[Overthunk is a new series where OTI writers give short, unstructured thoughts about a piece of pop culture. They’re not meant to be as deep as a typical article. Use them as a springboard for further discussion in the comments below]
Writing about music is really frustrating. And really hard to do.
You’ll notice that we don’t do it very often around these parts. We have a whole series called “Musical Talmud,” true, but that’s devoted to writing about lyrics. Which is easy to do, because lyrics are words, and writing words about words is no great challenge. (Or at least no greater a challenge than any other kind of writing.) Music on the other hand, is elusive.
One could argue that this is not a bug but a feature: that music’s elusive, trans-linguistic quality is the whole point of music. This was a very popular way of looking at it in the 19th century. Heinrich Heine thought so: “Where words leave off, music begins.” So did Walter Pater: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For [in other kinds of art] it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form…” So did Arthur Schopenhauer: “… music is also wholly independent of the appearing world, simply ignoring it, so that it could in a sense still exist even if there were no world at all, something that cannot be said of the other arts.” I could go on, but it would get pretty boring pretty fast for most of you, if it hasn’t already. Suffice it to say that this line of thought was widespread, and that it did not die out in the 19th century. It’s still very much alive. (In terms of aesthetics, politics, and so much else, our I sometimes think modern society is just the 19th century’s rueful hangover.)
There’s something attractive about this idea, if you’re a big music fan. After all, why not have your favored art form be the artiest one of all? Why not imbue it with an almost mystical significance, and proclaim beyond description? Well, one reason not to do that is that if you care a lot about music you’re probably going to want to talk about it to someone at some point. And then you’re going to have to find some way to do that without sounding like an idiot.
There are basically three ways of approaching the problem, as far as I can tell. If this was a full post, I’d link to copious examples of each. But since it’s just part of my ongoing project to change my writing habits, I’ll just offer a general description and leave the examples as an exercise for the reader. (Lazy, I know, right?)
1) One response to the difficulty of describing music is to come up with a technical vocabulary for it. This can range from the very basic — Ti is not just a drink with jam and bread, but also the note that brings us back to Do — to the very complex, and as long as the person you are talking to has had the same kind of training that you have, it’s possible to describe music in great detail. But although these technical vocabularies, which are essentially extensions to language, have carved out quite a territory for themselves within music, they don’t quite get around the problem of music’s supposed ineffability. No matter how detailed your technical vocabulary gets, it’s never going to capture everything that made the music meaningful – because after all, the meaning is partially a function of the listener’s psychological makeup, musical training, and personal experience – and one could always claim, as many have, that the important part of music is the part that hasn’t been captured by language. Whatever that might be. In any case, you don’t come across this kind of thing very much outside of academia, because mainstream music writers can’t assume that their audience has had any kind of formal or informal training. (Adding to the problem is the fact that the symbolic vocabularies that currently exist are very ill-suited to describing most modern popular music – but that’s another issue for another post.)
2) A second approach is to try to make your record review read like a prose poem. The thought process here seems to be something like, “Well, the music moves me on a level I can’t explain, so rather than try to explain it I’ll try to come up with something that will move my readers on that same level.” These are fun to read, often wonderfully fun. But they utterly fail at describing the music. You can’t get a sense from one of these reviews of what the listening experience is like, other than that it apparently excited the critic enough that he/she felt the need to wax poetic. (Okay, one example: if you track down any of Lester Bangs’ writing about rock music, it all pretty much reads like this. And however well it captures the sensation of being inside Lester Bangs’ skull in the mid 1970s, it does not actually do a good job of capturing the musical sounds that it is notionally supposed to describe.)
3) The third, and maybe best way of talking about music is, is to compare it to other music. I sometimes think of this as the elevator-pitch approach: a given band is like the Beatles meets Kraftwerk, or Jay-Z meets Jah Rule, or whatever combination seem appropriate. This works reasonably well in practical terms. But once again it assumes extensive knowledge on your audience’s part, and what’s worse it only displaces the problem, Saying someone sounds like the Beatles is only meaningful if you have some kind of idea of what the Beatles sounded like. This kind of writing about music is turtles all the way down.
The trick, then, is figuring out a way to talk about music that doesn’t require extensive formal training, that accurately describes a given piece of music to someone who has never heard it, and that really does translate the musical ideas into words rather than trying to find a way to discuss them in terms of other music. And this is not a question I really have an answer for – it’s something I continue to struggle with, and probably will continue to struggle with. To an extent, all I want to do here is lay out the problem, so that I can offer some faltering attempts at a solution in a later post. Suggestions, of course, are always welcome.