Category Archives: art music

The Original Musicology

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musikwissenschaft, the historical study of European art music, began in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of J.S. Bach (1802) set the tone for the field, which focuses on musical rules, periods, pieces, and personalities. Two more branches of musicology were added during the twentieth century: ethnomusicology, which examines socio-cultural dimensions of global musics, and systematic musicology, which engages the sciences and humanities in investigating musical phenomena.

The three sub-disciplines of musicology have matured and diversified over the decades. Systematic musicology has an especially modern feel, with its interest in acoustics, neuroscience, psychology, and social theory. Guido Adler laid the groundwork for this interdisciplinary approach with his 1885 essay, “Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft” (“Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology”), which divides musicology into historical questions about the development of musical conventions and the succession of “great” composers, and systematic questions about the nature of music and human responses to it.

Today, systematic musicology is itself divided into two areas: empirical/scientific and social/cultural. Its tools of computation and theories of analysis are decidedly twenty-first century, integrating lab studies, computer data, semiotics, and the like. However, the questions it pursues are much older than even Adler’s seminal essay.

Centuries before receiving its proper name, thinkers were systematically assessing music in human life. Around the third century, Greek theorist Aristides Quintilianus was already categorizing musical studies into theoretical/speculative (systematic) and practical/didactic (historical). Franchinus Gaffurius (fifteenth century) examined how musical sounds achieve specific ends. Marin Mersenne (seventeenth century) scrutinized acoustics and the speed of sound. As a rule, European scholars prior to the nineteenth century were preoccupied with the big picture. And, even as music history became the dominant focal point, scholars continued to ponder the larger cognitive and spiritual aspects (see my edited collections, The Value of Sacred Music: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 1801-1918 and Music, Theology and Worship: Selected Writings, 1841-1896).

Systematic musicology has benefited from the growing sophistication of the diverse disciplines it draws upon. Yet, underneath its contemporary garb are questions that have attracted thinkers throughout the ages: What is music, how does music work, why does music move us? Although the sub-field is relatively new, its questions long predate interest in historical periods and cultural practices. For this reason, it can be called the original musicology.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Is Anything Frivolous?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

From the critic’s perspective, the world of music consists of three parts: art, folk, and popular. This distinction is sometimes shortened to “serious” (art music) and “popular” (popular and folk). Precisely what makes some music “artistic” and other music something else is not always well defined, but minimum requirements usually include the use of written notation and sophisticated structural and theoretical considerations. The borders are blurred in some technical forms of jazz, and reinforced when classical composers adorn folk tunes with orchestral arrangements (as Aaron Copland did), or when pop musicians conspicuously quote classical repertoire in their songs (as Frank Zappa did). These combinations are appealing largely because they represent an almost taboo juxtaposition.

However, the aesthetic divide between serious and popular is not simply a question of musical attributes. It concerns the values ascribed to the respective music. Sociomusicologist Simon Frith sums up the underlying assumption: “Serious music matters because it transcends social forces; popular music is aesthetically worthless because it is determined by them.” In other words, art music stands apart from our basic human needs, thereby attaining sacredness, whereas popular music reflects everyday life, thus reaffirming mundaneness. The book from which Frith’s comment derives declares his position on the issue: Taking Popular Music Seriously.

An even stronger defense is found in Johan Huizinga’s classic tome, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, published in 1950. Huizinga sees play as simultaneously superfluous and necessary. Superfluous because it is irrational and entails a stepping out of “real life,” and necessary because it gives meaning to human existence.

Huizinga does not distinguish between types of play—games, sports, arts, entertainment—nor between its forms—professional, amateur, individual, group. He avoids equating “only pretend” with frivolity, noting that players can engage in the activity with utmost sincerity and determination. Most provocatively, he characterizes religious ceremonies as obligatory play. Like a game of soccer or hide-and-seek, a sacred ritual is a temporary and repeatable departure from ordinary life that operates according to its own guidelines. This is not meant to belittle religious rites, but rather to emphasize the potential for seriousness in all play.

Music, as a type of play, resides outside of normal time and space. It abides by its own logic, and the enjoyment of it makes it a human need. The labels “serious” and “popular” have little bearing on the experience itself, which can be taken lightly or seriously. As Huizinga reminds us, “The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Useful Boredom

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Conventional wisdom has it that boredom is of two main types. The first occurs when stimuli or circumstances are too simple, as when the gifted child finds herself in a remedial classroom. The second is when sensory input is so complex as to lull the mind into a quasi-vegetative state. This accounts for the general avoidance of subjects like philosophy and math. Musically, these species of boredom are embodied in the overly simplistic pop song on the one hand, and the overly orchestrated concert work on the other. The former is boring because it poses no challenges and offers no surprises. The latter is boring because its multitude of interacting tones and timbres require more concentration than most are willing to dedicate. In this binary view, the culprits reside at the poles: underload and overload.

On the surface, this analysis might seem uncontestable. But there is a sense in which it derives from and supports an elitist view of music appreciation. Pop music is labeled as such because its style, structure and conventions appeal to the general public. Whether a selection is fairly or unfairly painted as “simple” has little impact on the audience’s acceptance of it. In fact, its obviousness can be gratifying, as it satisfies a primal desire for predictability. In contrast, it is not always the case that education or exposure causes one to derive pleasure from a drawn-out classical piece. There are many classically trained musicians who find it difficult to sit through a symphony performance (myself included)—a reality that dispels the assumption that understanding eliminates boredom. The typical abundance of valleys and paucity of peaks make for a tedious experience, regardless of the subtleties and layers aficionados detect and convince themselves to enjoy.

It is fair to blame symphonic fatigue on the music itself and not the listener. If we do so, we can begin to see the value this sort of boredom holds. As Bertrand Russell reminded us in The Conquest of Happiness (1930), the rhythm of nature is slow. The human body has evolved and adapted according to the leisurely pace of the seasons. The ultra-fast speed of modernity and the quest for convenience have numbed our patience and obscured the virtue of stagnancy. The boringness in classical music can help us to retrieve our long-forgotten tolerance for life’s unexciting moments, and discover in those moments opportunities for fruitful contemplation.

Russell made this point with the following illustration. Imagine a modern publisher receiving the Hebrew Bible as a new and never-before seen manuscript. It is not difficult to imagine the response: “My dear sir, this chapter [in Genesis] lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the high lights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

In a similar way, classical music exposes the difficulty most of us have engaging in “superfluous matter.” But instead of taking the common path of frustration or the snobbish  approach of elevating musical lulls into something more than they are, we should accept boring passages as boring, and embrace the stillness they can invite within us. After all, if everything were exciting or immediately appealing, nothing would be.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Always Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The designation “art music” has come under fire in recent years. As a synonym for “legitimate music,” “serious music” and other labels rife with elitism, the term generally refers to notated music composed with advanced structural frameworks and theoretical tools. It is regarded as distinct from “lesser” types of music, which are commonly heaped into two overcrowded categories: folk and popular. Many contemporary scholars and performers refrain from applying these distinctions, and those who do tend to be critical of the old assumptions they carry.

The objections center on two main issues. First is the notion that only Western classical music (in the various ways that descriptor is used) is sophisticated enough to qualify as “art.” There are numerous examples from rock, jazz, soul and other sources that display a level of complexity exceeding that of the usual fare. Second is the belief that technical refinement and difficultness are prerequisites for artistry. This view ignores the dignity intrinsic to all kinds of music—no matter how simplistic from an analytical standpoint—and creates an artificial hierarchy in which complicated means superior.

To these criticisms can be added a third. If we take “art” to mean works of human skill and imagination that express beauty and emotional power, then no music should be considered artless. Whatever guise it takes or genre it fills, music is designed with and directed toward aesthetic sensibilities. In this basic way, it is inaccurate (and disingenuous) to identify certain music as artistic and other types as something else. Doing so reveals more about one’s biases than it does about the music itself.

Part of the problem is that when it comes to music, art is understood in terms of style and substance rather than attraction and effect. For those set on distinguishing art music from the rest, things like intricacy, instrumentation and theoretical considerations are the deciding factors. However, none of this makes the music automatically more beautiful or emotionally potent than a simple folk tune or popular hit. In fact, the opposite is often the case. It is as though the parts comprising music—harmonic progressions, tonal variety, colorations, etc.—are of greater significance than how listeners respond. By these standards, the most artful music is the most advanced with respect to performance demands, occurrences of modulation, number of notes and the like. And it is almost a plus if the music has limited audience appeal—a sign that it is artistic in the most elitist sense of the word.

This is not meant to suggest that all music is of equal quality or that classification serves no purpose. There are objective measurements by which musical creations can be judged and categorized, especially when examining structure, range, meter and other compositional elements. The point here is that music, in all its incalculable manifestations, has the potential to move listeners in profound ways, regardless of the box it fits or doesn’t fit into. From a results-based view of art, in which art is something that happens when a person is touched aesthetically, virtually no music can escape the label.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.