Music Theory and your Degenerative Lifestyle
Is there a place for musical theory in modern music journalism?
I know I'm a little late to this particular internet call-and-response circle jerk party but hey, it never hurts to prolong the life of an engaging subject, especially when it is one that I am (and you should be) interested in. Last week a one Ted Gioia published an essay on the current state of popular music criticism and the general lack of any actual musical theory within. You should take the time to read the full article here. Gioia is a heavyweight jazz critic, musican and historian who has edited encyclopedias on jazz music and was a founder of the jazz studies program at Stanford University. In short, he knows his shit. In the piece he is essentially lamenting the loss of the inclusion of any sort of proper musical theory by modern music critics and jounalists in their reporting on today's popular music offerings, which is an understandable annoyance from someone of his position. His post has generated a couple of interesting responses from two separate musicians; the Pitchfork associated Mike Powell seemed to disagree entirely with Gioia- you can read his piece here and also more interestingly the violinist Owen Pallet took it upon himself to deconstruct Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" which you can check out here.
Done with all those big words? Good.
First off let it be known that I have had no musical training whatsoever and therefore am rather limited in my ability to perform musical theory analysis of the kind that Gioia and Pallet are able to do (I do have somewhat of an understanding of the other kind of music theory though- that which was formulated by a bunch of Germans in the 40s and uses words like Culture Industry and is generally a goddamn nightmare to read). So naturally I was drawn to Powell's arguments that we needn't have stuffy academic terms in our descriptions of music in order to explain it to a potential audience, rather we should employ engaging language that fully articulates the feel, mood, tone etc in a way that everyone can comprehend.
One of the things that struck me about Gioia's observations was that it focused on popular, commercially successful music that we see in the Top 40/100 charts- hence Pallet's probably tounge-in-cheek Katy Perry analysis. To most readers of this blog, his points might seem like a bit of a no-brainer- no shit the people talking about Miley or Gaga or whoever are going to write about their surrounding lifestyles. That's how the American fame machine works, we've all accepted it and moved on- we know it exists but it doesn't really bother us in our musical choices because we now have the ability to utilise this wonderful thing called the Internet (and sometimes real-life people!) for new aural discoveries and information. Gioia devotes one whole sentence to the "blogosphere" and brushes off any chance of possibly finding good music criticism online as nigh on impossible because of all the "background noise". Whilst this is definitely true in that the proliferation of online sources has created a maelstrom of places offering their two cents on Odd Future's latest bowel movements, if you're not a complete mongoloid it really isn't that hard to find some good stuff.
This is not to say, however, that we shouldn't have technically complex musical criticism at all- far from it. It should NEVER be cool to not know about musical structure, chords, harmonies etc- as I mentioned earlier I have no formal musical education but I am making a personal effort to learn at least some of the basic rudiments of musical theory and language. After being captivated by Daniel Levitin's "This Is Your Brain On Music" I am now working my way through Philip Ball's rather more challenging "The Music Instinct" which offers amazingly simple insights into musical theory and structure and attempts to explain to someone like me with no previous learning just how music works. This is a concious effort that I have taken to try and inform myself of that mysterious medium that seems to have become the principle defining factor of our lives in the 21st century- music. Anybody who brushes aside the centuries of accumulated learning that indirectly led to them being able to make their latest trap banger in Fruity Loops is definitely worthy of ridicule, but thankfully I can't readily identify anyone of that ilk.
So in a sense, both Gioia and Powell are right- it seems we need to find that perfect balance in music criticism between rigorous breakdown of constituent musical components and engrossing language that enables the average reader to grasp the what and why of a certain work. It should also be necessary for those writing about commercial popular music to make an attempt not to just appeal to the lowest common denominator in their reporting, though I can't see how that might change anytime soon.