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.