The "music as language" metaphor roars into the 21st century unabated. In the last few days I've made references to sentences in music, music's syntax, and even -- here's a dangerous one -- its "vocabulary."
This is a big subject in jazz, where people transcribe recordings, listen and repeat to pick up vocabulary, much the same way people use language tapes. I remember saying at a jazz piano lesson that my goal was to become "conversant" in the style.
This is especially injurious for jazz. Many critics of recent jazz decry its reliance on traditional idioms, don't see much forward motion. For the record, I don't think this is at all globally true, but it's plain to see how the practice of transcribing great players of the past runs the risk of inculcating new ears with older styles.
But the problem is deeper than this. I talk to people who don't like jazz and they usually express some variation on the idea that these musicians are just doing it for themselves and for fellow musicians; they aren't communicating with the audience, they're just trying to be clever in their idiom.
These listeners sense a musical expression based on language, not on sound -- and if it's not a language they know, they have little to gain from the experience. Going to a jazz club becomes as satisfying as listening to a group conversation in Urdu.
Of course, some of us were drawn to the music before we "spoke the language," and that's what moved us to study it. And some listeners just aren't. I don't know whether a simple attitude change can be sufficient to change this; freer improvisational styles, more based on pure sound, are even less popular than traditional jazz. But unless we believe a listener can understand the music without studying the theory (the syntax, the vocabulary), they'll continue to see that they aren't supposed to.
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