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Philosophy and Art of Music Appreciation


Music, like any type of art, requires skill and knowledge for appreciation and comprehension. After all, art is not art unless it is appreciated and understood. In the grand scheme of things the question of the merits of 'art' comes down to a difference between art and craft: craft amounts to ordinary skill, while art unequivocally pertains to supreme skill. It takes a trained eye and experience to spot an exceptional skill in a craft.

People, however, are born with rudimentary senses for distinguishing ordinary from extraordinary. But for the most part these senses are developed in a person with years. What most people can do is considered ordinary and treated as craft, what few can do - is extraordinary and thus described as art.

As you can see, art is a relative term: in a village where everybody is poet poetry can not be considered art. But besides establishing relative scale for distinguishing art from craft it takes skill on the part of spectator to see extraordinary things in ordinary craft that comprise the essence of art. It's like looking at a piece of fabric: a lay person will see fibers and nothing else, but a tailor will see how tightly fibers are packed together, how uniform they are, and how durable and soft the fabric is. Thus only a tailor can appreciate the quality of the fabric and based on his personal experience conclude whether the piece of fabric is a mere craft or the true art characteristic of exceptional abilities of its creator. But again, the tailor’s personal knowledge and the standard expectation of ordinary skill determine whether his conclusion will be for art or for craft. On top of that, even a skilled tailor may not be able to recognize exceptional qualities of the fabric that are new to him. That is a place where the creator should step in and explain why his work is exceptional and should be treaded as art, by explaining unusual and extraordinary qualities that the fabric had acquired as a result of his work.

When the spectator learns to see the exceptional qualities advertised by the creator, the creator's work becomes art. However it may not stay art forever as some new qualities are easy to master and practice in public domain. Only qualities that are hard to achieve for general public will remain art for years to come.

Much of contemporary art was plagued by misunderstanding and misinterpretation. And it seems that the good share of the blame should fall on artists themselves for failing to explain to the public what exactly amounts to art in their work and precisely what they were trying to achieve. Understandably, in many cases artists create on impulse and are not sure themselves about what they were trying to achieve. But even in the event of a clueless artist a spectator can spot something that the creator missed or did unconsciously and appreciate the result. In other cases the spectator never deciphers the artist's intent, yet the artist clearly understands the exceptional qualities of his own work. This alone is enough to turn the craft into art as it is sufficient to have a single spectator-the artist himself-to appreciate the art.

In the same time traditional art does not require education of the audience because we encounter traditional art every day and the environment subconsciously teaches us comprehension of the qualities of the traditional art. Plus most of us have tried various forms of art at some point in our lives and felt how difficult it was to achieve the desired result. This first-hand experience enables us to naturally appreciate traditional art. Thus, if you work of art is untraditional, it is your duty to explain the audience the meaning of your art and teach the spectators to appreciate it.

The broader your knowledge of art is the easier it is to appreciate and comprehend art, because the more you know about the art the easier it is to spot exceptional qualities. Yet some people develop unique perception of some qualities of craft while remaining totally ignorant of others. Such misbalance immediately causes misunderstanding of a huge variety of art pieces where the lopsided spectator can not find usual qualities he or she is accustomed to. Misunderstood art is instantly labeled is garbage and condemned. Consider contemporary visual art: spectators trained in classical art will not find realism and traditional symbols they expect. Instead they see unusual geometrical shapes and splashes of color that they think they can produce themselves by randomly throwing paint on paper. Such thinking is equivalent to perception of a child: toddlers think they can draw when they run a marker across a blank sheet of paper, and play musical instruments by randomly making sounds or striking piano keys. But what in fact a child produces is noise, both visual and aural. Noise and music is the same in the child’s imagination, because a child can not make sense of what we consider music, thus he or she can not distinguish it from mere noise. Similarly when we can not comprehend visual art or music we mentally classify such art as 'noise', hence garbage and not art.

Fortunately, spectators can be trained to understand splashes of color on a contemporary abstract painting and learn the patterns they create and thus extract order from chaos. Once this barrier is overcome the spectator will begin to understand the new qualities of the art he or she did not see before and consequently appreciate and comprehend the work of art.

However, comprehension and appreciation along does not automatically makes us like a particular form of art or a particular art piece. This is where spectator's personal qualities come in. Various aspects of art touch us differently, as we prefer certain emotions over others. Therefore, appreciating art does not make us like it because we may not enjoy the effect, which this understanding is causing in our minds: there are scared strings in everyone’s soul that we do not want to pull, and there are buttons that when pushed make us happy. Hence, even if you teach people to understand your art there is no guarantee that they will like it, accept it and value it more than a mere curiosity. What most people like - are ground level emotions of happiness, peace, hope and relaxation. These are given us by nature, yet everyone feels differently. Hence similar visual and aural input tends to cause different emotions and feelings in people's hearts...

Returning to music, most of us grew with classical music in our blood simply because classical music is centered on melody. We learn to appreciate the melody they day our mother sings us a lullaby, the moment we here a nightingale. Plus, of course, most of us can sing, sing the very melody that we here in classical music.

Qualities of music that we consider intuitive (such as melody) are treated differently across the world. Cultural and historical background of civilization is responsible for developing universally accepted (within the boundaries of the civilization) intuitive qualities of music. It happened so that in Europe tonal instruments-strings and woodwinds-dominated over percussion. Thus the predominant way of playing music was by working melody on a musical instrument capable of producing sounds of various pitch. Tonal instruments and artists who played them have existed in Europe for thousands of years: even in Greek mythology you will find flute playing Pan and glorious Apollo-the unquestionable master of Lira. For that matter classical European music is built around melody and most European intuitively consider melody the most important quality of the music.

In Africa, on the other hand, percussion dominates over melody as drums and tam-tams are almost exclusively used for all occasions that include everyday ceremonies and holiday rituals. Not surprisingly people of African origin prefer rhythm to melody because this is what their ancestors used to do for centuries.

Modern music takes yet another turn. The introduction of synthesizers, sequencers and samplers profoundly changed our perspective on qualities of music and on the process of producing music. Neither pianists, nor cellists-DJs are modern musicians. There musical instruments are turn tables and sequencers, and the art of playing this instruments takes no less effort nor practice then playing a violin (if you disagree - read this article again).

The inherent character of music produced by DJs and electronic musicians is much different from classical music due to the nature of modern musical instruments-sequencers, synthesizers, computers and turn tables. As guitar lends oneself for playing chords, drum for playing beats, electronic gear strongly gravitates towards playing loops. This is its nature. The loop is the easiest and the most natural sound that you can extract from it. For this reason most of modern electronic music is loop based.

Does this make modern electronic music repetitive and bad? Certainly not! Good music is always characterized by variety: listener must constantly stay interested and captivated by ever changing sound. Yet the sound must not change too much to where we will not be able to notice patterns.

OK, if modern electronic music is all loop-based, how do you achieve variety? Quite simply - by layering multiple loops and by substituting or altering loops as the song plays. Layering, altering and sequencing of loops and sounds makes the essence of modern electronic music, and makes it interesting. If you take layering, altering and sequencing away all you get is the same sound played over and over again. Thus the art of DJs and contemporary electronic composers amounts to the ability of creating, layering, altering, sequencing and otherwise processing loops into music.

However, listeners who prefer classical music often can not comprehend modern electronic music for they search for melody and often 'lock' onto a lead sound in one of the loops and totally miss out on all the percussive and synthetic variations that occur in other lines. Hence all that classical music fans here is the same sequence-'hook'- played over and over again, an extremely short and repetitive melody. What you need to explain to such fans is that they have to make a few steps back and look at the contemporary electronic music from another angle and listen to variations in other lines, especially mid-range synth and miscellaneous percussion patterns where most of the variation occurs. Some modern electronic tracks are incredibly complex with over twenty percussion and synth patterns playing in the same time! Yet the 'main' loop sound-the one interpreted by classical music fans as melody-may stay the same, same as bass lines and the main driving beat. 

It is interesting to note that in the closest electronic relative of classical music-new age music-melody typically evolves by the laws of classical music yet percussion stays the same, because it is frequently regarded as unimportant by classical/new age music composers. The situation if quite different in most dance and trance tracks: the main 'hook' sequence stays the same, or few sequences are interlaid and cross-faded, yet most variations happen in percussion and second voice synthesizer lines. If you are looking for a rational explanation for this shift take a look at what modern electronic music is for: mostly dancing. When you dance you can not focus on melody because you are busy moving your hand and feet. All you need is a strong rhythm to stay synchronized, occupied and generally moved. Hence focus on percussion in dance tracks is a natural answer to the demands of the audience and music market in general. In the same time, when we drive a car or come back home from dancing we prefer listening to something more melodic: when resting we do not want moving beats, instead we want something softer and soothing, perhaps even something we can sing along (like pop music). Here is where the melody comes back into action. Synth beats can no longer be in the foreground while we 'chill' (i.e. rest after an exuberant day activity) tonal sequences have to fill in the acoustic space. Although melody may not necessarily return to foreground yielding to ambient soundscapes or, once again, variations along second-voice synthesizer lines, background sound pads and soft sound effects. 

I do not want to advocate one way of making music or another. Much of the way music is produced has to do with fashion-what we like at the moment-and technology-what we can produce with reasonable effort. Both fashion and technology shape the soundscapes we here on radio, music halls and night clubs. 

Every type of music has its purpose and its audience, and there always will be 'bad' and 'good' music when judged by its own merits or demerits. If you feel that your music is criticized too much it probably means that you are advertising it to the wrong audience, which expects different qualities from your creations. You can go two ways about the problem: change the audience or add the expected by the audience qualities to your music. Introvert self-focused composers typically choose the first path if they dislike qualities requested by the first audience, or even consider them demerits. Extrovert composers and commercial producers typically choose the second path simply because the gain the desired result-pleasure of fan praises, positive feedback, and, well, money, when they simply give there audience what it wants. 

However, if you are not sure what the audience wants - take what's popular already and build on that foundation. Chances are that radically different yet very inventive pieces will not receive immediate recognition and wild acceptance. In fashion and in music each step forward must be incremental. You may as well capture your audience by giving it what it is used too and during the course of your musical career drive your loyal followers to new horizons one step (or should I say one song?) at a time. Some will convert into your new religion; some will drop out dissatisfied with the direction he/she is going. If you do not know where your road leads (i.e. 99.9% of all cases), simply create for your audience, the notion of that your music is appreciated and requested for many people makes the only reason to create and often live. If your art is locked in a basement it makes little sense on devoting your life to it, unless you hope to publish all of it one day or at least be accidentally discovered after death. You will be by far happier sharing you art with all of us, looking for the audience that will accept you the way you are. Even a single person-yourself, your spouse or a friend-appreciating your work is enough to give purpose and meaning to your art. Love your art, treasure it, and share it with people. For only when you interact you exist and will keep existing past the decay and death of your physical body through your creations that will continue interacting with people's minds until the end of days. Truly, art in all its incarnations is the only way to immortality.

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