Reinforcing Outdated Models of Music…With Science!!


So the other day a friend of mine tells me about a report they heard on NPR which reminded them of my recent theory work.  The way they described it, the piece was reflecting on the notion of music as a verb or an action reminiscent of Christopher Smalls musicking.  Needless to say I was intrigued.  Considering how NPR permeates music culture these days it was encouraging to think that these more fringe ideas were gaining some sort of traction.

Then I read the piece “Seeing Music For What It Is” by Alva Noe.  Let’s just say I take a couple of issues with it and the heart of those issues are part and parcel to why I’ve taken to writing on theory.  Fundamentally my main critique of Noe, is that his definition of what constitutes music is completely outdated.  Noe does his part to present his ideas as radical, starting the piece with the declaration “music is not sound art” but then quickly follows that with the tried and true definition for music as “melody and harmony, timbre and rhythm.”

Where things start going off the deep end however is with this seemingly innocent proclamation:

When we listen to music we listen to a performance, in the literal sense. We pay attention to what someone, or a group of people, is doing before us. Music is action.

The age of music being directly linked to ‘literal’ performances is loooooooonnnnnnngggg gone.  Which isn’t to deny that there is still mountains of ‘performance’ based music being made, but rather acknowledging the fact that there exists mountains of music being made without ‘performance’ (I’m using performance here in the traditional sense because it’s clearly the spirit which Noe is using.  As an advocate for machines as performers there’s another debate which could be had, but I’ll save that for another time).

Noe knows that this connecting of music inseparably from performance is off, and indeed being challenged every day. He even admits to the fact that electronic music is the biggest threat, delivering the ‘final blow’ against his ‘quaint’ ideas.  I’ll be honest, reading things like this irk me something awful. To be able to see the change which is happening and rather than find ways of integrating it, dogmatize definitions to exclude it.  Yuck.

We all have our biases which create subjective judgements, but presenting those as fact ala

We easily lose sight of the fact that what we care about, when we care about music, is not sound, but musicians and their use of movement, the body, and material instruments, to articulate significance.

That may be well and good for you Mr. Noe but there are countless of artists and fans who listen to music for the way artists use sound to articulate significance mutually exclusive from the physical means used to produce such sounds.  This reality is just completely inescapable in 2013 not just from a nerdy niche perspective but even as a reflection of popular music.

Where things really start falling apart however is when we turn to the scientific study that inspired Noe to write.  It unfortunately falls into Noe’s spin which attempts to define all music as being performance.  The study itself makes no such claim and treats musical performance as an isolated thing. But Noe wants to bridge the isolated study into his definitions of music.

The study took a group of people, experts and the lay, and had them listen to just the audio and then watch just the performance (no sound) of live music competition performances, and then determine if they could predict the winner based either just on the audio or just on the visual.  The result of the study was that the predictive power was stronger with just the visual.  This leads Noe to conclude “listeners find it easy, as a group, to decide which performance is best, but only when they get to see it without the distraction of hearing it, too!”  This extends naturally into his definition of all music as performance and hence music is no longer sound art.

There really is no reasonable connection from the study’s findings to how we consume music.  The parameters in which it was conducted were all subjective.  The participants were judging performances which were part of a contest.  These are not standard performances, but performances made to compete.  When one is in a performance competition the performance (read physical and visual) aspect takes on a life of its own separate from the song.  After all it isn’t the songs or the music which are being judged but the performance of them.

Further the judgement of them initially for the contest  was also subjective There is a notion of best performance for that contest which includes al of the judges as subjective variables in the equation.  They are completely different from the participants of the study as variables. To make the object of the study whether or not these participants can make an opinion of the music in line with the initial judgements is a false qualifier for picking the best performance.  Perhaps they actually picked the best musical performance based on listening alone, proving that the judges were so distracted by the performance the missed the music.

Were a similar study to be made using songwriting competition entries as the focus yield the same results.  Could the intricacies of harmony, melody, rhythm and timbre be gathered from watching the songwriter write the song?  Is the writing not music, or alternately is the writing a performance?  All of these things are musical objects and events as they are a part of the action which is music.  What Noe wants to do is limit that action to a very narrow subset of what music has evolved to become – physical performances.

The impetus behind the claim is what I find most troubling. Noe’s reference to electronic as a death blow to ‘music’ really captures it.  It is the defense mechanism of an old guard mindset which wants to protect the sanctity of the pasts accomplishments.  Where it fails is in realizing that the rise of one does not have to mean the end of another.  Rather than trying to separate them, through integration they continue to move forward rather than remain stuck in antiquated ideals.

Written by avanturb

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