The Voice: Fall 2001

The Voice

Understanding music makes it more enjoyable

Karen DeMol

Students don’t always have this much fun in DeMol’s music classes, but these students did last fall.     This summer a colleague at a sister Christian college told me that some students had dropped classes in music because they believed that studying music would interfere with their enjoyment of music. As a fellow music teacher, I lamented their decision. But could those students be correct—that the more we know about music, the less we enjoy it? It may be true that we can enjoy music without “knowing” anything about it, yet I’m convinced that when we factor “knowing” into “enjoying,” our experience is enriched. Our appreciation of delicious meals, for example, can increase when we know something about the culture from which the recipe comes; when we know how its ingredients fit into a good diet, we are better able to nurture our bodies. We can enjoy paintings without “knowing” anything about art, but with some knowledge of color and design, we better appreciate not only the nuances of paintings, but also the designs and colors in nature and in the world around us. So it is with music. Our enjoyment can increase when we know something of the “ingredients” of music and how they fit together.
    Eating properly and caring for our bodies nourishes us physically. Art and music nourishes that part of us that is sensitive to aesthetic things. “An aesthetic sense” may sound like a high-falutin’ term; but we all have it, given to us by God. Our aesthetic sensitivity enables us not only to see a sunset as red, but also to perceive it as beautiful; it enables us to lament the destruction of inner-city neighborhoods not only as wasteful but also as ugly. It is what leads us to want beautiful and expressive sound, color, and design in our lives. Developing and nourishing the aesthetic aspects of our lives is actually part of taking care of ourselves and others, loving our neighbors and ourselves, and responding to God’s good and rich creation.
    You can see I’m convinced that developing and nourishing our aesthetic side is enhanced not only by experiencing music but also by understanding it. An excellent way to develop this understanding is to listen to a wealth of music. However, how can we know which music will enrich us the most? In this Plumbline, I’d like to highlight three important aspects of music in which some knowledge and some coaching of our listening would enhance both our enjoyment and our musical choices: the craftsmanship, the expressiveness, and the use of music.

    Like a good recipe, music is made out of things; its ingredients include melody, harmony, rhythm, the tone colors of the voices and instruments, dynamics (the louds and softs), and the way in which these things are shaped into a musical design. Crafting a good composition requires using well-shaped melodies, rich harmony, engaging rhythms; consistency in the handling of these musical materials; choosing notes that are well-suited to their instruments and the voices that will perform them. A good composer makes the vocal parts comfortable to sing and within the range of the voices. She makes the parts “lie well,” as musicians put it, on the instruments for which they were written—not asking the flute to do things that are possible only on the cello.
    And the music must “hang together.” Imagine a lullaby, with lulling words, a gently-shaped melody, steady rocking rhythms, sung softly—and accompanied by a bongo drum. It doesn’t fit! This may be an obvious example, yet I have been fascinated to observe both musicians and non-musicians, listening intently to a new piece of music, notice that a passage does not seem to “fit” the rest of the piece.
    Such statements might lead you to fear that good music requires listening to stuff that is so complicated that you can’t relate to it. But good craftsmanship does not necessarily include complexity. For instance, the enduring English folksong “Greensleeves,” to which we also sing the words of “What Child Is This,” is a well-crafted yet simple tune. Simplicity does not mean poverty of musical expression. We can all think of tunes that are initially appealing, but that become boring after a few singings. “Greensleeves” does not; its excellence stands the test of time.
    Good compositions need to be turned into actual sound through performance, and good performance has its own bench marks of quality. It requires excellence in technique, playing or singing the correct notes in tune, cleanly articulating the notes and words, sensitively controlling the dynamics; it includes playing an instrument of good quality and performing in a space that enables good performing and good listening. A performer needs to use the musical practices of the style of the music being performed. For instance, scooping in and out of pitches does not belong in a classical choral setting such as “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” but is just the right technique for jazz or jazz-influenced pieces, such as Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

    And yet good music is more than correct notes and good tuning. We have all heard competent but uninspired performances and have sensed that something essential was missing.
    Making good music also includes communicating the melodies and other musical materials expressively. I recently read a review of a CD on the Amazon.com recording list by a musical amateur who wrote, “On this CD the pianist got all the notes right, and that’s about all I can say for it; left me cold.”
    What makes music expressive? Expressiveness is knowing, within the context of the directions of the score and the style, how to shape the piece within those parameters. It is knowing, after getting all the pitches in tune, when to bend a pitch and how much and why. That’s what excites us when Louis Armstrong yearns upward into a pitch on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.” It is knowing after getting all the rhythms correctly, when to stretch a note and which note and how much. That knowing is what transfixes us when a soprano lingers on the last word in “for now is Christ risen” in Handel’s Messiah for just the right length and “puts us off” as grandstanding if she hangs on to it too long. It is making the crescendo into a powerful increase in the sound that sounds not merely obedient to the score but a matter of compelling musical conviction. In performance and composition, expressiveness is the choice of all the right materials and techniques at a given moment to achieve the desired musical effect. It is the subtle mastery of nuance that turns good craftsmanship into artistry.

    How a piece of music is used is also important. With music we highlight special occasions, such as birthdays, graduations, inaugurations, weddings, and anniversaries. We move with music in processionals and parades, skating parties and ballet. We use it to support the mood and meaning of theater productions and film. Its expressiveness partners well with the sadness of funerals and the exuberance of celebrations. We connect music with our moods, energizing ourselves in the morning with vigorous fanfares or soothing a fussy baby to sleep with lullabies; we even use music in therapeutic situations. We use music in worship, where singing flows from the pages of the Psalms, and where the shape of the music enhances the meaning of our praises and prayers beyond the words. We need to ask how well the music fits and serves liturgical action, how well it helps carry the play, whether its tone is right for the celebration or the commemoration? A fine piece of music performed well can jar us if used inappropriately. Imagine, for instance, a dirge at a wedding, or parade music with three steps in a group, or a jaunty tune for a Good Friday text.
    If music chosen for these occasions fits well, do musical craftsmanship and expressiveness matter? We could claim that as long as people are entertained by the performance, or as long as the offertory music matches the time it takes the deacons to pass the plates, or as long as the advertising ditty “sells” the product, the music “works” and is therefore good. However, music is not merely a tool. It functions aesthetically as well as practically in our lives.
    Sensitivity to craftsmanship, expressiveness and fitting use are enhanced by studying how music is made and by listening to good music. This is what I would like those students who dropped the music course to gain and students at Dordt College too. I am sure they will enjoy music more richly. I am convinced that in addition, they will become more discerning in this world that offers both musical masterpieces and musical mediocrity. And I am convinced also that they will become equipped to live with greater aesthetic wisdom in caring both for themselves and their neighbors.

Back to Index