Listening To Music

Copyright © by Thomas Evans, 5/7/14


“For this task the electives “beautiful” or “ugly” make no sense; the quantity of intelligence carried by the sounds must be the true criterion of the validity of a particular music.” –Iannis Xenakis


“Music is the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.” –Wronski


  Music criticism doesn’t need to exist. Music critics are entirely superfluous. Even objective music criticism would be a pointless diversion from better activities. There is perhaps nothing more silly than TALKING about music, when you could be listening to (and or playing/writing) it. Good listeners are MUCH more important- listeners that care for the art form, understand a little bit of its history, and love it, are paramount, because without them, what’s the point of great music, if no one is willing or capable of objectively listening to it? Good listeners have the ability to act as critics, anyways- they determine what gets bought, they determine who gets to eat. Bad listeners unwittingly facilitate (if not necessitate) the creation of bad music. If the music industry had a mass of good listeners to contend with, it’d be in serious trouble. Do you really think a body of musical consumers, trained to appreciate great music, is going to tolerate the poison that’s poured into their ears on a daily basis? I don’t. I also don’t feel very optimistic about the possibility of creating such a “mass” of good listeners. Most people do not care about music. For many, it’s a lifestyle accessory. When was the last time you actually LISTENED to music- put in headphones, or went to a concert, and devoted complete attention to those little vibrating air molecules, flooding your ears? When was the last time you listened to music and talked over it, or used it as background noise?

   Now, go listen to some accessible “serious” music- Schnittke’s Polka for String Quartet (played by the Proteus String Quartet and available for free on YouTube) or his Declaration of Love are good starting points- and really listen to it. Pretend you’re a deaf person, and you just miraculously regained your hearing. This is the first music you’ve heard in your life. Forget about whether or not you like what you’re hearing- interact with the sounds. Then, listen to any piece of popular music. Forget about whether or not you like what you’re hearing- interact with the sounds (forget the meaning of the lyrical content). Really meticulously compare the differences between the two experiences, and not the superficial ones (such as genre, or complexity of techniques employed)- but the differences between the two listening experiences. I think you’ll find the former experience very interesting, and the second boring. Now, imagine you’ve been subjected to a constant barrage of popular music, for your entire life. Are you really going to be capable of meaningfully interacting with sound, when all you’ve ever been exposed to is a highly limited field of clichés?

   So, this essay is addressed to the listener- specifically, a listener with little musical training; raised on a diet of popular music. (By the term “popular” music I mean anything with mass distribution.)

  Music inhabits a constant state of upheaval and development. The only fundamentals of music are approximations, free to be reinvented and applied in new, meaningful ways.

  Music, as an art, is the antithesis of stasis- it is a mode of plastic expression whereby intelligence is awakened in sound, a series of acoustically generated perceptions organized according to the individual, structural and logical concerns of its creators. The quality of this organization objectively determines the quality of the music. To reinvent the human ear, pilot this anatomical novelty beyond the banalities it encounters on a daily basis, and into a state of ascendant sublimation- that’s all any musician can do. But the music industry controls what is heard via market saturation and mass distribution. In such a way they control an enormous percentage of what gets produced and consumed. This massive lymphocyte of a business has an enormous interest in “stasis”- as in static revenue generation, of the upwardly mobile sort. Popular music is kind of interesting from a sociological standpoint. Beyond that, it’s mostly fluff (which is not to imply there can’t be great fluff- there is.) Musically, it’s nearly all clichéd- simple melodies and harmonies make good packaging for attractive musicians and their edgy, appealing, “free” lifestyles. Most people are raised on this sort of music, and as a consequence, I believe many have their ears permanently clogged. Technology has enabled the dissemination of music on a global, continuous scale, but the music generally broadcast is basically a sanitized marching music- but instead of marching into war, you now march through traffic jams, your day in a sad cubicle, your loneliness, the mall, etc.

   In the world of modern music, the linear innovations of the early 20th Century became “-isms” (such as serialism- see Schoenberg, late Stravinsky or Webern, amongst many, many others)- which (basically) divided the chromatic scale into twelve pitches, organized these pitches into rows, and wrote music that consisted of permutations of that row, minimalism (see Terry Riley, Arvo Part, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Steve Reich), which is largely highly repetitious and derivative of ethnic music (amongst other things), neo-Romanticism, post-minimalism, etc, etc, etc), the “-isms” were incorporated into every respectable university’s composition curriculum, and generation after generation of un-individuated, mediocre (but in some cases technically superb) composers proceeded to write absurdly complicated, illogical, and self-ingratiating music of little to no consequence (with a few notable exceptions- see the American composer John Adams for one particularly notable exception). That an individual such as Stockhausen should be lauded as a compositional “genius” (when he, like John Cage and others, wasn’t a composer- just a sound inventor, in the same way that Pollock, Rothko et al are more “color inventors” than actual painters) alongside individuals such as Varese and Xenakis (possibly the only two genuinely “modern” composers of the 20th century) only testifies to the critical deficiencies of most listeners. This critical deficiency is largely a consequence of the ill-conceived, unexamined notion that music is entirely subjective. It’s true, music can evoke the illusion of deep emotional responses, and most music of the Occident is designed to do just that. But it’s an illusion- music does not evoke emotional responses, but intellectual ones, which people tend to mislabel as “emotional” due to their lack of musical understanding. Good "taste" is not subjective- but people don’t desire, or require, good taste, for the most part.

   How is music capable of communicating something intellectual? Sound is intelligent. Language derives from sound. It’s music, with a pragmatic purpose. Language can communicate ideas of depth- so can music. It’s your job as a listener to perceive these ideas when they’re presented to you, and discern when nothing of any meaning whatsoever is being presented. See works like Xenakis’ Pithopratka or Metastasis for pure music that expresses ideas of great intellectual depth.

   As a listener, your ability to appreciate music beyond your subjective responses is vital. In order to listen to music, you have to be able to interact with any given sound just as you would a scene from a film, or a line from a poem. If you can do this, I think you’ll find your ears enriched. If you don’t want to do this- you’re missing out on some amazing stuff.

   There are three criteria that might help a listener determine whether or not what he or she is listening to is bad, good or great. These criteria abandon subjectivity entirely, and focus on the simplest aspects of any musical composition.

(1)  Is the composition logical?

(2)  Is the logic perceptible? (Does it communicate (regardless of whether or not that something is tangible or intangible)

(3) How well is the logic executed?

  Without logic- without form- there is no music, because there is no artifice. When I say “form”, I’m not talking about symphonies, concertos, fugues, sonatas, verse-chorus-verses, or other “musical boxes”, but some sort of an audible logic or narrative. A musical narrative emerges during composition. The logical structure, its perception, and its technical execution flow simultaneously into something individual and living. In order to make the logic perceptible, the composer has to use, to the best of his ability, a variety of techniques- such as melodies, harmonies, dynamics, textures and timbres- to sculpt perceptions out of form. All of these elements, combined together in a unique manner specific to the composer, create music. Mediocre music often lacks individuation- see any of the thousands of piano sonatas written by Classical-era no name’s after Mozart, or, in recent times, the work of any “dodecaphonic” composer from the 1940’s on. It’s technically competent, and logical, but unoriginal, and thus static. Oftentimes, due to the lack of individuation, the "logic" is imperceptible. Bad music lacks individuation and technical proficiency, or is highly individuated but technically incompetent (think bird calls, or a traffic jam). 

  Listen to as much of a wide selection of music as you possibly can (and I don’t mean jump from Death Metal to Progressive Rock to Jazz Fusion to Three-Chord Suicides With An Acoustic Guitar (otherwise known as singer/songwriters). I mean listen attentively to music that spans wide-ranging historical and cultural timeframes. This is really the only way to grow as a listener- to objectively listen to A LOT of it, in radically different types.) YouTube is great for this purpose. If you have a musical ear, it’ll probably come quickly. If not you might have to work at it, but within a short timeframe you should be able to differentiate between your subjective preferences, and what you think is objectively good, or bad.

   If the American educational system wasn’t the real horror-show it is, music appreciation would be well funded throughout schools- as it is, I hear, in some countries throughout Europe, where students are exposed to a variety of musical instruments, genres, and styles in an environment unmotivated by fear and ignorance. Then, students would have the opportunity to study and experience a diverse range of music, whereas many students are simply lost.

  As it stands, modern society doesn’t need good listeners, because it doesn’t need great music. But, fuck society’s needs- human beings need music, and I believe anyone could benefit immensely from educated exposure to quality music. If you do anything, listen- abandon your indoctrinated preconceptions!


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