Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

The Story Behind the Music

Last night I saw the wonderful November Dance performance, by the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois. I started getting into modern dance this spring, when I went to a few performances for one of my classes on aesthetics and education. I didn't understand it too much it until we were talking about it one day, when I realized I was looking for a story being told. While there may be a story, there isn't necessarily one, and getting past that hurdle opened up the wonderful world of modern dance to me. Already this fall I've see Hubbard Street twice, in addition to last night's performance.

After the performance I tweeted some Twitter friends (Erica, Grant and Sam) with this (modified for real English): "I started understanding dance when I stopped expecting it to tell a story. I think we should do same for music." A nice little conversation ensued, and as much as a I love Twitter, sometimes the 140 character limit is too short for an interesting topic.

But here's my basic point: we teach a lot of programmatic musics in music appreciation classes. It's easy to teach and easy for the learner to understand (and, perhaps more important, it's easy to assess). We can hear the witch or the guillotine drop in Symphonie Fantastique. Discussions of Schubert's songs talk about his marvolous use of word painting. And what doesn't have a story gets one imposed on it: fate knocking on the door in Beethoven's 5th Symphony; Mozart & Mahler writing their final pieces, knowing they were going to die (I'll leave aside the question of if that's really true or not, because regardless, we still do this). But not all music is programmatic. I'd say most music isn't programmatic. (Unless you're looking at middle school band repertoire.)

It's my opinion that in leading with this track to novice musicians (and I'm including listeners in that term) - or at least emphasizing it - we limit our students (or friends, or family, or audience, etc.). Some music is great because it doesn't have a program - just like, as Erica tweeted, the same can be said with visual arts, poetry, dance, etc.

How can we teach appreciation for musics - not just Western art music, but including it - without looking for a story? Bach doesn't tell a story; Mozart doesn't; Reich, Schoenberg, Gorecki, etc. etc. etc. don't tell stories all the time. Jazz musicians might tell a story through their improv, but it's likely doubtful. So much of "world music" doesn't tell a story, but is ritualistic instead. Taylor Swift definitely does tell stories, but ... we can usually grasp what that story is pretty quickly, without needing a degree-laden professor to tell us what it is.

I'll admit I've fallen into this trap. I'm just as guilty as the next person. I taught this way as part of my AP Music Theory class. I wrote an undergrad paper on Mahler's 2nd Symphony, connecting themes in the piece to Mahler's program, which is probably a good paper, if you forget that Mahler redacted the program he wrote for the work.

I don't feel guilty for this, per say, but I do feel bad. A beauty of the arts is its subjective nature, yet we're telling people what needs to be heard and understood so much of the time. Is this a fault of the nature of schooling? Or our own engrained ideas about Western art music?

I also appreciate hearing a performer's connection to the piece - but that doesn't necessarily involve a story behind the composition. I think we all look for an easily-found human connection in music, and perhaps that's why we take this route. We can associate with love lost (Berlioz, Taylor Swift) a lot easier than we can "only" sound (absolute music as a whole).

What can we do to get more listeners, appreciators, performers, etc., involved with the music without using this simple cop-out? Once I got past it I got more into modern dance. I imagine if musickers get past this they can get more into the marvolous world of music.


**Two questions/connections that come up that are beyond my writing at this point in the night:
-That programmatic music is essentially a Romantic concept, and may be connected to the Romantic concept of genius
-The observation that dance is more receptive to the new and unexpected than music

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