I’m on the babysitting duty tonight (Shelby sleeps in our second bedroom, which doubles as the study/computer room), so I’ve got some more time to write some stuff.

Just wanted to follow up on the thoughts from last time. I might break this up into subsections, just to keep it from getting too unwieldy.

1. Range of Writing Styles on Music

First off, regarding Yvonne’s comment:

I think you maybe underestimate and over-generalise (esp. under “Problem 3″) regarding the range and humanity of writing about music available today.

I will admit, I was being a bit harsh there, and I’m happy to apologise for that comment. The sentiments were more based on the musical writing I’d been reading in the last couple of years, which has included some pretty atrocious stuff.

Certainly, if I think a bit broader, I have come across writers on music in recent years with some valuable insights that they have shared with great enthusiasm.

My bigger problem is quite simply that these insights, while they are valuable to me, are not valuable to my non-classical friends. And this is where I start to feel we have a hole in the musical world.

Moving on to point 2:

2. The Target Audience

Yvonne also said:

I think you perhaps do know who they’re aimed at, which is everyone who is attending the performance. Nothing less.

This is where I disagree, but again, I haven’t been to one of the performances at Yvonne’s work for a while (but I’ll be there Wednesday night!), so I’ll look forward to having a closer look at the concert guides there and hopefully the pre-concert talk, if I can get down there early enough. And it should be mentioned that Yvonne has blazed a trail in terms of getting helpful things like Glossaries in concert guides, which I think is a massive step forward.

But a lot of the liner notes and concert guides/programmes that I’ve come across in recent years still insist on using musical terminology that someone new to the classical music world wouldn’t have a chance of understanding.

So I would argue that these type of explanations are not aimed at everyone – they’re aimed at everyone who has the necessary pre-requisite musical knowledge. And it’s these particular explanations (which, in my opinion, still make up the majority of musical writing) that annoy me.

What I’d really like to see is more writing/introductions that takes someone from absolute scratch and lifts them up to the type of levels of experienced listeners, which was the type of solution I was proposing in the last post.

To be fair to writers and presenters over the last few decades, I think the current situation in musical explanation came about because 50-100 years ago, society taught people about music. A larger number of people would have studied music, and those who did study music would have learned about classical music in the process. With that type of educational background, writers wouldn’t have to start from scratch – they could assume a reasonable amount of knowledge would be known by their audiences.

Thus, George Grove, in his introduction to his book on Beethoven symphonies says that he’s writing for the amateur (in fact, he thought professional musicians would be bored stiff by the whole thing). But nonetheless, he assumes that his readers can read music, understand the basic structures of classical music, are fairly familiar with keys and tonalities, etc. Obviously, now, his book now would be less suitable for amateurs and more suited to academics and music students.

So there’s a clear shift in society that has occurred, with less and less people learning about classical music. The problem is that there hasn’t been a corresponding shift in the way musical explanations are written. A lot of these notes and explanations are still written as if their audiences have all the pre-requisite knowledge.

I’m doubtful that they do.

To my mind, if less people understand the basics of classical music, to keep the artform alive, we need to start at a lower basis point. By all means, still go into all the detail, and don’t skimp on the explanation. But also recognise that there are people out there who might need a hand up to get started.

Now, the bigger question that Ian raised is how to get people there in the first place. I think that will have to be another post . . .

2 thoughts on “Further on Music Explanation

  1. Sorry to write another comment agreeing with myself, but I really do tend to think that the problem starts before the problem you identify, Matt. You see, even if you do manage to get people to the concert in the first place, I suspect (with virtually no evidence) that most of them don’t read the program notes or attend the pre-concert talks anyway – and that the people who do read these or attend these are, for the most part, the people who are already fairly serious about it.

    That doesn’t mean for one minute that those notes or presentations should be esoteric and jargon-laden – in fact, I suspect (also without any evidence) that a lot of people who really would love to know more about the music are deterred from doing so by some of the notes they read, either in concert programs or on CD liner notes.

    But I think the issue is more one of getting people interested in the first place – and to me it comes back to the issue of the way in which people listen to music in the first place, and whether or not they see it as something that is worth getting to know, getting to understand.

    I continue to think that that issue – the preparedness, let alone the eagerness, to immerse onself in something, to understand what it’s about and what it’s saying and how it’s saying it – is a core part of the problem, and not something that is confined to music.

    It’s probably something that is becoming more and more difficult to address in our ever more fastly-paced world, where everything is on offer the instant we want it, and where we need it to be that way because of the pace at which we live. Things like junk TV (some of which I just love, by the way), tabloid media, the mass commercialisation of music and literature all conspire against people taking time to devote themselves to the arts – not to mention the pace at which we live our own lives.

    So, to me, the whole thing is very much a cultural thing – in the broadest sense of the word and, needless to say given some of my other comments throughout War and Peace, I will always think of cultural issues as essentially political issues.

    Bottom line: we need a proletarian revolution, and then people will be able to read their program liner notes!!

  2. First thought. Terminology is actually useful. (Some is truly arcane, but not all; and much of it actually has meaning and use outside of music and so can be comprehended at least in broad terms.) And if concert presenters never use any terminology then how will ever people learn the language of the thing they are coming to love?

    Let’s take a parallel example. I know little about wine. I have a casual liking for it, of course, but I have little knowledge or discernment, it all “sounds” the same, and I don’t know the world of wine-making and grape varieties or the language of wine-tasting. Or rather, I do know the language of tasting, but only in a caricatured, mocking way that I happily laugh at while simultaneously finding fairly unhelpful. Now does this sound familiar? Of course!

    But! If I went to a wine-tasting event I would fully expect to hear that language used in the context of the event, I would expect to read it in any wine-related publication and – assuming I were to ever be that interested in wine, which is unlikely, since I don’t drink it much – I would want to get to know it through exposure and through matching what I was reading/hearing to what I was tasting.

    Now, there is good and helpful writing on wine that uses the terminology and yet makes sense (at least on some level) to someone like me. A friend of mine owns a particularly fine book (name escapes me!) that is a fun and insightful read, while still being comprehensive and thorough in its coverage (i.e. aimed at connoisseurs). I’m not that interested and yet I read some of it! That says a lot. Similarly in music we can use the terminology – in moderation and cleverly – while still writing something that is interesting for anyone to read if so motivated. Do we always succeed? No. But it’s definitely possible and terminology is the last thing you want to banish if you want to nurture an informed audience.

    By the way, musical terms are not jargon in my book. Jargon is turgid, obfuscatory language, intangible or not linked to anything concrete. (“Mythopoetical reality” anyone?) Technical terminology, despite having niche value, is precise and tied to identifiable, tangible things. (“Pizzicato” is the word for violins plucking their strings instead of bowing, something you can hear, and see, happening.)


    Second thought. I think you’ve slightly misunderstood my point about program books being for all.

    They really are for all, in that everyone attending a concert has the right to expect that the program book will contain something of interest, insight and value, whether that person is a raw novice, a student of music, or a concert-goer of many years! So anyone editing a program book must respect that collective right of the diverse audience.

    How do you do that with such a range of knowledge? Some scattered, brief thoughts:
    * use the terminology of your field but try to use it in ways where the context gives clues to the meaning
    * provide glossaries to cover those instances where the previous aim hasn’t been met so well
    * provide different kinds of pieces: e.g. long articles for those who like these, alongside tiny “keynotes” for someone who just wants a few essentials and a couple of pointers to listen for
    * adopt the writing strategy of imparting information in such a way that the person who doesn’t know it finds out while the person who already knew it is able to feel flattered for having known it. (This is the opposite of a simplistic, didactic tone, which neither party much enjoys reading.)
    * write about music in a way that gives context that any interested, intelligent person will understand, regardless of musical experience. (I realise this will likely result in less of the blow-by-blow detailed guides through the music that Matt is advocating, but the print medium sans notation is not ideal for this task anyway.)
    * remember that the program is for your concert not a general music education resource, so take the opportunity to use articles and notes to share/imply the rationale for assembling the artists and programming the music in the first place and especially try to draw connections and relationships between the pieces – again this kind of thing is of interest to any level of concert-goer as well as being a central function of a program book.

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