Saturday, April 25, 2009

Music as a Communicator

Now, in my last posting on music, I stated that the main roles of music have always been to inspire dancing or singing. This was incomplete.

I originally intended to write one essay, but about a third of the way through, I realized just how verbose I was becoming, so I chopped it off, and edited it down.

What I was referring to was events where music is the focal point. There has always been mood music, and always will be. For one example, movies are full of music. There would be no horror films without the creepy music in the background. But the background is where it generally stays. Quick, think of some creepy music from horror films! Bet you could only think of two: the violin shrieks of "Psycho" (which are supposed to symbolize an unearthly scream), and Nightmare on Elm St.'s "one, two, Freddy's coming for you..." which - wait for it - is sung.

The others? Not so memorable, huh? Perfect for the scene. But the only memorable film scores are generally the ones with singable melodies. I could name several scenes from "Star Wars" that contain singable melodies, and you'd probably remember them instantly. But the themes that aren't so singable? Quick, think of Anakin's Theme from "Star Wars: the Phantom Menace." (good luck with that!)

There is other mood music, of course - someone pointed out to me that Spas and Massage clinics usually play mood music. But I bet you can't remember any of it.

So, for music to be remembered, it has to become something you focus on. And if there is no rhythm to dance to, no melody to sing... There is very little to focus on. A trained musician might be able to. But I speak of music for the masses. Which brings me to my next point - the role of music.

Now, in my studies in college, I was told there are two types of music:

1) Program Music - where the music tells a story, and
2) Absolute Music - which is music with no story.

An example of Program Music might be "O mio babbino caro," which tells (in words) a story of longing for love. It might be something like Debussy's "Jardins sous la pluie" (Gardens in the Rain) which attempts to portray (through solo piano) the sounds and mood of ... um... gardens in the rain. An example of Absolute Music might be Beethoven's Sonata in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1. It is music with no story, just sheer sound.

Or so I was taught. Upon reflection, I think that is either woefully incomplete, or complete bullshit.

I think all music has a story. Some it is told to you (program music). Other times you write the story yourself (absolute music). My favorite piece of all time is Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. To me, there is not a second of it that I don't know the exact story I created for it. If I compared notes with someone else, I doubt they'd match at all. But regardless, the story was there.

So why do I go on about this? Music uses melody and rhythm to captivate you, enchant you, entice you. But for you to truly love a piece of music, it has to tell a story. More importantly, it has to tell your story, or at least one you identify with.

It is no secret that the majority of music sales has always been and will always be to teenagers. That is for the simple reason that teenagers are figuring out both who they are, and how to express who they are. Music gives them something to relate to, to say "yeah, that's my life right there in that song." As you get older, most people have either figured themselves out, or quit trying. They've also generally found other ways to express themselves, or given up on that as well.

This is where Classical Music once again fails, or more precisely classical musicians have failed their audiences. Rather than writing or performing music that anybody else can say "that music is exactly how I feel!", composers are simply saying "look at me! I write stuff that you can't understand, 'cause you're not as smart as me!"

Um. Dude. Good luck selling that. Next up; tell jokes that nobody laughs at. And spend the rest of your time telling everyone why the government should fund you, because your jokes are necessary to a civilized culture.

Beethoven didn't write to say he was better than his audience. He thought he was. He might've been right, too. But his music was intended to reach inside everybody who heard it, to touch on a common experience, on emotions that are common to every listener. And he did it with melodies that you want to sing, and rhythms that could be danced to. Melody wasn't his strong suit (form and harmony were), but he used it as a focal point to captivate you. And his music touched more people than can be counted.

In Showbiz terms, he knew his audience. And he wrote their music, as much as his. All successful composers have done this. Anyone can write how they themselves feel. Only a few can write in such a way as to make others feel. This is as true with words as with music.

This is where I left the classical, academic world of music far behind. Performing wasn't for me; it was for my audience. When I sing, when I play, I play for their enjoyment, not my own. When I write songs, it is for them to listen to, not myself. This is why I make a living at the field of music, when so many others can't. It's not because I'm better. It's not because I'm smarter. It's not because I'm more talented. It's because I know it's not about me.

I use music to communicate. And communication is a two way street, never, ever one way.

So when did classical music die? When people no longer danced to it, and no longer sang its melodies. When did people stop doing that? When classical musicians quit writing and performing for their audiences, but focused on themselves. As a result, they themselves are their only audience left.

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