is entirely contextual, and one and the same sound can indeed be alternately "music" and "not music.")
I didn't get into this with my students, but one of the reasons Disney was so revolutionary is because he synchronized music, sound effects, and choreography to such an extent, and in so much of his work, that these "obvious" boundaries were blurred to a smudge. Not just in Pinocchio, but in basically every Disney film, all of the Silly Symphonies, and most famously his classic Steamboat Willie short from 1928.
Think about the opening scene from Frozen, for example, where the sound effect of the ice-picks cracking the surface of the lake is not only synchronized with the pulse of the workers' singing and swinging, but is actually the percussion section for the song itself. It's part of the music, but it's part of the choreography, but it's a sound effect, but it's just noise. It's all those separate things synchronized... or are they really separate at all?
Discussions like this get to the heart of why music theory is important. Music is one of those things that seems really obvious and straight-forward, but it's actually extremely complicated and confusing. The more vocabulary we have for talking about music, and the more ideas that we grapple with, and the more conventions that we know about, the more capable we are at recognizing music's complexity, and the deeper we can go with our experience of music.
Music vs. Language
After discussing Pinocchio, we turned to a famous experiment by the psychologist Diana Deutsch: her "Speech-to-Song Illusion." (Thank you, internet, for making her work immediately accessible at the click of a button!)
If you haven't heard it before, take a listen to the audio file below. It's a recording of Dr. Deutsch talking. But if, at any point, you think that she's singing, raise your hand.
Here's what's supposed to happen: it's supposed to sound like talking, but as she loops one particular phrase over and over and over again, that phrase will begin to sound more like she's singing....... so much so, that listeners can sing it back, play it on the piano, and even write it down with musical notation.
Since that's what's supposed to happen (and that's why her experiment is so famous), I figured it'd be interesting to run the experiment for ourselves with my students, and then ask them the following question:
"If the very same audio file can sound like speech at one moment, but music at another, then what is the difference between music and speech?"
But gee golly whiz, that's just not what happened!
For sure, some of my students heard the transformation from talking to singing, and one of them even sang it back.
But most of them didn't hear the singing at all, and a few still didn't hear it after listening to the entire recording twice!
This added a new layer to the discussion: what really is music, if the exact same audio can be heard by one person as "singing" and another as "talking," especially when both listeners have grown up in the same community? (Remember, I'm teaching at a community college.)
And then one of my students dropped a bombshell. Really insightful. He pointed out that melody is not the sole property of music, but is also a core component of speech. All speech has melody to it; we just don't always think about it. So the act of listening to Deutsch's speech looped over and over and over and over again did not magically turn it into music. Rather, it helped our brains to become more attuned to an important component of her speech that we hadn't previously been listening for: its melody.
What's the point?
Over the course of the next three months, my students and I will be studying "the elements of music" – pitch, melody, rhythm, harmony, and form. But none of these elements are unique to music. Speech has all of them. (Harmony in speech comes from the overtone series, and from people talking over each other). Sound effects often have some, if not all, of them, too.
So what, then, makes our course "the theory of music," as opposed to "the theory of sound?"
Some people might say that this question is tangential to "the real goal" of my course, which is to teach people how to read black dots on white paper.
Don't get me wrong: learning how to read black dots on white paper is really important, and we'll be doing a TON of that in my course. By the time the semester is over, they'll be able to do their dictations, their sight-singing, their Roman numeral analyses, their piano scales and triads, and even a bit of pen-on-paper composing.
But that's not the only point of music theory, or even the most important. Music theory is so much more. MUSIC is so much more. And that's what I'm hoping my students will gain most of all from this course.
Whew, what a first blog post...
Let me know what you think in the comments below, and I'll see you next Tuesday with post #2!