Blog

We’re Having a Music Theory Issue in This House

The issue is Ben Shapiro’s definition of music.

I was watching Adam Neely’s video, “Music Theory and White Supremacy” the other day. In his video, which I highly recommend watching, Adam shows a clip of Ben Shapiro making the argument that hip-hop music is not music, because “according to his father who went to music school”, music must contain three elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. Since rap music doesn’t contain melody (it doesn’t? Not ever?) then it doesn’t qualify as music.

His definition is just plain wrong.

While most of what we call “Western (Euro-American)” music contains all three elements of music, some doesn’t. And it’s not just rap.

Let’s take, for instance, the plainchant used by the early Catholic church. While we could argue that it does have melody, I would challenge any music school graduate to use their ear training to notate it. The melody doesn’t have a lot of movement, and the rhythm is just about indiscernible. As far as harmony is concerned, the earliest chant had none. But I’m going to guess that Ben Shapiro would still classify plainchant as “music.”

Technically, harmony is any two pitches sounding against each other. A mother singing a lullaby to put her baby to sleep is singing a melody. It may have rhythm, but does it have harmony? Is it, then, music? One could argue that melodies have implied harmonies. If that is true, what harmonies are implied? The fact is that a melody could be harmonized many different ways; thus, the harmony is not predetermined by the melody. Arnold Schoenberg even said that music students with a modicum of training in music theory (figured bass and part writing) would have difficulty effectively harmonizing someone else’s melody. (Theory of Harmony, p.14) If that is true, and I believe it is, melody does not dictate harmony, and a melody alone cannot count as two elements of music. So, I ask again: is a mother singing a lullaby alone to her baby making music? This is a rhetorical question – of course it is!

Speaking of Schoenberg, does his music have melody? This is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Some of it does have a distinguishable melody, but his later 12-tone music can be hard to follow, and it definitely does not have a tune one can take home in one’s back pocket. Does that make it not music? Of course not! We can argue about whether or not we like it. We can discuss whether or not it is beautiful. But there is no question that it is music.

The same goes for John Cage who opened the world’s ears to the sounds of the prepared piano. The prepared piano substitutes nicely for certain percussion. Cage’s Sonata No.5 for prepared piano sounds astonishingly similar to a gamelan ensemble; it is rhythmic-based, without a singable tune or identifiable harmony. Again, we can say whether or not we like it, but it is most definitely music.

There are many other classical composers who have not required their music to have all the elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm. But it’s not just Western classical composers whose work doesn’t fit Ben Shapiro’s ignorantly narrow definition of music.

Music from all over the world often lacks one or more of the three elements. Traditional Celtic music is often accompanied by only a drone. Does that qualify as real harmony? I already mentioned gamelan music (this example is Balinese, and as you will hear there are only tiny bits of singable melody.) It is fascinating music, but it is nothing like what most Westerners are used to hearing. Much of African music also is primarily rhythm-based. I have a recording of African women washing clothes in a river. While washing, they sing a melody (no discernible harmony) and turn the river into a percussion instrument by plunging buckets into it or slapping their hands on the surface of the water. The size of the buckets and the way they hit the water with their hands creates different tones and textures, making the water sound like multiple different instruments. Not only is it music, but it is beautiful demonstration of turning a mundane task into a joyous celebration of community. The examples abound from around the world.

So what about hip-hop and rap?

I just spent the last month as a juror judging music videos for a competition. Out of about one hundred ten entries, over 60% were hip-hop/rap. I am not a hip-hop and rap connoisseur, but I can tell you it is music. First of all, much of it does actually include melody. If someone doesn’t know this, they haven’t taken the time to listen sufficiently to make a fair judgment about the music. Second, unlike Ben Shapiro claims, rap is more than “rhythmic speech.” Spoken word, which in a sense could be called rhythmic speech, is a performance art with it’s own genre. Most hip-hop/rap is accompanied, and the accompaniment includes: harmony! The mix of beats, bass, sampling, and a wide variety of instrumental and textural options provides a lot of interest. As I argued above, the lack of one particular element of music does not disqualify it from being music.

Even if there is only one element, it is still music. It is difficult to have a discernible harmonic progression or melody without rhythm, but rhythm can often stand alone. Consider a marching band during a parade. As they walk by when the wind instrumentalists are resting from playing, the drum corp is still playing in time. The watching audience might even be moved to boogie a little while they go by. Just drums! Just rhythm! Does Ben Shapiro think that they are not playing legitimate music?

It is unfortunate that Ben Shapiro’s music theorist father who went to music school did not teach him that music does not need to have all three elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm to qualify as real music. This kind of thinking allows a person to inaccurately and unfairly judge certain styles of music as inferior. As I said in my post, “Is Music Theory Racist?“, analysis of music is very limited to only a certain style of music in a certain place at a certain time. To hold all music to the same standards is, at best, ethnocentric and irresponsible. As a public figure, Ben Shapiro is accountable for the opinions he spreads about music, and as extension, other cultures as a whole. Ben Shapiro’s comments, whether he intended it or not, denigrates the music and culture of entire regions of Africa and Indonesia, as well as Aboriginal and Indigenous tribes, and there are likely other musics I am as of yet unaware. As a public figure, Ben Shapiro is spreading his own personal opinions of music, claiming that they are based on a universal standard, and leading his followers to agree. However, the very basis on which he is making his statements – his definition of music – is just plain wrong.

There are three elements of music. (Actually, I would argue that there are four, the fourth being form, but that discussion is for another post.) We can agree that three elements of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm. But music does not necessarily contain all three at all times. A wide variety of music exists. Sometimes it contains just one element; sometimes it uses a combination of two; sometimes music does contain all three. This is true of folk and classical musics, from around the world and in the Western tradition.

Next time you whistle a tune you made up or sing in the shower or beat a rhythm on your body, know that you are enjoying a tidbit of music. It may not be the world’s next masterpiece, but it is still music.

Where are the Dancing Elephants?

I have a love-hate relationship with Gustav Mahler.

I love dark Mahler. When Mahler’s music is in the depths of despair, I am right there with him, my eviscerated soul laid bare writhing in agony. There is no milk chocolate in Mahler’s world. That dark music is a gourmet flourless 80% cacao chocolate torte, so rich the flavor lasts for hours. But other times Mahler, as I like to put it, “goes Disney” – you know, the happiest place on earth. Sickeningly sweet. Like an overloaded ice cream sundae with caramel, hot fudge, peanut butter sauce and marshmallow, finished off with the obligatory whipped cream, walnuts, jimmies, and of course, cherry.

I don’t have a sweet tooth.

It’s the syrupy music of Mahler that disqualifies him from being my favorite composer, even though his somber, haunting music leaves me “deep into that darkness peering…wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” to quote Edgar Allan Poe, a fitting pairing.

But despite the fact that I cannot bear listening to Mahler’s “Disney” music, I think I understand what he was doing. First, if music isn’t emotional, what’s the point? Second, the music must be what it is. Mahler doesn’t hold back. He allows the music and the emotion to achieve maximum fullness. It is incredibly intense, like the colors in a Fauvist painting. This is what I admire most about Mahler’s work, and I aim to emulate the courage to write passionate music regardless of the potential embarrassment of being too much.

A few months ago, I was commissioned to write a Christmas piece for the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. As I finished it up over the weekend, I asked my husband to listen to it. I was concerned about it being “corny.” While my husband is not a composer, he is a musician with good taste and I implicitly trust his judgment. He listened, turned to me and said, “No, it’s not corny. But…it seems like something’s missing. Your ending needs more.” As I asked for more details, he sighed and replied, “I’m afraid you’re going to have go Mahler on this one.” I knew what he meant: Disney Mahler.

I revised the ending by giving the sopranos some higher notes and making the harmony more complex, then brought it back to him for another listen. In his best Edna Mole imitation, he said, “No, no, no, no, no! Dahlin’, where’s the BIG? Where are the dancing elephants?” Mahlering this up really meant working hard to pull out all the stops. Suddenly, I understood why only a touch of happiness wasn’t enough. There was still something missing, stifling the impact. I had to figure out what it was.

It finally came to me – I was missing percussion. I didn’t have the option to add timpani to the piece, but I had a piano which, in one light, is a percussion instrument. I made the left hand fill in for timpani and the right hand fill in for chimes. I gave the trumpet part more flourish and higher notes. Finally, it was finished – as over-the-top as it could be. I imagined Mahler coaching me, “That’s it. You’ve got to be all in. Go big, or go home.” I must have done it right because the director loved the piece and called it “magnificent.”

Am I falling in love with Disney Mahler?

The Ugly Chicken Stage

My husband popped his head into my music room to let me know he was heading out. He took a look at me and asked, “how are things going?” I grimaced and said, “My piece is in the ugly chicken stage.” “Oh,” he replied, sympathetically, “You look like your piece is in the ugly chicken stage – face pained, hair a mess.”

The “ugly chicken stage” is my term of endearment for the part of the process of composing when I get gripped with anxiety about how the piece will turn out. I start to hate the piece, think it is awful, and want to throw it out and start over complely. I’ve been composing long enough to know that I hit this stage every single time I write a piece of music, and it usually starts when the piece is about two-thirds done, when it starts to become recognizable and take shape. Thankfully, I have learned that this is only a stage and I just need to relax (as best I can). I can’t quit, but I also can’t rush the process. I must wait for the piece to finish forming. It’s not done yet, so it is unfair to judge it.

Why call it the “ugly chicken stage”?

We’ve raised chickens for about the last ten years. A piece of music grows a bit like a chicken does. When it is still in the egg, in the embryonic stage, you don’t know exactly what type of chicken will come out. The idea is barely there, a wisp of something that needs to incubate and until it is ready to hatch. At “chick stage”, the piece is a wonderful new idea, like a new chick. Chicks are cute puffballs. They are fun to hold and pet. When my piece is at “chick stage”, it is time to play around. What can I do with this idea? I like to talk about how I will flesh out my ideas in the form, orchestration, and musical devices.

Then comes the “ugly chicken stage.” In a chicken’s life, this takes place between two named stages of growth: chick and pullet. A chick is the well-known puff ball. A pullet is a young chicken that has all its feathers. The time between, the “ugly stage” is when the chicken starts losing its down and growing in real feathers. The problem is, they don’t come in all at once, and neither do they come in any pattern. Ugly chickens have feathers sticking out in random patches all over their heads and bodies; some patches are bare. There are not yet enough feathers to cover over the tendon-like strands that attach them to the body. I promise you, these chickens are ugly and not enjoyable to look at. At this point, it is still dangerous for them to be exposed to cold because they don’t have enough feathers to keep warm. Someone who doesn’t know chickens might look at them in this stage and wonder if they are healthy, but the only thing they need is more time.

My growing piece in the process of getting fleshed out is an “ugly chicken.” It’s no longer a cute idea to play with. It has become work. During the course of work, some things are turning out great. Other parts are not so great. I don’t work linearly, so some sections of the piece are complete, while others are barely a skeleton. It’s hard to follow while listening back to anything I’ve inputted into the computer because I have to switch back and forth between listening with my ears and filling in the missing bits with my imagination. At this point, it should not be exposed to the elements of harsh scrutiny. I have to take a breath and remind myself that this ugly stage is not an indicator of a problem inherent to my piece. I must allow my piece more time to continue to fill out.

Calling my pieces at this stage “ugly chickens” is a term of endearment because I know that all the ugly chickens I’ve raised have grown into handsome hens and roosters. When all their feathers are fully out, they are glossy and shine with iridescent colors. I might laugh at the ugly chickens when they are young, but when they are fully mature I will gather eggs and perhaps raise new chicks. So, I just need to wait it out.

So, here are the stages of my composition, in terms of chickens. Unlike chickens, there is no standard amount of time a piece may exist in any stage.

  • Egg: new idea floating in my head that has not yet begun to “hatch” into a piece.
  • Chick: new piece, fun to play around with and talk about
  • Ugly chicken: the piece has begun to take shape, but it is random and hard to follow. I wonder if the idea I had is any good after all
  • Pullet: the piece is finished, but not polished
  • Mature chicken: the piece is ready for performance
  • The hens lay eggs: the piece gets performed

Sonata is a Trigger Word

I’ve been thinking about making a sign to hang up in my music room that says, “I hereby declare I am free to never write a sonata.”

If you’re a musician, you know what a sonata is, and you know why the term looms large. Sonatas surround us, especially pianists. When I was 13, I quit studying classical piano in part because I just could not take another sonata! Too many sonatas! When I got to college to study music, I studied sonatas in music history and in my form and analysis class. I analyzed sonatas until they were no longer a piece of music, but a pile of motives, chords, and Roman numerals.

Sonatas are so important that a form is named after them: Sonata form, or Sonata-Allegro form if you want to get fancy. Why is this form named Sonata Form? Because it’s used in sonatas of course! It is a self-defining definition.

Sonatas are for solo instruments, unless the instrument is not piano. Then sonatas are played by a “solo” instrument with piano accompaniment. Except modern sonatas may leave out the piano. Orchestras can also play sonatas. Well, actually they can play sonata FORM, but only in symphonies, which are basically an orchestral version of a sonata.

Let me see if I can clarify this. Sonata form contains two themes: an A theme and a B theme. Except when they don’t. The “A” theme is in the tonic key, while the “B” theme is in the dominant key of the A theme. Except when it isn’t. There might be some connective musical material between the themes, or there might not be. Anyway, the development section comes next and uses material from the A and B themes and mixes it up. But sometimes new material is brought in. Then there’s a “recapitulation” section when the “A” theme returns in the original key and the “B” theme continues on in the same key, different from the first time around when it was in the dominant. That is what normally happens, but not always. The piece may or may not have an introduction and a coda. A full sonata is a four-movement piece with a first movement that uses sonata form, but sometimes there are only three, or even just two, movements. Sometimes the last movement also uses sonata form. A symphony using “sonata form” might have three, or four, or six movements. However many the composer wants! Got it?

In my form and analysis class, I had to write a long paper analyzing the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata: the themes, the keys he used, all that connective material, how he played with the themes in the development section, and most of all what made his sonata “different.” Different from what? A textbook example of a sonata does not exist in real life. I have never played nor listened to a sonata that checked all the boxes as they “should” be, according to what is taught in class about sonata form. I’ve seen a few sonatinas (“little sonatas” usually written for students) that follow the form in textbook-like fashion, but in real sonatas (or should I say pieces that use sonata form), every composer takes a great deal of poetic license.

The poetic license is so loose that some “sonatas” from the 20th Century are simply multi-movement pieces for solo instruments, with or without piano accompaniment, that do not reference sonata form at all. Why even bother using the term in the title? Is a symphony that doesn’t follow the form of a sonata still a symphony?

It’d be easier if the terms were simplified. For example: A sonata is a multi-movement piece for a solo instrument or a solo instrument with piano accompaniment which may or may not use sonata form but is not a suite. A symphony is a multi-movement piece for orchestra that may or may not use sonata form but is not a suite. But now we have to define suite. Are you confused yet?

That’s not how it’s taught. We’re taught that sonatas use sonata form, and sonata form is neatly defined. In my opinion, that cramps creativity.

I don’t know how others feel, but when I think of “sonata”, I am filled with panic. Panic about learning, practicing and eventually performing an enormous solo piano piece. Panic about trying to explain a sonata. Panic about the ghosts of all the great piano composers from the past looking over my shoulder while I compose a sonata. Panic about whether or not my piece is actually a “sonata.” Panic does not help creative juices flow!

So I will never write a “sonata.” If I write a multi-movement piece for a solo instrument, it will not contain “sonata” in the name, regardless of whether or not I use some, none, or all of the elements of sonata form. If I write a multi-movement piece for orchestra, I will not call it a symphony. I will give it whatever title I feel like.

While I’m at it, I think I might make another sign to go with the first: “Fugettabout Fugues”.

Laying Dreams to Rest

I climbed Mt. Liberty in the White Mountains National Forest this past week. It was the first 4,000 ft mountain there I had climbed. It will likely be my last.

I’ve always been an outdoorsy person, from the time I was a little girl. In fact, when I was seven I wanted to quit piano because practicing took away from my time to play outside. (I am thankful my Mom didn’t let me quit.) I was fascinated, and still am, by the natural world. It has always been a source of wonder and enjoyment.

Weirdly, aside from canoeing with my Dad, I really didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family. I remember going hiking only three times as a kid, nature walks aside. When I was six or so, a group from my church hiked in the Blue Hills south of Boston, MA. I was fifteen the first time I hiked in the mountains of New Hampshire, when we were visiting friends. When I was a senior in high school, I took a friend along a challenging trail near where we lived in Rhode Island and found the way back to the car by intuition.

My junior high youth group did a one-overnight camping trip in our local state park. The next time I camped was a few months after I got married, when a college friend and I went up to New Hampshire for a weekend and set up camp off-trail near the base of Mt. Moosilauke. We attempted to hike up the Beaver River Trail that weekend but didn’t make it to the summit. The beauty of the river and the challenge of the hike caused my jaw to drop, and ever since I have wanted to go back and try it again after more practice. Now I don’t think it will ever happen.

My husband was born-and-raised a city boy, but I convinced him to try outdoor activities. He fell in love with it as well, and all our camping and hiking experience is what we have gained as adults, including some bloopers. One time, I took my daughter up Mt. Monadnock; the clear day turned to rain as soon as we got to the summit. It is very rocky there, and concerned about my balance, I decided to slide down some rock ledges on my behind, tearing a hole through both my hiking pants and my underwear. I was truly em-bare-assed. Thankfully I had a jacket to provide some cover! A friend of mine then said he learned lessons like that when he was a kid. That’s great – if one grows up in a family that provides those opportunities. But I’ve had to learn, make mistakes, and collect proper gear as an adult.

Those opportunities have been slow to come. For five years, my husband was in seminary in Louisville, KY. While we did hike in the area and included short trips to locales a few hours away, such as the Shawnee Hills in southern Illinois and Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky, our trips back home to visit family were short and didn’t include enough time to get up to the mountains.

Then, in the spring of 2011 while walking our dog, my back got twisted. I was in excruciating pain 24/7 for six months because the doctor believed that physical therapy would help the “bulging disc” return to place. I was treated like I was seeking drugs until finally in October, after taking the maximum amount of Ibuprofen, Prednisone, Gabapentin, and Vicodin I could one morning, I ended up in the ER with pain so intense I could not cope. After giving me yet more pain medicine, the nurses watched as my leg buckled under me as soon as I felt better enough to get up to use the restroom. No, I wasn’t faking; surgery was scheduled for two days later. The surgeon went in thinking she was taking care of a bulging disc, but discovered that she was actually going to have to cut out bone and also remove a cyst that had been hidden in the MRI. She later admitted she was nervous as she saw my sciatic nerve squashed flat. Thankfully, it began to reinflate immediately as soon as the pressure was relieved.

I am so thankful to God that I no longer have pain. In fact, on a normal day I have less pain now than when I was a teenager. (I used to think all that pain was normal.) However, that doesn’t mean all is well. In the course of treatment, my physical therapist discovered that I have a loose sacroiliac joint. She warned me to stay away from certain activities that would aggravate the problem, which includes basically anything that causes one side of my pelvis to be higher than the other. Unfortunately, even walking down the stairs can cause my joint to go out, if one foot hits the floor too hard.

I wasn’t sure how I would do hiking. Having been laid up for so long, then having my mobility restored and being pain-free like never before really motivated me to be proactive about pursuing more hiking. For the most part, I was fine. Hiking is a comparatively slow activity compared to running, so I could carefully consider how to place my feet. I was doing great, and every time we went hiking we progressively tried something more difficult.

Mt. Liberty did me in.

I didn’t have a problem with the ascent. The only break my husband and I had to take on the way up was to eat lunch because we just couldn’t wait to reach the top before addressing our dropping blood sugar. The problem was not the steepness alone; we had hiked a steeper trail in Grand Teton National Park. The problem was the combination of steepness and rocks, particularly on the way down. Yes, the rocks form a sort of “staircase.” Yes, there is a lot of sure footing. But it is extremely uneven, and that unevenness is what my loose SI joint can’t handle.

When my SI joint goes out,the left side of my pelvis drops several inches lower than the right, twisting my lower back and putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. It causes a lot of pain, but not just pain. It also reduces movement and lowers response time. It becomes harder to lift my leg, so it’s easier to trip. It’s harder to twist my leg to maneuver around obstacles. And I definitely cannot go fast. It took me as long, or longer, to go down the mountain than to go up. My physical therapist had showed my husband and I how to push my SI joint back into place when it goes out, but there’s no flat spot on the trail for me to lay down on the ground to do that. Even if I had borrowed a tent platform for a couple of minutes at the campground, my SI joint probably would have been out again fifty feet down the trail. At points, I was very nervous. What would have happened if my sciatic nerve got so irritated that my leg wouldn’t hold me up any longer? The fear of going back to that place is always there.

So, Mt. Liberty showed me my limits. In an ironic twist, Mt. Liberty liberated me from a daydream of ever trekking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking at all is completely out. The question remains what day hiking I can manage. Even though exercises can help stabilize the SI joint, I can’t risk getting stuck on a mountain somewhere because my legs quit working. It’s hard to judge what a trail is really like based on a short description in a book. I know I won’t be able to hike “difficult” trails in the White Mountains, but what about places I have not yet been? How will I be able to know what I can do? “Rocky and steep” is such a subjective description.

I don’t care that I can’t run; I’ve never been a runner. I don’t care that roller skating bothers my hips; roller skating was out of style years ago. I can’t go bowling. I did that once months after my back surgery and ended up in pain for three days. But it isn’t a major loss in my life to not do something I only did once in a great while. Hiking is a different story. It is an activity I have enjoyed and intentionally pursued. It is tied up with the types of vacations my family has taken for the last twenty years: we camp and we hike.

Driving through Franconia Notch on the way home, I sadly looked up and knew my one brief taste of the ridge was the only one I would ever get. I won’t get to any other ridges. I will probably never hike up Mt. Washington. A congenital skeletal condition that puts me at risk for getting seriously injured makes it unwise to make any more attempts at difficult trails. I have to be glad I got off Mt. Liberty without incident.

I usually write about music in my blog posts, and while this post is mainly about hiking, it does tie into advice I have given my kids. Success in music is not guaranteed. A person can be the most talented, skilled, and devoted musician and still have their career derailed by things outside their control. An illness or an injury can end the pursuit of a musical career, like it did for my husband whose desire to pursue classical guitar performance was thwarted by severe tendonitis in his arms that, to this day, is aggravated by overuse. Perhaps the need to care for a loved one will cause musical dreams to die. A lack of the kinds of success one desires is not always (often?) a reflection of how hard one works. I’ve heard and read more times than I can count that the main thing that separates a successful artist from an unsuccessful one is stick-to-it-ive-ness. “The one who keeps going is the one who makes it.” Well, sometimes you can’t keep going, and that’s not a character flaw. In those cases, one must learn to satisfy one’s love for one’s art in ways that are different than one originally intended, the same way I need to learn to enjoy hiking only on easy and moderately difficult trails. No amount of exercise, preparation, stamina, perseverance, guts, or determination is going to make it safe for me to take a difficult trail that could get me stranded on a mountain or worse. Like many others who have had to put dreams to rest, I have to learn to not feel “less than” because I can’t do what others can do.

Whether it is personal or professional, laying dreams to rest is hard and depressing. If you have faced these kinds of disappointments, you have my sympathies. A lost dream does not make one a loser. I know well that enormous amounts of desire and effort don’t mean things will work out the way we hoped, and I know how much it hurts when our dreams don’t come true. It’s not the ones who try and succeed who have the most courage. It is those who try and “fail” and learn to live in a new reality amidst disappointments who I admire the most.

Is Music Theory Racist?

I was shocked earlier this week when music theory hit the news! It doesn’t happen every day that the world gets a small peek into a very obscure field. Apparently, a controversy erupted between music theorists Philip Ewell and Timothy Jackson over whether or not the theorist Heinrich Schenker’s personal racist views were inherent in his philosophy of musical analysis. (Schenker analysis is part of standard music theory study for college-level music students; among musicians this is definitely a hot topic. If you would like to read up on this controversy, you can find articles at these links, all of which offer different perspectives and details: Dallas Observer; Denton Record-Chronicle; NPR; National Review. If you look deep enough into an online search, you can also find the actual writings involved in this controversy, those of Philip Ewell and The Journal of Schenkarian Studies run by Timothy Jackson at the University of North Texas.)

I have not yet taken the time to read Philip Ewell’s writings, nor the recent issue (or any issue) of The Journal of Schenkarian Studies. I will likely get to it eventually because I am a nerd about these things.

But my post isn’t really about this particular controversy. Instead, I am writing about one of the questions that has been brought up by the controversy: Is music theory racist? In my opinion, the short answer is: No. Now for the long answer.

It is important to understand what music theory is and is not.

Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. That means, one can only analyze music that is already completed. Theoretical analysis is only an effort to describe how the music of a composer takes shape. Taken too far, as is often done in analysis class, it can suck the life out of a piece of art. Theorists then take analysis of music that was popular in a period of time and come up with a theory about “how music works.” Really, it should be “how music worked” – in that time, in that place. Different music theorists will come up with different processes of analysis and reasons as to why their analysis is better than another theorist’s, and they “argue” about it in the form of books and journals. Or, they might argue about the rightness or wrongness of a previous generation’s favorite theorist, as in the case I mentioned above.

Any particular theory should not then become a limiting factor in the creation of new music. It teaches what can be done and what has been done, but it should not dictate what must be done. Some composers may find the old styles to be a springboard for their own work; others reject the old styles completely. Arnold Schoenberg disdained music theorists and even said they couldn’t be real composers because of their ties to the past. (His own book, Theory of Harmony, was not an analysis of past music, but a justification for his own then-new music.)

Music theory is also limited; it is not universal. Music theory can only explain music that takes place in a certain time and in a certain place. As music evolves, new theories develop to explain what is happening in the new music (after it is new, of course.) Music from different parts of the world also use different music systems. Schenker’s musical analysis only pertains to European music. And even then, it only pertains to some European music. The folk and dance music of various European cultures indicate different approaches to music that the standard classical analysis simply skips over.

I understand why that happens. There’s only so much time to teach theory and analysis, so we stick to what is most common in much of the west – white, European music. And if we are teaching classical music, we are by definition avoiding folk music. We just need to make this clear.

The problem comes not in the theory, but in the teaching. There may only be time to teach analysis of classical, European-style music, but there’s a problem if it is presented as the only legitimate style of music. There’s a problem if the music is presented as the only music that was written during that time. It does not take but a minute to run through scales that are not major or minor and say, as I did to my high-school students, “we are focusing on major and minor scales in this class, but here are some other scales that exist.” As we went through part-writing, I made it clear that we were discussing “basic tonal harmony” and that newer music and non-European music doesn’t necessarily follow these rules. Pique the students’ interest. Let them know there is a world of music that exists beyond the one class. Perhaps they will be inspired to learn more on their own, or perhaps they will make the time to take a music class that does focus on something that is not white, European classical music. More and more music schools are including jazz programs and even ethnomusicology programs.

What if European classical music *is* presented as the only legitimate form of music? Is that racist? Hmmm…. Well, I don’t know if it is racist or not. I would say it is ethnocentric and highly irresponsible. I believe there’s a fine line between ethnocentrism and racism, sort of like the difference between manslaughter and murder – it is about intention. I can’t know a person’s intention. But whether ethnocentrism is fueled by ignorance or by outright racism, it is still irresponsible. At the college level, I believe music students should at least be made aware that other musical systems exist, even if there is not time during standard analysis class to address them in detail. Every music school theory department is certainly aware of the existence of other musics and systems, and to withhold that information from students would make me ask, “why aren’t you letting them know?”

Ideally, college-level music schools would offer more theory classes that go beyond European classical music. They waste so much time starting with the basics of music theory. Perhaps this deserves another post, but why do we not expect a certain basic level of theoretical competence from incoming students? Even at conservatories, prospective students can perform dazzling auditions, but seriously lack in music theory and ear training. I know that high school students who are gifted in music can learn Freshman college-level theory because I taught them. How about we expect incoming students to know how music works as well as they know how to play, so schools can get beyond the trap of European classical music?

No, I don’t think that music theory is inherently racist. To even think that it is is a misunderstanding of music theory. There is no one music, and no one music theory, so how can the entire subject be racist? Schenker may provide a solid analytical structure for much of classical European music, but there’s a lot more out there – a whole world of music to explore.

Check out my post, “We’re Having a Music Theory Issue in This House”.

A Song for Social Justice

Have you ever forgotten you wrote a piece? Obviously, this doesn’t apply to you if you don’t write music to begin with. But perhaps you’ve forgotten something else fairly significant that you did. Well, I have.

A couple of weeks ago, my mother said to me, “You know, given everything that is going on in the world these days, I think you should share that piece you did.” “What piece?” “You know, that one about the homeless girl.” Instantly, images of rehearsing with my husband and a few people from church entered my mind. I could not believe I had forgotten we had done that! And then the thoughts: How long ago was that? 2008? That was six computers ago! I think I have a copy of the CD somewhere, but my computer doesn’t have a CD drive. I think John’s external CD drive still works. You want me to do what? Put this up online? What was the NAME of it? And as usual, when I can’t figure out the word for something I start rotating through the alphabet to see if something triggers it. A, ab, ac, ad, ae, af, ag, ah, ai, aj, ak, al, am, an, ao, ap, aq, ar, as, at, au, av, aw, ax, ay, az. Nope. B, ba, bb, bc…. and so on until I get to S. Right! S… Say a Little Prayer, I think it was?

“You mean ‘Say a Little Prayer’?” “Yes, that’s the one. I think you should put it up on your website and all the things you do.” “Really?” “Yes, I think it would be meaningful right now.” “OK, I’ll see if I can find it.”

So, I did. The history behind the song goes like this:

Back in 2007, my family and I moved back to Rhode Island. My husband had just finished his required in-person classes in seminary and was looking for a church to pastor in New England. We moved in with my parents for what turned about to be about 6 months. In that time, he did find a church – just 15 minutes away – a tiny church in a tiny corner of southern Rhode Island that no one can find without the specific correct address. About 2 weeks after we moved back to RI, before he was hired by the church, I got a letter in the mail, addressed to me using my maiden name and my parents’ address, from someone I went to school with during my undergrad years. She was doing a project to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, creating a collective CD of song with themes addressing homelessness. Did I want to submit a song?

Of course I did! But, I didn’t have a song to submit. I quickly wrote one and put together a demo to meet the deadline for consideration. They liked the song, but I needed to make a better recording, which they gave me time to do.

In the meantime, we started at the church we are now at, and lo! Behold! This tiny church was amazingly and surprisingly gifted with a number of skilled musicians. I spoke to them and asked if they would like to partner with me in making this song and getting it onto the CD. They eagerly agreed.

I wrote the lyrics and the music and played the piano. Joining me in my ad-hoc band are: my husband, John, on guitar; Michelle Cole, on vocals; Everett Brown, on violin; Mary Audette, on flute. Believe it or not, Everett and Mary were also on the New England Christmastide albums which I had on cassette and wore out playing them so much in high school. And here they were, in this tiny church tucked in a tiny corner of southern Rhode Island no one can find without the specific proper address!

Putting this song together was one of those “God-incidences.” I am not one to believe in coincidence. There are just some things that taken too many twists in order for the right moment to happen, and this is one of them.

If I had still been living in Indiana, even if I had gotten word from my parents about what came in the mail, and even if I had written a song, I wouldn’t have had access to the musicians I needed to make it happen. Remember, I got this letter just a few weeks after we moved back to RI. I was almost still in Indiana.

If my husband had not yet found a church to pastor, or if we had ended up at a different church, there’s a good chance I would not have been able to make a good recording. There’s no guarantee a church would have musicians skilled and ready to do a project, and I wasn’t yet connected to a musical community in Rhode Island.

Back in 2002 when my husband was working on his own music, he bought a mixer and recording machine. We brought that back to RI with us. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t have had the technology or knowledge to do the recording ourselves, nor the money to hire a professional to do it.

The day we did the final recording, one of the band members had a kidney infection and didn’t know it. If the recording had been delayed, it wouldn’t have been finished in time for the deadline.

I’ve been asked if the song is autobiographical. No, it is not. I had a nice, financially comfortable, solidly middle-class upbringing. However, the lyrics about a 13yr-old homeless girl praying to God about her troubles, are based on bits of stories I have personally heard, along with my imagination.

If you would like a copy to download, there are two choices: You can get it by becoming a patron here. Or you can purchase a download here. Either way, in keeping with the original purpose of writing the song, $1 will be donated to my local chapter of Habitat for Humanity for each new patron who joins my Patreon community and each purchased download.

Twelve years later, I’m still happy with how it turned out. I hope you find it as meaningful as I did writing and recording it. Without further ado, here is “Say a Little Prayer.”

Become One With Your Instrument

Back when I was taking saxophone lessons in high school, I remember talking with my teacher about a problem I was having playing. I can’t remember what the issue was, but his advice included an explanation of the need to become “one” with my instrument. He told me I needed to know the instrument so well that it became an extension of myself. Whatever note I wanted to play, my fingers should go right there without question about where the note was. Whatever kind of sound I wanted to create, all the parts of my mouth should form the correct shape, and the instrument would respond immediately. I should know the instrument so well that it becomes part of my body, like another arm or leg. Of course, this takes practice. Practice does two things: it helps us learn the music, and it helps us learn the instrument.

I think about this advice almost every day, and have for years.

A while back, someone criticized me for not having a piece memorized and said I must not know it very well. (I have a lot of difficulty memorizing, but that’s for another post.) After feeling the sting for a bit, I realized, “I may not have that piece memorized, but I have the piano memorized.” In fact, when I am able to memorize a piece, I can play it with my eyes shut, even a piece by Bach, because I know the piano so well. The piano has become an extension of myself; I know the feel of all the keys and the distances between them.

I thought about this when my church got back to having in-person services and had to practice playing with a mask. That really interferes with some downward looking, and I could not see my hands at the keyboard the usual way. I had to rely much more on my physical familiarity with the piano while playing the hymns.

I think about this when I am teaching and making my students practice scales, chords, and arpeggios. I know they probably find it drudgery; I did when I was young. I do my best to explain how scales, chords, and arpeggios are beneficial, but it’s not really something you can fully understand until that day you come across them in a piece of music and your fingers fly across the keys in automation because you have practiced them thousands of times. It’s much easier to learn individual pieces when you’ve already mastered the building blocks.

I think about this in terms of composing, though it is only partly related to knowing the piano. It is even more about being attuned to my inner hearing, pitch and imagination, and be able to write that down. It is also being so familiar with technique that executing it can be done quickly. One time I was teaching on part-writing and going over an assignment with a student. It took him a couple of hours to do the assignment, and it took me five minutes to correct all his mistakes. I’ve done a lot of part-writing, so it has become automatic; it helps that I read it all the time playing hymns for church. I almost don’t have to think about it.

My family and I were discussing Bach yesterday and his incredible ability to improvise toccatas and fugues at the organ. That didn’t happen overnight. He wrote so much contrapuntal music that the understanding of how the notes interacted became intuitive and oozed out of him.

It’s all really a matter of practicing and drilling skills more than a stroke of genius. Inspiration does not guarantee those ideas will be well executed.

I thought about this the other day as I tried out my new-to-me keyboard accordion for the first time. I am not anywhere near close to “one” with the instrument, despite having some knowledge about how it works. I cognitively know where the notes are, and I know well the theory behind the organization of the left hand buttons, but before I can make use of that knowledge, I need to become intimately familiar with the feel of the instrument. My hands must know the location of each button – what my mind knows means nothing right now.

Time must be put in, there’s no way around it. If you want your music to ooze out, through your instrument, or through your composition, you must drill skills. Scales, chords, arpeggios, and compositional exercises are the musician’s version of “wax on, wax off.” Despite knowing well the benefits of all this drilling, I still find it’s always good to be reminded to keep at it.

(If you’d like to see a video of me trying out the accordion for the first time, click here.)

Getting My Learning On

I got official word this week from one of the choruses I accompany that we will not be having a fall season. This was not unexpected. I won’t be surprised if the other choruses make the same decision. I’ve been preparing for it – as best I can, anyway.

Summer is a slow time for me, as it is. While some musicians normally have summer festivals, I have nothing. My groups follow the school-year calendar, so I only have a trickle of private students during the summer months. Normally I focus on my garden. Last year, I music directed a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This year, taking a side job at a local community theater wasn’t an option.

Amazingly, however, though the virus has forced many musical events to be canceled or restricted to smaller groups, several composition workshops have gone online and opened up their programs to more attendees! I am exceedingly grateful for this.

The Young Women Composers Camp had to cancel all in-person activities but made a way for presenters to give online workshops. They opened registration to everyone – for FREE. Obviously, I am not a young woman composer, but I am still “young” in my career. I am still emerging, and I feel I can glean a lot from listening to what presenters have to say, so I’ve been taking time out on Mondays and Thursdays to tune into a Zoom meeting. I am curious; I am learning.

National Sawdust created a Digital Discovery Festival full of videos and podcasts of performances, interviews, and masterclasses with composers and performers of new music. Also FREE! I haven’t gotten to these yet – there are so many!

Later on this month and into August, I am “attending” the Lake George Composition Institute and another Composers Conference. The Lake George program was originally meant to be only for young composers. Now, they have expanded the online offerings, and composers of all ages can benefit. The Composers Conference is offering several workshops online which I am very excited about. For example, I will have the opportunity to hear from performers about writing for various instruments, which is very beneficial for someone like me who doesn’t have easy access to performers at a university.

Even though I am not young, I am still learning. I started composing later in life, but I still benefit from a lot of the same things as “young” composers do. It would be difficult for me to get to many of these programs in-person, besides having aged out of them. Being older also gives me grown-up bills, like college for my kids, which can preclude me from traveling to a week-long workshop. I am thankful that these groups have re-imagined their programs and opened them up to online presentations and a wider audience. I am thankful that all of them were either free or offered at a very reasonable price. An older emerging composer like me often falls through the gaps, but these groups found some cracks and filled them.

It turns out I’m working all summer, after all. I’m working on learning and improving my skills. I will be able to take what I learn this summer and keep on working at it throughout the fall. Some forced “time off” is more like “time redirected.”

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to also work on getting what I *do* know out there to others in internetland. I’ve started a Patreon community in which I will share behind-the-scenes insights into my compositional processes and decisions, interviews with other musicians I know, and lessons on music theory and form, etc. Patreon is a place where people can directly support artists. However, I want my Patreon supporters to feel that they are not just supporting my work, but that joining is a benefit to them. I want it to be a place where they can learn and enrich their own understanding of music.

A summer (and now fall) that is normally a down-time for me in regards to work has become an opportunity to be able to focus on things I would not have otherwise been able to do. On one hand, my income is diminished. On the other hand, I cannot predict how the work I am doing now may pay off down the road. Even if it doesn’t show up monetarily, I am investing in myself by getting my learning on.

(If you are interested in checking out my Patreon community, follow this link: https://www.patreon.com/heatherniemisavage)

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Last summer around this time I completed my first song cycle.

This song cycle was years in the making, first coming to my mind in 2014 when my composition teacher at the time suggested I write some songs for voice and string quartet. I decided to set love poems written by women and began scouring public domain poems on the internet, copying and pasting ones I liked into a document file. At that time, I wrote one song, wrote the melody for another, and sketched one or two others. But then I put it away.

In the fall of 2018 I decided I wanted to submit it to a song cycle competition which was for voice and piano. I reworked the first song for piano instead of string quartet, used the second melody to finish another song, and wrote four more. It was an 18-month long project. I finished the last song in June 2019 and gave it to a singer. We rehearsed and recorded in the fall, and I submitted the project to the competition in December 2019. (I didn’t win, but that is neither here nor there for this story.)

Last June, I began planning the first official concert of my own music. I originally wanted to premiere the song cycle on Valentine’s Day; they are love songs, after all, and Valentine’s Day was a Friday in 2020 – perfect! However, my husband convinced me to wait until summer when I wouldn’t have to risk canceling the concert due to snow. Plus, I also discovered that one of my closest friends who I only see every few years would be in the states then. She has an amazing voice and was willing to sing.

I chose pieces to fill out the concert program, gathered musicians I know to perform, found a venue, set a date for July, and was about to put down a deposit. Who would have thought that we would have no snow during February 2020 and something much worse than a snowstorm was heading our way? In March, Covid-19 hit and canceled everything.

As much as I have missed attending rehearsals and performing in concerts, having my own project and premiere put on hold indefinitely is a far greater disappointment.

A month or so ago I learned that New England Conservatory and Harvard University were closing their big auditoriums, Jordan Hall and Sanders Theater, respectively, to outside groups during the 2020/2021 school year. My first reaction was to ask, “What are all those groups going to do?” These halls are constantly being used, multiple times a day, just about every day of the year, by the school ensembles as well as outside ensembles that rent the spaces for performances. Performance spaces that can fit a sizeable group and a sizeable audience are hard to find. Performance spaces are difficult to get even for smaller ensembles. Many smaller community performance spaces, like churches and especially libraries, lack good pianos or have restrictions such as disallowing tickets to be sold.

I didn’t think that I’d face the same problem in my small town where concert venues are used relatively infrequently. When I learned that the governor of Rhode Island was going to begin allowing concert venues to have audiences equal to 66% of the capacity starting in July, I was hopeful. Maybe I could have this summer concert after all! I only have seven performers, including myself, and a maximum of four would perform at any one time, so social distancing wouldn’t be a problem. I never expected an enormous crowd, anyway. The audience could easily stay within the 66% of capacity limit, and I plan to live stream as well. So I reached out to the venue to ask if I could reserve a date. I expected to hear a “yes.” I figured an organization with a hall like that sitting empty all this time could use some money. I figured that musicians all over would be eager for some live music, and my little concert would be a baby step in that direction.

Instead, I learned that they are not renting the hall for the remainder of 2020 and possibly longer. The secretary said, “I am so sorry we cannot host your concert.” I appreciate her sentiment, but she has no idea.