Steve Schwartz wrote:
>In other words, sure Louis Armstrong is great, but what musically makes
>him so? ....
>I wonder whether that sort of literacy is necessary. If we were to take
>literary criticism as an example, it undoubtedly helps that a literary
>critic concerned with an evaluative judgment be able to check a text,
>to be able to read words. Does this hold true for a music critic?
>I throw it out to the group at large. What do you think?
I think it is a very good question. If a person writing about music
should need to know how to read music, should all composers know how to
read music. Some don't. What of the music that is written by those who
do not know music notation, as I recall Paul McCartney is an example.
To judge accuracy in performance of notated music would require the
ability to read and understand a score. Speaking for myself, I believe
it would be impossible for someone to have much understanding of the
process or rhetoric of the piece without having had the experience of
composing. I believe my understanding of Bach's music took a quantum
leap when, as part of my doctoral studies, I had a two classes in fugue.
I am fond of Copland's writing in "What to listen for in music." He
mentions three levels of listening, the sensuous, narrative and "music
on its own terms." The sensuous and narrative levels would not seem to
require much in terms of the ability to read music. As for the rhetoric
of a piece, I believe one can develop some understanding of that by
listening and the understanding of patterns.
The ability to "explain" the "rhetoric" of a piece is difficult without
a firm understanding of the vernacular used to describe aspects of music.
One usually develops that vernacular through the experience of a formal
education in music. I often take delight in reading reviews of film
music where the film music enthusiasts have no formal education in music,
but a great deal of enthusiasm..."Goldsmith's usual electronic riffs
followed by some Williams horn calls..." or whatever.
Is writing about music the same as music analysis? I can look closely
at a Bach fugue, chart out the harmonic rhythm and make reasonable
assumptions as to why a particular countersubject was written. Would
an augmented second be a mistake in this particular style of music.
Well, if one bets by the percentages, yes. However Bach was the one who
defined the percentages. So then, how does one ultimately decide if he
was right this time with an augmented second. Well, perhaps it had to
do with preparation for an somewhat uncoventional modulation in a
subsequent measure, or was required by his creative inspiration.
As I continue to toss around thoughts in my mind on this subject I am
reminded of something else Copland wrote..."If you ask me the question
if music has meaning, I will say yes. If you ask me what that particular
meaning might be, I cannot tell you."
To try and respond to your question, I think the answer is, it depends.
If one wants to write an essay about the innovations in the music of
Berlioz, I believe it would be important to point out that while he used
harmonies that were of his time, he wrote harmonic progressions that
were innovative for his time. One can look closely at his orchestration
which was so unlike Wagner, or any other composer of the time. He strove
for a style where instruments were highly differentiated, versus the
absorptive style of Wagner.
To make these observations, it would seem, one would need to be able to
read music. If however, as you stated in your original post, if it is
a simple "two thumbs up," such knowledge is not needed.
On the subject, it is interesting to me that little seems to be written
about popular music...what is written, the lives of the musicians,
biographies, the words, perhaps a bit about the playing techniques and
style of performance, yet little, from what I have seen, about the music.
Is it because there is little variety in the vocabulary. The basic
harmonic materials are limited. The rhythmic variety would seem to be
there, but when the formula for much of it is so strictly controlled,
it leaves little room for innovation, yet, the one can look at the music
of Gershwin and find immense innovation and individuality in the music,
certainly removed from his time. Yet, very little of the writing about
Gershwin points to the "music."
I still recall a "review," on the radio show "Fresh air." From time to
time I have found the discussions to be rather informed and interesting.
At the end of the program, there was a "review" of some rock music from
the 70s...I can't recall what it was. The "critic" spoke about the
origins of the group, what is was like for the reviewer living at that
time, the impact the music had on him, how the group developed over the
years, the lyrics, etc. He was highly articulate yet said nothing about
the music. Certainly, the ability to read music was not required for
For me, I believe music has become a "spectator" sport. I would guess
that, per capita, 150 years or so ago (ok, I am just guessing) more
people with the equivalent of a college education, could read music,
than college graduates or the equivalent today. Our entire approach
to music is likely to be more passive. Is it appropriate for music
writers to read music? I guess if they are writing for the "spectators,"
regardless of how intent that spectator might be, probably not. If they
are writing for those who are informed in the rhetoric or music, they
need to be able to read music and, I would suggest, have some understanding
of the problems of performance.
When I listen to music, without a score, it is one thing. When I listen
with a score, it is different. When I listen to a work the first time
and try and find my way, that too, is different, just as it is when I
am listening to an old favorite...also, very differnt. If am listening
while I am watching the wave shape go by, during a ProTools session
(while I am editing a recording) it is a totally different experience.
And, when I listen while drinking some wine...
I am reminded of the last pages of the Prokofieff Second piano concerto.
There is a short rhythmic gesture that appears at no other place in the
work. For it to be heard, there must be absolute coordination between
the soloist and the orchestra as the orchestra can easily cover that
gesture. It was only when I looked at the score that I noticed it, for
in most recordings I had heard, it was lost. Reading the score informed
me what was missing, and what to look for. How would I have known what
was correct, had I not been able to read the music?