I teach a music history class for non-music majors. One of the first things I make my students do is talk about music. I play musical examples for them and say "tell me what you thought". And silence falls.
After about five minutes of gentle encouragement someone finally gets up the courage to say "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" and I breathe a sigh of relief. If I can get them to admit they have an opinion, there is a chance they will develop some ability to talk about the music. This works even better when one student says they like a piece and another says they don't like the same one. With a little careful assistance in finding the words to describe what they heard, the class often realizes that the exact same musical moments caused both opinions. That is when they realize this class is not about right and wrong answers but about experiencing new music and learning to express their own thoughts.
Quite a few students drop at this point. The idea that their grade is at least partly based on their own opinions and observations seems to be overwhelming for them. They can't just read the book and parrot it back to me or express the same thing another student does because I ask them "why didn't you like this, because of the choppy rhythm or the dissonance?" or "what made you like this piece, the instrument sound or the melody?" The fact that there is no wrong answer to these questions doesn't help them much at first. They may have spent years in school but they have almost never had to express their own opinions. The realization that opinions are exactly what I am after startles most of them and the lack of absolute right answers appears to be terrifying to many.
Once they get this far, they nervously ask for tips and ways to start talking about music "right". I tell them to start with the obvious, all the things that seem too blinding clear to bother describing; is the piece fast or slow, smooth or choppy, loud or quiet, consistent or changeable, name the instruments you hear and when they change to other instruments. Because when you are talking about music, you aren't actually listening to it anymore. All those musical sounds that are obvious in the sounding music aren't obvious at all once the music stops.
Words and music are two different languages and learning to translate one to the other can be tricky. Music says some things with such ease and grace that the complexity of what they are saying vanishes into simple sound. Those same ideas can take an entire paragraph to describe properly in words and even then, we often have only described the bare surface of the musical sound, not the depth of meaning (for lack of a better term) within the music.
The secret, I think, is that the meaning of the music is at least partly created by our own minds and therefore changes subtly (or less subtly at times) from moment to moment, hearing to hearing and even in retrospect. It is entirely possible to experience a piece one way while listening to it and while writing about it, experience it differently in our own memories. This can make writing about a piece seem like a fantasy or a made up answer. Which it is, of course, since we are talking about what we think about music. We are the ones creating those thoughts and therefore we are making it up as we go. And there is no wrong answer.
November 15, 2014
Posted by Gwyneth Whistlewood the Feral Flute
I record and play music in the woods and timber. My music can be found at CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, and other music sites. I've been playing flute for most of my life and I teach flute and music history. I try to create music that connects with the world around me, with myths and herb gardens, with old tunes and newly created melodies. Music is magic and the spark that makes each day roll easily on its way.