Written for my freshmen year "Non-Western Musics" class. The assignment was to keep a "musical experiences journal", and based on that, draw some conclusions about the nature of musical experiences. A little too florid, a little too adverbly written, and of a poorly directed structure. But not a too-awful psychologico-journalistic attempt for an 18-year-old.
Music from the Inside Out
A cultural definition of music can be seen as a reflection of the musical ideas inherent in the members of the culture. Conversely, if we examine the musical tastes and prejudices of an individual, we will see larger societal musical ideas imbedded therein. Therefore, the musical conceptions of a culture may be uncovered from the inside out through an individual’s observation and introspection.
When attempting to record one’s musical experiences, some initial decisions must be made. Most importantly, an intuitive definition of music must be established so as to provide the observer with some frame of reference. Also, the ambiguous term “experience” must be defined in order to distinguish notable musical events from those felt to be more passively experienced.
However, when I attempted to set such limits before this investigation, I found that I was not used to thinking about music in its cultural context (as opposed to an emotional or technical context), and therefore my starting point was distracting me from the spirit of the investigation. I decided to intentionally reject any structure of formal inquiry (due to my unfamiliarity with the concepts behind it) and simply record anything that struck me as musical in any way. As it turned out, a structure of this type of inquiry developed only after I had completed the investigation, and therefore must be regarded as a reflective conclusion.
The record of my investigation touches upon a wide range of sonic events from which a personal musical definition could conceivably be drawn. The most musically interesting episode is a trip to Boston Common where I was assaulted by musics and sounds. I grew up in a small mountain city in western Maryland, so I am very sensitive to the barrage of sensory input one finds in a large city such as Boston.
I came across two street musicians in my time there, both playing on buckets, plastic tubs, metal pans, and other randomly assembled percussion equipment. The first was on the corner of the Common itself and because of his open-air location, one lost much of the nuance of his playing. He was pushing a very fast, insistent beat with low tones and had draped a sixteenth-note syncopation over a middle-range melody that seemed sandwiched between. The other drummer was on a corner farther back amongst tall buildings, where the acoustics broadcast more of his playing, which was also fast and syncopated, and included a repeated metallic melody that one went away humming.
I have noted in my notebook a softball game on the Common of which the sounds of the bat and the cheering of the teams might suggest a musical flavor. Three significant linguistic incidents have been recorded: first, a gaggle of young women all talking simultaneously at different pitches, creating a polyphony of sorts; second, a man and a woman speaking French very fluently and elegantly, their voices seeming to describe a melodic arc; third, two lovers hugging as they coo affection and sing snatches of popular tunes softly together.
My notes include two instances of natural music: hard rain on leaves, and the drone of night insects. I have also noted five instances of machinery producing a musical effect, including a subway engine organized around a pitch, modulations in construction equipment sounds, and a cappuccino machine’s rhythmic refrain.
I have recorded the times I practiced piano at the Slosberg practice rooms, as well as my participation in a Jazz Ensemble rehearsal. Every night, I performed my evening exercises to Rammstein played very loud, and I went to sleep to a computer playlist of classical and gentle jazz music. This week of experiences is more or less ordinary, although I ordinarily wouldn’t have noticed so many musics as this investigation required.
As I progressed in my inquiry I found I had to restrain myself from assigning too wide a personal definition of music. I find I could have noted every single sound I heard and defended its musicality. However, when I ceased listening intellectually and instead listened intuitively, I found that I did not consider “by-product” sounds (such as the subway or the cappuccino machine) as music, because the sounds themselves serve no purpose nor are they intentionally musical. Although it is vaguely possible to imagine a scenario in which a subway designer deliberately builds an engine around a pitch for purely creative reasons, the slope from such reasoning to assigning musicality to kicked gravel or sneezes remains very slippery, regardless of the apparent marketability of incidental noise as music (e.g., Beck, Aphex Twin). Unfortunately, because of my exclusion of construction equipment and softball games, I must also dismiss the hypnotic polyphony of insects and the warm oscillations of rain in the wind. I am forced to consider these sounds as pleasant sonic backdrops, or aural oddities. I am left with sounds that are created by humans for a purpose, and that produce an emotional response in the listener.
Also, there remains an ambiguity in the term “musical experience.” I listen to music constantly, but I cannot consider every instance of music touching my life as an “experience.” Much of music consumption today is passive because of our insistence to multi-task and produce musical backgrounds (but not necessarily foregrounds). Musical “experience” seems to suggest an intentionality in both the sender and receiver, as well as a meaningfulness for both parties.
I am forced to conclude that my log of “musical experiences” is over-complete because I could not set the limits of my inquiry until I had some idea of what to consider both “musical” and an “experience,” and what to set apart as an oddity, coincidence, or side-effect. From these experiences, one might draw insights as to the musical intuitions of the culture in which I exist by considering my observations a reflection of the larger societal ideas that have been impressed upon me from my simply existing within one culture for as long as I have.