My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship

With the American political season culminating (finally!) in November with election day, I couldn’t help but identify some musical equivalents of the campaigning and posturing that had been going on. It occurred to me that some people speak about their preferred music with the same fervor that political devotees crusade for their preferred candidate. And much like it is with party loyalists, often touting a favored style of music can go hand in hand with condemning whatever’s perceived as the opposition. While I’m not interested in entering the political arena with my blog, I will offer a position about partisan musicianship: it does not serve anyone’s best interest for music people—be they performers, teachers, or listening connoisseurs—to disparage other musicians and styles in an effort promote their own.

Let me be specific. I don’t believe that the long-term success of classical music depends on convincing enough of the general public that popular music is comparatively inferior. Similarly, attendance at jazz concerts will not likely grow through its supporters taking to Facebook to mock the musicianship of performers like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. And toward the other side of the aisle, I’d say that no one is in a position to dismiss classical music and jazz as boring or weird before making an effort to understand the cultures, values, and purposes of these styles.

Musical exclusivists can easily condemn non-preferred styles if they judge all music by the same set of standards. Comparing apples to oranges is a well-known no-no, but unfortunately it’s still done in music circles. “Quality” is defined differently across the diverse styles that make up Western music. Classical music tends to value precise performance of a notated score; compositions are largely judged by things like harmonic and textural sophistication and extended structural development. Jazz places a premium on harmonic complexity and rhythmic variation, with improvisatory performance being an important hallmark. Popular music typically values creativity outside of harmonic complexity, instead relying on sound (timbre) combinations, rhythmic groove, and melodic memorability; live performances are expected to have a strong visual component, through facial/bodily expression, gesture and dance, and performer-audience interaction. If you apply the values of one musical style to another, you can quickly reject it as bad music. Calling a pop song bad music because it uses only three chords is like calling a classical composition bad music because you can’t sing along to the melody after one hearing. Yes, the crisp texture of an apple makes for a really bad orange.

Several months ago, in the throes of the political campaigning, I commented on Facebook that it was easy for me to dismiss people’s opinion of what is the best thing—be it a political party, social cause, or musical style—when that thing corresponds exactly to what’s familiar and deeply assimilated by them. In such cases, I wonder whether they ever adopted that thing because they were convinced of its merits, or whether they “just know” it’s the best because it’s what they’re used to. What gets my full attention, however, is when someone espouses a thing in which they do not have such an obvious vested interest. I don’t often encounter this. It’s far more common to find people making cases for what is personally dear to them, sometimes doing so in pretty unpleasant ways. When followers of a cause defend it so harshly, I suspect that they’re actually hindering the advancement of it.

Perhaps it’s human nature, when considering unfamiliar things, to compare them to what we already know and are comfortable with. In response to my comment on Facebook, my friend Chris Varga offered me an excerpt from the book The Jazz Musician’s Guide to Creative Practicing, by David Berkman. In it, this highly accomplished musician encourages his readers to listen to music without deciding whether or not they like it. Berkman says:

That’s difficult to do. For many people, deciding whether or not they like a piece of music is the first thing they think of when they hear a new piece. Often younger players have strong ideas about who they like and who they don’t. I still have favorite players…but I am more appreciative of more players now than when I was younger. A lot more of them are just too good not to like, even if you don’t want to sound like them yourself.

I’d like to see more musicians striving to be pluralists, accepting and even applauding those whose music making is different than their own. And here’s where I acknowledge that my musical-political analogies eventually break down. I recognize that in politics, there are important moral issues and governmental policies being debated, and that there truly are positions in opposition to each other. But I think this is very rarely the case in music. People are capable of enjoying a huge variety of musical styles, and they can all coexist on our iPods! So though I’m skeptical about every seeing much bi-partisan action in the political arena, I hold out much greater hope for music.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: junsjazz on Flickr Creative Commons.

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10 responses to “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship

  1. Bravo! Thanks for the wonderful piece!

    My only trouble is dealing with the paradox of choice (see Barry Schwartz). When we can recognize the value of all the options, it can be hard (for some of us at least) to pick a focus and really master anything!

  2. Oy, thank you. I wrote a somewhat rambly, bitchy post about this a while back here. The same thing annoys me. If you don’t like it, there’s bound to be something else you DO like. And some when does liking one thing mean that one has signed a dotted line someplace that says one has to hate something else?

    Also, people usually use music as a means of evincing a tribal membership. It’s not even that they listen to the music and try to decide from the outset whether they like IT. It’s more that they listen to the music, look around at everyone else who is listening to it, and decide which tribe they want to be a part of by expressing the same opinion as those people. The music isn’t even part of it. If “the right sort” like or dislike something, that determines which side of the fence they fall off on.

    Musicians such as myself often foolishly think that people listen to us. They don’t, not as much as we think. What they do is look around the room and see if the people they want to identify with like or dislike us, and THAT is what makes their decisions for them. They don’t listen with their sense of hearing but with their sense of social status. It’s irksome but unavoidable.

    • And yet people like J. Scott Goble (in his book What’s So Important About Music Education) suggest that the one defining feature of music is how it brings people together with their culture (i.e. their tribe’s) worldview. I find this suggestion disheartening, but there’s evidence for it. I also think there’s evidence for much more beyond it (which Goble ignores in order to support his claims). Put simply, music does not have to be about identity and worldview, but it often is. This is an unfortunate part of our basic human tribal nature. That does not mean we cannot overcome it and learn or be taught to be more open-minded.

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