Monday, March 4, 2013

Victor Wooten's TED video "Music as Language"

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted this video on Facebook. It features Victor Wooten, a world-renowned bass player who plays with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Wooten also teaches at music schools and camps and writes music education books and online courses.

In this video, Wooten central idea is that music education should be treated more like children's language acquisition. While I agree with Wooten generally, I think he simplifies the issues in a few places.

At the beginning of the video, Wooten lists the similarities of music and spoken/written language. Yes, music can make you laugh, cry, question. And I agree that music be used to communicate with others. I would make one caveat, however: one has to be very educated in a particular dialect of music to understand what exactly is being communicated. I suppose that is the same for language, also.

Wooten also suggests that music does not have to be understood to be effective, which he says sets it apart from language. I would argue that for this attribute, music and language are not really as far apart. In either case, we can understand generalities without understanding the specifics. Yes, a loud, consistent beat seems to get people moving not matter what the music genre, but someone shouting can also express similar things across many languages. A slow, atmospheric piece of music might communicate the same thing across cultures, but so might a soothing whisper. The specific meanings of music and language are still lost to those who haven't studied it. One could argue that a soothing whisper could carry a specific, opposite threatening meaning, but I believe soothing music could also carry the same threatening meaning. I'd like to hear more examples from Wooten about what he meant by this.

I really like what he talks about teaching music as we teach language, however: if people grew up with and absorbed music instead of being taught it, they would be better musicians. I like his thoughts about mistakes ("You were allowed to make mistakes, and the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled."): mistakes should be smiled at instead of punished. We still know that the mistakes were a problem, because of the reaction. And these aren't moral mistakes, but semantic mistakes. If we as music teachers and students followed this, I think we would lose less music students and have a healthier view of our own music making. I also like Wooten's idea that teachers should find out what their students want to say with their music, because students will be more motivated to learn if they find music or messages they really believe in. Teachers will have to be willing to let their students pursue that, however, even if what's the students choose is against what the teachers believe.

I foresee problems with the implementation of this new model of musical acquisition, however. If young people played with professional musicians daily instead of taking lessons, how would the older musicians make money? Would the professionals just charge for every playing session? That would price most students right out of the system. But we can't take away paid lessons, because often, a musician's steadiest form of income come from teaching lessons. This new system might mean the end of professional musicians, with the exception of some big acts who could attract large crowds. On the other hand, if there were a larger body of amateurs, perhaps we might able to support more professionals. Another implementation issue is that unlike English speakers, there's not enough musicians to go around. We'd have to create a culture of musicians, which is perhaps what Wooten is suggesting. At he moment, I don't think society values music-making enough to throw the time and resources necessary for this kind of program.

Another issue is Wooten's admonition to "play" more than practice, meaning mess around and play music for fun. This can be a problem, too, as people don't necessarily play what's best for them to improve their skills. They could play the same song over and over again, and play it badly,  because it sounds okay to them instead of trying something more challenging (like episode 6 of Freaks and Geeks, "I'm with the Band"). I guess playing with better musicians daily might solve this problem. While I think that we should encourage students to mess around more than we do, I think play encouragement needs to be tempered with some pedagogy and directional advice.

Finally, Wooten's approach would probably work great for jazz, folk, and rock music (where jamming is possible), where oral tradition is how the music is transmitted. But would this approach work for Western, classical music, with its written tradition? I'm not so sure. We learn oral languages naturally, by assimilation and trial and error, but do we learn written language by osmosis? I think the existence of many illiterate adults living in a literate world suggest that Wooten's approach would not work for classical music.

What are your thoughts about Wooten's video?

And how about that bass playing?

Vocab: jam


  1. Peter, I like your analysis... one of the reasons it is hard to compare language acquisition to learning to play music is that in language acquisition we start by having individuals with us paying attention to our "performance" many hours each day. Moms and dads, brothers and sisters and then friends... and this goes on 7 days a week for years. We get reinforcement and correction on an almost continuous basis. We are also fed sort of ability appropriate examples over and over. And we know that imitation is a significant aspect of language acquisition. Think about that model for music performance. I think a lot of us would be pretty good musicians and I suppose some kids grow up in that kind of environment but most of us do not. We are music impoverished :-) and pass the ages of maximum brain plasticity before we encounter music education, at that point often in an organized group, with a limited amount of personal attention, which is quite a different process.
    The other issue is that language is essential to our interaction so there is a really strong incentive to be able to use it. I'm pretty sure that the same "need" doesn't develop for a lot of music students, same as it doesn't develop for learning 2nd languages if they aren't used in one's daily life. ... just quick thoughts... really interesting subject

  2. We can debate details of how to improve music introduction and education. At its core, I feel Wooten is saying that we can do better than the dreaded, regimented piano lesson with its accompanying guilt (for not practicing) and shame (of making mistakes).

    In a Q&A at the end of a concert I attended, a concerned audience member asked what can be done to prevent the continued decline of music appreciation among people generally and young people in particular. The musician declined to accept the presupposition, "I'm an Indian," he said, "sharing Iranian folk music to a sold-out audience in Hong Kong. When I was young, I could have never dreamed of this. There have never been more people around the world more able to listen and perform than right now."

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think it's important to keep in mind that when many people say "decline of musical appreciation" they mean either 1. People aren't listening to the "great works" of classical music or whatever their personal canon is, or 2. Music industry sales are declining because people aren't paying for music. I agree with the performer that more people are listening to music today, and the internet certainly makes it possible to connect people who like similar things, creating groups around music, and to help people experience new music. I wish I knew if people were being more critical about what they listen to, but there's not much data about that in any time period.

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