I love streaming music services. Mog, Rdio, Spotify. They’re all great. They help solve one of the most vexing problems of being a musician, discovering new music (without going broke buying stuff). One issue that always comes up, though, is finding an exact recording. Each service has a pretty large catalog, and while there is some overlap, each service has many recordings that the others don’t. Enter: Music Smasher by Matt Montag. It searches Rdio, Spotify, Grooveshark, Soundcloud, Mog, and Bandcamp (whew!). What is really cool about the service is that it includes services like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, where files are uploaded directly by artists and catalogs often include independent artists and “unreleased” content. Go there now.
And now it’s time for another installment of our sporadic series “Sh*t My Texbook Says.” 1
Let me share with you the first paragraph of Dr. Wright’s excellent essay
“Understanding Poetry” on melody:
A melody, simply put, is the tune. It’s the part we sing along with, the part we like and are willing to listen to again and again. TV pitchmen try to entice us to buy a CD set of “The Fifty All-Time Greatest Melodies,” but not a similar collection of rhythms or harmonies. Rhythm and harmony are merely supporting actors; melody is the star. The more the melody shines, the more beautiful is the music.
Had I not been sitting in a public place when I read this, I may have thrown the book across the room. First off, saying that the melody is the tune is completely useless. They are synonyms, and it’s important for students to know that the words are more-or-less interchangeable. However, if we’re trying to teach students to listen thoughtfully and make empirical observations about music, we’re going to need a better tool.
Second, rhythm cannot be separated from melody. We like to say that melody is a sequence of pitches. That’s a nifty saying, but it is most certainly not true. It isn’t just the order of the pitches that defines a melody, it’s also the rhythm in which those pitches occur. Rhythm is also more fundamental to the way we perceive sounds. You cannot hear a pitch without it occurring in time (rhythm), but you can definitely hear a rhythm without a definite pitch. (Take a moment here to clap a clave rhythm for yourself. You’ll feel better. I promise.)
Finally, Dr. Craig-M-Wright-PhD’s last sentence might as well end “…and therefore is better and more valuable than music that does not emphasize melody, but that stuff’s not really music anyway, right?”
Reading this book always reminds me of this:
- The textbook in question is Listening to Music by Dr. Craig M. Wright, Ph.D. ↩
First day of school here at Grand Valley State. In honor of that, I thought I’d share some more from this music appreciation text. I have a feeling that “Dave argues with a textbook” might become a running series here on the blog. We’ll see. Just a few grafs after the quote from my last post, I found this gem.
Briefly defined, music [emphasis in original] is the rational organization of sounds and silences passing through time. Tones must be arranged in some consistent, logical, and (usually) pleasing way before we can call these sounds “music” instead of just noise.
Seriously? We’re still using a value judgement in the definition of an art form? Rational, logical, and pleasing are a matter of cultural inheritance and personal taste. Also, “just” noise? Dr. Wright, what the heck is wrong with noise? Some people like it so much they make music out of it! Definitions like this remind me of early DSM definitions of homosexuality as a psychological disorder. Over 40 years after Stonewall, the Psychology world has since corrected their initial mistake. Almost 60 years after Cage’s 4’33″, at least some musicologists like Dr. Wright are still working things out.
Whoa! All the way to Bach? That’s a little edgy for me. Can we pull it back to Lully?
I’m teaching a new (to me) class this semester, Introduction to Music Literature, AKA Music Appreciation. The textbook we’re using (not my pick) is Craig Wright’s Listening to Music. Let me share a brief quote with you from the first page of Chapter 1:
Want proof of the allure of music? Next time you’re riding on a bus, a train, or the subway, look around and you’ll find that about twice as many people are listening to music as are reading. This is true pretty much everywhere around the developed world. But why does music have such universal appeal? Simply said, music has power.
First of all, if this were Wikipedia, I’d log in and put a  after that glaring statistic. “4 out of 5 dentists” works great in a toothpaste ad, but I think it’s ok to expect more out of academic writing than a 15-second spot on local television.
More importantly, can we ditch this “music is magic” stuff? Yes, music is great. I like it. I’ve spent a lot of time studying it, and I plan to spend a lot more. However, making it into this ethereal, supernatural entity makes it almost impossible to having a meaningful discussion about. The people on the subway aren’t listening to music; they’re just letting music fill in the space around them because it’s preferable to whatever other sounds (or lack thereof) are naturally there. As I see it, my job as a music appreciation teacher is to demonstrate to my students that actual listening requires something more akin to the attention and engagement of reading a book or newspaper. That, dear reader, is music appreciation.
I just got home from a really impressive performance by some MSU student musicians at East Lansing’s SCENE Metrospace gallery. I don’t know what the name of their group is, but if you ever get the chance to hear Alex Kreger, Kevin Bene, Susanna Mendlow, and Ryan Ptasnik, you should do it. They play a compelling blend of avant-garde jazz and folk music. I don’t have a recording of these guys, but listening to them tonight reminded me a lot of a group called Gutbucket, that I heard several years at Mizzou.
It is music that includes a lot of extremes. Sometimes it is very tightly controlled and intricate. At other times it seems simply out-of-control in a very appealing way. Often, these two sounds are jammed against one another to create some great textural counterpoint. Check out some of their albums on Amazon: Dry Humping The American Dream and Sludge Test, the latter of which includes a truly incredible transcription (do we still call it that?) of Olivier Messiaen’s “Dance of the Furies” from the Quartet for the End of Time.
A few weeks ago I went to Flat Black and Circular, a nice little used record store here in East Lansing. I bought an Eric Dolphy album called Out There (Amazon, iTunes), recorded in 1960. I tossed it in my backpack and forgot about it until last week. I had some time to kill before teaching a lab (20th Century Music Theory), so I popped the disc into the classroom’s CD player and pulled out the liner notes. (There are a lot of very thoughtful and creative liner notes from jazz albums of this period.)
Some of my students came in and really dug the music, others came in with a “What the $^&$@ is that crap?” look on their faces. I found a nice paragraph in the liner notes that I decided to share with the students at the beginning of class.
It would be best to acknowledge, right from the outset, that this is not the most easily grasped jazz album you are ever likely to hear. And it is also appropriate to say that, like many things which require careful attention, it repays that attention with a greater reward than you might get from music that reveals its total character the first time around.
As soon as I finished reading it, one student piped up “I disagree with that completely.” I told him that it was time to consider developing a more mature outlook on art.
In our class this semester, we will be studying music by Hindemith, Bartok, Schoenberg, Carter, Babbitt, and others whose music is not “easily grasped” the first, or even the second or seventh times around. In fact, many people might never grasp it. I do think that music should give the attentive listener some reward the first time, but if it gives you everything the first time, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to listen to it again. One of the things that appeals most to me about great music is that I can hear something new in it even after I think I know it really well.
Last year, I heard the Chicago Symphony under David Robertson perform one of the great “Top 40″ orchestral hits, Dvorak’s New World Symphony. As many times as I’ve heard (and played) that piece, I heard some brilliant counterpoint that evening that I’d never noticed before. The saying goes that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but maybe you can’t be so sure about it even after the first reading.