On the Listening Experience of a Musician

Today I would like to discuss the way our minds and body accommodate music and ingest/digest the vast ingredients of a musical experience. Yes, we do ‘eat’ or ‘drink’ music. Music is a dimension of abstractions (ideas, concepts, colours, rhythms) that flow into our minds and invoke endless symbolisms in a series of seconds. It also moves our body particles and evokes emotions. What is polemical about all this is the question of whether this is better sensed by those who have more musical experience, knowledge and skills. My purpose is not to try to find an objective answer to this, but merely to investigate the question. 

We can indeed say that a baby can enjoy Mozart as much as an adult can. But that’s not always the case. A baby perhaps can have a few similar emotions and a sense of rhythm, but lacks the developed and experienced brain that transcribes musical ‘data’; imprints of timbre, technique, and harmony, along with the symbolism of lyrics, for instance.

So what to say about a musician? Is a musician more capable of appreciation towards music? Perhaps, appreciation is not a fair word. Many music lovers are not musicians and enjoy listening to music all day long, or collecting albums, etc. Dancers might not be musicians, but will certainly understand rhythms and appreciate music alike. However, we could rephrase this: Is a musician more susceptible to a deeper musical experience? Now, this case of musical ‘arrogance’ deserves to be scientifically scrutinised. 

Scales, arpeggios, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, and instrumental techniques, alongside many other musical elements, flow through a musician’s mind. A professional violinist can tell a smooth, fluent or experienced performance from a more common one. This professional will be able to tell because of his/her understanding of all musical nuances that are part of internal knowledge and vocabulary, just as a watchmaker can tell a real watch from a fake watch, a sommelier can distinguish a fine wine from an average one and a skilled linguist can differentiate between regional dialects and accents with ease. What could we say, then, about a musical critic who has no musical skills?

Of course, music, at the top of its hierarchy, involves more than sharps and flats, and some critics know how to appreciate and point out other factors that music involves. There is context (social, cultural, anthropological), in addition to other recording and performance factors. One can be an expert in different areas of music. But if art is to be judged (which occasionally happens), an amateur is more likely to miss fundamental details–I will not get into taste here, if you want to talk about taste I suggest you should read David Hume, not Ian Costabile’s blog.

(Meanwhile, I recommended to a friend John Patitucci’s first album, a masterpiece recorded with Chick Corea. He told me it sounded like ‘background music’! What does that even mean? I could end the discussion here, but I persist…).

Judgment is not in question though. The question here is phenomenological. How more susceptible to a deeper experience are professional musicians? What goes in the ear of someone who appreciates as much tonal as atonal music? Who has progressed through the audacities of baroque, jazz, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Nancarrow, and the most experimental works in the history of music (I’m talking Scelsi’s Konx-om-pax level). Music that is not music as music is known by most inhabitants of this planet. Music that is music for musicians, some musicians, those who enjoy studying music for understanding, for exploration, and to see how far we can manipulate sounds over time (or even without time at all, as I’ve explored before).

But music doesn’t have to be at this level of complexity to evoke a deeper experience of musicians. Popular music can do the same when it’s well-elaborated. Back in the early 2000s, I attended a university module called ‘Music Appreciation’. I remember an example that our teacher, Dr Sidney Molina, gave us of an album recorded by Sting called Mercury Falling. We were all amazed by how much ‘musical’ food that album was carrying. Dr Molina showed us the unusual and exciting swing of a 9/8 time signature (in a 5/8 + 4/8 division) in I Hung my Head, the modal introduction of I was Brought to my Senses, among many other fantastic creative ideas that were the result of a combination of top musicians (like Vinnie Colaiuta on drums). 

All musical styles can be rich in musical nuances, but that’s not always the case. The commercial market, made by ‘business’ people who lack musical knowledge, will often bring music with ‘raw’ ingredients. In many cases, there is nothing special to be consumed. Especially nowadays, where everything needs to be made in the instant of an Instagram post, and where the ‘governors’ of media streamers have no consideration for history and aesthetics. Let’s take Spotify for example. Search for ‘Debussy’, then access the ‘albums’ page. You will come across the current year’s recordings because they will be organised by the latest published works, and almost every day there is a newly published album. Imagine searching for Mozart then; there is probably a new ‘album’ published every hour! In the middle of the Spotify mess, there is no decent classification and organisation for music. The young generations walk blindly through music playlists without any guidance whatsoever, stepping into all sorts of territories. They may miss the acclaimed recordings that can accurately reproduce a musical masterpiece (Debussy without Thibaudet, Bach without Gould, etc.).

The reason I dedicated my life to musical studies is phenomenological. The aesthetic experiences I had with music as my musical knowledge progressed, only became more and more profound. It’s not just intellectual, but physical as well; hearing the Major9 chords triggers me ‘pink’ synaesthesia, and I feel the sounds of strings can make my body more relaxed (I remember a performance of La Mer that gave me goosebumps, and experiences with the music of Giacinto Scelsi that stimulated a sensation on my back as if activating my kundalini energy).

Furthermore, every new shape or pattern of harmony I find gives me a great feeling of awe and wonder. From the sounds of ladders of 4ths to the ‘fantastic’ harmonies of Holst’s The Planets, or Tom Jobim to Chick Corea’s explorations. Returning to our question, if I was not aware of all these musical features, would I still feel the same way and have the same type of experience?

Music is a very powerful art form. But possibly, a trained ear may give access to a deeper journey and an ingress to the experience of the sublime, like when we are confronted with the endless expansion of the ocean or the night sky filled with stars (Kant’s mathematical sublime). Or when something feels so powerful, such as a storm at the sea, that we feel respect and admiration for it (Kant’s dynamical sublime).

I would like to express here my recent sense of wonder, as I was listening to Ernest Chausson’s String Quartet in C Minor and realised he was quoting Debussy’s String Quartet in C Minor. I was excited to recognise this just by chance, not through a lecture or article. I made a quick video showing the quote comparison:

For further clarification, Chausson and Debussy often shared musical ideas and influenced each other’s compositions. Debussy even dedicated his piano piece “Pour le Piano” to Chausson. However, their friendship was tragically cut short when Chausson died in a bicycle accident in 1899. Debussy wrote a short composition called “Canope” as a tribute to his late friend.

The power of a quote is also heard in jazz improvisation. In this respect, there is so much that could be discussed as musicians in the audience can follow ideas and achievements that happen on the go, which I believe could be easily missed by non-musicians. Thus jazz bars are often frequented by musicians.

To finalise, I would like to show you some ‘contemporary media art’ I’ve been enjoying, which is related to all this discussion and the idea of ‘quote’. It’s the work of a musician called Jacob Dupre, who likes combining simple pop songs with more sophisticated harmonies. By removing tracks and adjusting the pitch and tempo, he makes bizarre amalgamations of artists, such as Taylor Swift (the most popular singer at the moment) with the music of Dave Brubeck or even with Allan Holdsworth (a legend in jazz guitar who passed away in 2017). (Obviously, I like much more these funny results than Swift’s songs). Interestingly, he is using what a mostly non-musician audience listens to, and mixing it up with more sophisticated harmonies that are usually better appreciated by musicians.

Jacob Dupre’s art: Swift + Brubeck (check out the comments!)

You can find these videos on Instagram: