Online class discussion #2 is open for comments September 4-10. Have you sent me your WordPress username yet? Refer to the grading rubric for requirements on commenting:
- Purchase: https://drjonesmusic.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/class-blog1.pdf
- QCC: https://drjonesmusic.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/class-blog.pdf
Who makes music? This seems like a pretty simple question, one with an obvious answer, along the lines of:
Music is made by musicians. They come up with the sounds that we call music, write it down (or not), perform it, and (maybe) record it. In the classical music world, making music requires both a composer and a performer: someone to conceive of the whole musical work, and a performer or multiple performers to execute it so that it can be heard.
But, a question like “Who makes music?” puts us into an intellectual corner: it forces us to say that music is a thing that is made, like a chair, a bookshelf, or a cup–that it’s an object. When it’s done, it’s done and we, the listener/consumer, had nothing to do with its coming into being.
This is a limiting way to think about music, because it doesn’t really capture all the nuances of how music functions in our lives. An object doesn’t bring people together. An object doesn’t evolve over time and isn’t shaped by the person who looks at it or uses it. An object doesn’t create a rich emotional experience. But music does do all these things (and more, as you discussed in class this week!), and this suggests that music can be thought of as more than an object.
Christopher Small (1927-2011) was a musicologist (a person who studies music and its role in society) who put serious thought into the way that we think about music and instead came up with a new term: “musicking.” Musicking is a progressive-tense verb (like running, evolving, becoming, doing) that implies a kind of ongoing action. In his mind, music isn’t a thing at all:
Musicking: To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone. They, too, are all contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance… [To] pay attention in any way to a musical performance, including a recorded performance, even to Muzak in an elevator, is to music… [The] verb to music… covers all participation in a musical performance, whether it takes place actively or passively, whether we like the way it happens or whether we do not, whether we consider it interesting or boring, constructive or destructive, sympathetic or antipathetic… Value judgments come later, if they come at all. (Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, 1998; p. 9)
Part of the reason Small coined this term (coming up with a new word is called a neologism), is that he’s reacting against the way that he sees the average Western listener/consumer absorbing music in a passive way. We tend to think of music as something we “just don’t understand” or as foreign to us, an object with a fixed meaning that is above our heads (and this is something that happens with other art in our society, too):
The presumed autonomous “thingness” of works of music is, of course, only part of the prevailing modern philosophy of art in general. What is valued is not the action of art, not the act of creating, and even less that of perceiving and responding, but the created art object itself. Whatever meaning art may have is thought to reside in the object, persisting independently of what the perceiver may bring to it. It is simply there, floating through history untouched by time and change, waiting for the ideal perceiver to draw it out. (Ibid, pp. 4-5)
This is part of why classical music (or any music or art that’s unfamiliar to us) can feel uncomfortable: it doesn’t seem to jibe with our preconceived sense of what music is, how we’re supposed to react to it, or what it means. This is because, according to Small, “Everyone, whether aware of it or not, has what we can loosely call a theory of musicking, which is to say, an idea of what musicking is, of what it is not, and of the part it plays in our lives” (Ibid, p. 13). You already know what music is even if you haven’t specifically said so to yourself, but music from another culture or set of assumptions disrupts your already-formed “theory of musicking,” forcing you to either reject this unfamiliar music as being music at all or forcing you to change your sense of what music is.
Thinking of music as a “thing” or an “object” doesn’t let us appreciate music as it’s being made, only as a thing which has been made. However, music is just a means to create an opportunity to do something and to do something with other people. In other words, musicking creates relationships between people:
The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance. (Ibid, p. 13)
Our job as listeners is to forge those relationships: to engage, whether physically, socially, or intellectually, with the sounds we hear, the people making them, and the people around us who are also listening/participating. So, Small says that music is an action, one in which we should all take part:
The fundamental nature and meaning of music lie not in objects, not in musical works at all, but in action, in what people do. It is only by understanding what people do as they take part in a musical act that we can hope to understand its nature and the function it fulfills in human life. Whatever that function may be, I am certain, first, that to take part in a music act is of central importance to our very humanness, as important as taking part in the act of speech… If that is so, then our present-day concert life, whether “classical” or “popular,” in which the “talented” few are empowered to produce music for the “untalented” majority, is based on a falsehood. It means that our powers of making music for ourselves have been hijacked and the majority of people robbed of the musicality that is theirs by right of birth, while a few stars, and their handlers, grow rich and famous through selling us what we have been led to believe we lack. (Ibid, pp. 8-9)
In light of Small’s argument, we, the listeners, have an important role to play when it comes to “making music.” He says that “musicking… is an activity in which all those present are involved and for whose nature and quality, success or failure, everyone present bears some responsibility” (Ibid, p. 10)
On the topic of audience responsibility, I am asking you to read an article from the New York Times by classical music journalist Allan Kozinn (December 28, 2010). It is on the subject of “new music” (meaning classical music composed within the last 30 years or so and that is often on the edge of being difficult for listeners precisely because of its newness and lack of familiarity). In the article, Kozinn discusses the choices that musicians make when programming concerts (deciding what works to perform) and how the listeners determine what music continues to be played in the future: 2010.12.28 Kozinn – Searching New Music For Keepers
These are a lot of new ideas to juggle and that will hopefully change the way you listen to music forever!
Some conversation jump-starters:
- What’s your personal definition of “musicking”? What is and what is not musicking, and why? What kinds of things could you add to your personal theory of musicking?
- Do you agree with Small and the musicians quoted in Kozinn’s article when they say that the listener has an equally-important role in music making as do musicians?
- What obligations (if any) do you have as a (responsible) listener? How does thinking of yourself as a responsible listener affect how you listen to or consume music?
- Even though Small and Kozinn are mostly discussing classical music, do their ideas resonate for your experience as listeners (or consumers) of popular music?