Are we forgetting how to talk about music?

Rebecca HutterWed 7th September 2011

When music discourse doesn't get past dum-dum-dum!

 

Music festivals, top clubbing cities and DJ remixes; three topics that have dominated conversation amongst my group of friends almost every day throughout my university holidays. Conversations, where one bass line is compared to another in anything but musical terms, are intriguing as my friends talk for hours about the seemingly ‘musical’ content of these dance anthems with a complete absence of any traditional musical language. It would be easy for one musician to state that the dominant pedal note is held under the progressing chord sequence as the music crescendos into a climax and for another musician to fully understand what they were describing. But how do people who lack this musical vocabulary – yet wish to talk about the music – maintain adult conversation without resorting to "dum dum dum" (this is only a very slight exaggeration)? What I find difficult to understand is how so many people (who clearly have a passion for music) know so little, and are in many ways adamant at remaining untaught, about classical music and its unique language.

Classical music provides the soundtrack for our everyday lives. Carmina Burana is re-titled as the theme music for The X Factor and Dvořák’s New World Symphony evokes the comfort of the familiar Hovis advert, yet so many people remain detached from this unknown ‘phenomenon’ of classical music. Where is this missing link?

Language, to me, seems a key factor. Italian terms that we as music aficionados casually use might as well be in Japanese judging by the reactions I am often faced with. And even English terms can be equally confusing. Last week, when explaining to a non-classically trained friend about a motif used (when trying to explain the – somewhat bizarre – fugue on a Lady Gaga theme played as an encore by gutsy pianist Dejan Lazić at the Proms last Friday) I found myself singing as a last resort, irritated that I could not put into words what I wanted so desperately to communicate.

Frequently used terms in London such as ‘promenading’ similarly embark on unfamiliar territory. Comedian Tim Minchin exploited this hilariously in last month’s Comedy Prom, explaining how the word evolved from a fruit drink loved by Prom founder Henry Wood. That whole evening celebrated a high calibre of musical wit…for those of us who understood the musical jokes, that is.

Music is supposed to be a universal language. Not a secret code only to be shared exclusively, and used to mock those who do not understand. While interracial orchestras can join together to make exceptional music, we, here in England, seem to be struggling to string two musical sentences together.

With a government willing to pump more than £50 million into the development of languages in schools, with millions of students studying languages at university, is the musical language being forgotten? It is clearly ridiculous to argue that the language of music is too difficult to learn when students are eager and clearly intelligent enough to take up other complex languages such as Chinese or Arabic studies for a university degree.

Then again, as Mahler once said, “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music”. But he surely wouldn’t want us to not be able to talk about it. How would you hum Mahler’s Eighth anyway?

 

Rebecca Hutter

Rebecca recently completed a music degree at the University of Nottingham. She is currently studying for a masters degree in journalism at City University London. Find her on Twitter @rebeccahutter.

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