Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Gainfully Employ Music Vocab

Take it from an artist
Some of our music-specific vocabulary is borrowed from visual art. Notice on the vocab page how the flute’s melody is described as angular? Yet, music doesn’t really have angles. In this case, the term comes from someone looking at the printed notes and then visualizing what it would look like if lines were drawn between each note. Music isn’t really chromatic or dynamic, either, at least not in the same way as art. Some of the commonly accepted art music classifications, such as baroque, impressionist, or minimalist, come from art, too (and often don’t fit the music they label very well. But that’s a rant for another day). The point is that when trying to describe or label an abstract thing, visual art already has some good solutions, so why not steal them?

When writing about music, it’s good to follow the pattern of visual art reviewers, too. When they are writing about a painting, they don’t simply describe the art, for example: “It’s a painting of a clown with tears on its cheeks.” We can see the painting, after all. We want to know why we should care about the painting. Yet, having just encountered the bevy of specific vocabulary, in my experience, students new to writing about music do just that—say what they hear. A sentence might read: “The music begins with three flutes in duple meter in a polyphonic texture.” They might feel proud, and rightfully so, because they used new, difficult vocab. And while this might be a good description, the burning question is this: why do I need to know this? I can hear the music, can’t I? Descriptions like this don’t add meaning; they just are a written simplified replacement for the audio. A written description might also act like an arrow or a magnifying glass in art, drawing attention to some detail, but there should be some purpose for this.

Build from the bottom up

Art reviewers instead determine “Why does the clown have tears painted on his cheeks?” or “How does the artist paint the tears,” or “How does that effect the way I interact with the picture?” The descriptions, then, support general ideas. The same idea applies to writing about music. Instead of writing “It is a scary piece with pizzicato violas in triple meter,” answer a question such as “Why did the composer write the piece in triple meter?” or “How and why does the melody or accompaniment convey “scary”?” Then, use your handy written description to prove your claim. It’s almost never good to start at the beginning of a piece and describe what happens in each measure. Always work from a general concept and then give specific supporting examples.

As in art, the most interesting parts of an art object are usually the parts that are most different. For example, if a painting is mostly dark, the important part is probably where it’s light. In music, if there is a rhythm that recurs constantly for the entire piece except for one section, that different section must be important. “Why is it different,” ? There’s probably not enough time or space to write about an entire piece of music from start to finish, anyway, because often music is just too complex; a little music is as good as at least 10,000 words. Instead, find the interesting sections of music that prove your point.

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