(Footnotes at end of post)
Each of us has our own innate beliefs and intuitions about what music “is,” if it can be anything. To some, only the high Classical really counts, and the flowery, indulgent ornamentation of the Baroque and Romantic styles are simply too much. (This is to say nothing of the common response to Modernist and contemporary music.) To many others, the concept of “music” can be defined much more broadly, and many sounds, even those that are traditionally “non-musical” might be included in this wide scope of musical appreciation. However, this discussion is not about what music is; even if I felt I had an answer to this question, it is perhaps a fool’s errand to try to convince anyone what music may or may not be. Instead, what I wish to discuss is the various ways that we talk about music and the properties that we impose upon it, especially in terms of musical structure. By “structure,” I do not simply mean form (although form is undoubtedly a part of it); rather, I mean the perception of the construction and deployment of an entire musical work or series of works, including musical discourse, syntax, form, and even potential semiotic units.
My central argument about musical structure is simply this: music cannot have structure. The careful reader will note that I did not say listeners are unable to perceive structure; this is surely not the case. (Else an enormous part of the music-theoretical world will surely be cleaved, and an entire generation of theorists might be ridiculed.) Listeners can undoubtedly perceive musical structure, but it is often the case that we are too quick to attribute this perception to a property that the music “has” rather than as a construct that we impose upon it. To put it simply, if music has structure, it is because we, the listener, need/want it to. The invocation of musical structure relies entirely upon the listener and his or her extra-musical knowledge and experience; the music itself is nothing more than different frequencies at various energies over time, nothing more, nothing less. To use an analogy, imagine the Mona Lisa, one of the most (or perhaps the most) famous paintings in the world. When we look at this painting, we see the structure of the work immediately: the fair woman in the foreground of the painting with a sort of half smile set against a landscape behind her. Now, imagine this image being viewed by a life form who has never seen a human being nor any other type of humanoid creature. What would it see? Surely, it would not see or comprehend the same things that we do when we look at the painting, but rather it might see a series of colorful splotches and lines. It would be able to describe the painting in terms of concepts that it understands, but this description would scarcely overlap with our own. Our experience tells us that this painting is of a human because we understand the concept of the human “structure.” Similarly, when we talk about a musical structure, we must speak in terms of our own experiences. Thus, when we say that a particular piece is in “sonata form,” for instance, we are imposing this structure on the work; it is not a property that the music inherently has.1 As I stated above, if music has a structure, it is because the listener or analyst perceives it through extra-musical experience, not because the music has it.
What is the point of making this distinction, though? On the surface, this is an innocuous debate at best, and a pedantic philosophical slog at the worst. The problem is that time and again, theorists and critics make aesthetic and qualitative judgments about music, especially new music, based on the premise that it can have structural properties in the first place. In lieu of stating a simple distaste or unfamiliarity with contemporary and experimental music, conservative critics pass the buck onto the music itself for failing to pass some sort of a priori aesthetic or structural examination. Consider the following quote from Wallace Berry: “little if anything is more vital in musical form than the controlled maintenance, and effective change, subsidence, and direction of motion. Failure to move with conviction and direction is one of the most common and crippling defects of ineffective music.” He goes on to conclude that, “Without order, the musical material, however sound and vigorous, may be reduced through its aimless diffusion to an impotent stammer whose impression dissolves as it is issued, lacking the exercise of whatever potential may exist in it for assimilable unity, and renouncing all possibility of intellectual appeal.”2 It is not difficult to figure out what music it is that Berry considers “ineffective.”
This sort of aesthetic judgment based upon the idea that “Music” inherently has certain structural qualities allows for a not-so-subtle reinforcing of the traditional musical canon. It sets up an a priori aesthetic strawman against music that one does not like, and then the critic is allowed to pass it off as objective observation rather than subjective preference. “See, it’s not that I don’t like this music; it simply doesn’t have the inherent qualities that turns sound into music!” This type of logic should sound very familiar to anyone who has studied the theories and writing of Heinrich Schenker, perhaps the most influential and controversial figure in modern music-theoretical history. To put it as simply as I can for the uninitiated, Schenker theorized that all musical works can be understood as a linear prolongation of the tonic triad, consisting of a bass arpeggiation between I and V and a fundamental melodic line from scale degree 3 to 1 (and sometimes 5 to 1 or rarely 8 to 1) filled in with passing tones.3 It is not hard to quickly come up with a list of musical types for which this type of theory would be ineffective, such as modal polyphony, contemporary, pop, and any non-western/non-European musics based in any musical system other than common-practice tonality. Those who have read any of Schenker’s work know that he was not one to mince words, and he immediately dismissed works that did not fit within his theoretical system. What remained in the canon of “real music” was essentially written entirely by the German Classicists and Chopin.
There is also the inevitable danger that this sort of musical positivism will result in prescriptions for how music should be written. Speaking purely from my own experiences and anecdotes from colleagues, it is not at all rare to be subjected to admonitions from teachers and peers regarding the ways in which music you have composed does not do what “real music” does. “Real music has a goal.” “Real music uses the least musical ideas to say the most.” “Real music has structural unity.” Without getting into the metaphysics of reality, even if there were such a thing as “real” music (as opposed to “ineffective” music), it does or has nothing. The danger is that an entire generation of composers ceases to innovate and express themselves in favor of mimicking subjective a priori constructs, all in the name of adherence to principles that are seemingly inherent in good music. In reality, these qualities are subjective interpretations rather than objective truths. Though the sort of fire-and-brimstone rhetoric used here might seem extreme, it is a very real concern. It is the difference between saying “My music sounds like Ligeti’s because I like his music,” and “My music sounds like Ligeti’s because both adhere to principles of good musical composition.” The first is a subjective comparison, but the second supposes some underlying musical “truth.” In short, composers should not feel pressured to write in a way such that aesthetic and creativity are subservient to the canon of “real music.” The result of this pressure is dozens upon dozens of indistinguishable, vaguely avant-garde musical works that check all the boxes for what good contemporary music does.4 We should, of course, study music that we perceive to be successful or satisfying and synthesize some of its musical elements into our own lexicon. However, we should avoid actively creating a contemporary canon of “real” music; each individual work is its own unique experience, and whether or not it is “good” is entirely subjective. By remembering that qualitative and structural assessments are inherently constructs of the listener, we avoid the stagnation of our own musical culture and encourage growth and experimentation among the body of practicing musicians.
Let me state the obvious: no one should be punished or criticized for liking or disliking anything. It is not my goal to force anyone to like the music I like nor to stop anyone from stating that they do not like it. I believe one of the beautiful things about music is the non-universality of appreciation, that no one work is unanimously adored by all. However, it is important to realize that if you do not like a certain work or style of music, that is not a property inherent in the music but rather a property inherent in you. We are well past the point in musical history where we should be tolerating broad generalizations of what music is and is not based upon an individual’s propensity to like or understand that music. After all, any and every property and concept that can be perceived in a piece of music must first be present in the mind of the listener. We should all have the courage to state that we do not like something, but we should also have the courage to understand that this is not because of a property of music, but rather a property of ourselves.
1 I certainly do not mean to suggest that generalizable musical forms do not exist within the body of extant musical works. Clearly, many of the formal archetypes we discuss in theoretical circles are prevalent and recurring throughout musical history. My argument is simply that the perception of a work “having” or “being in” one of these archetypes relies on abstract knowledge of it in the first place.
2 Wallace Berry, Form in Music: An Examination of Traditional Techniques of Musical Form and Their Applications in Historical and Contemporary Styles (Prentice-Hall, 1986), 447–49.
3 I have no doubt that many theorists reading this might be mortified by this oversimplification of Schenkerian theory, but it is not my desire here to discuss all of its nuances, nor is it necessary to do so in order to make my overarching point.
4 Key clicks are apparently high up on this list.