The Poverty of Analysis

We've been discussing some very elementary approaches to understanding communication. Modern communication models place a great emphasis on the listener/receiver of a message. In that context it seems reasonable to believe that while Music may not directly refer to any extra-musical idea, it can (and does) refer to other Musics.

There needs to be two assertions made at this point:

Music may reference other musical ideas whether the listener knows it or not

I'm a great fan of reading humorous books and/or parodies. Some of the greatest send-ups out there (For example, the Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings) assume the reader has some familiarity with the work being parodied. Moreover, the reader who understands the book's various cultural references will enjoy it even more. In contrast, an individual who never read the original book will miss the various "in-jokes" and references that make the parody so compelling.

Music, in communicating about other musics, may not be parodying another work or body of works, but its content (and thus its range of possible meanings) is to be understood in relation to other works. For us, this is a significant point, as it asks the listener to bring a certain level of sophistication to the communication exercise. A listener who lacks any prior training or understanding might find a particular musical message to be confusing or absurd, but that does not mean the message is in fact, confusing--it merely suggests that the message falls outside the listener's ability to perceive it.

Such an approach is commonly used when evaluating or interpreting Music of varying cultures--this is known as providing "cultural context" to certain Musical signifiers.

Surface-level analysis is an essential, but weak tool

Spend some time in "Music School" and you'll be trained in the basics of Music Theory. Topics include scales, key signatures, chords and their inversions, seventh chords, chromaticism, Roman Numeral analysis, modulation, secondary dominants, and so on--these are all useful and valuable, but they fail to help us answer the difficult questions about Music.

What questions? We want to know "What does our Music say? What does our Music teach or preach?" but are instead led into a maze of twisty passages that seem to tell us everything about the notes, but little about the Music.

Simply labelling chords in a composition may give us some ideas as to the harmonic vocabulary used by a composer, but the exercise does little to address "the big picture." However, avoiding analysis entirely (and relying only on personal tastes and impressions) results in an equally precarious position. For analysis to help us in this discussion, then, we need to develop better tools that more accurately express what might be actually going on in a composition--while paying attention to how Music relates to itself, other musics, and society.

I've found this out the hard way during countless arguments. For every "this CoWo piece is junk because it's banal and trivial," gambit, an "Oh yeah? Check out this three-chord wonder from Bach!" waits just around the corner.

For the vast majority of undergraduate Music programs, chord labelling occupies almost half of the Theory curriculum. I've spoken to Church Musicians who feel ill-equipped to address Contemporary vs. Traditional issues in their congregations, primarily because their training aimed toward answering different questions.

As we move forward (with great vigor, I might add) into the next series of posts, I will provide solid means to address these issues. Moreover, I'll continue to reach into the 'post-modern' toolbox, which should allow us to frame the conversation using entirely subjectivist arguments.