Re: Thoughts on music/sound

Matthew Marth (
Thu, 14 Aug 1997 10:23:56 -0500

Philly the Kid wrote:
> >---------------------------- Forwarded with Changes
> >---------------------------
> >From: at @UCSD
> >Date: 7/17/97 10:36PM
> >*To: at @UCSD
> >Subject: Re: Thoughts on music/sound
> >The thought is a good one. Why must we teach our children that the tonal
> >way is the only way.
> Charles Ives father was a Civil War Band LEader. He once split his band in
> 2 halves and started them at different ends of town and told them to
> progress towards the center. He had them playing different things - perhps
> different jeys or tempos and he stood their and watched and listened as
> they converged.
> He had all the Ives children learn the same ditties in different keys at
> the same time.
> Tonalit(ies) may have some basis in cultural formation and evolution but it
> is by no means the only way to hear. And it is inescapable in our current
> culture -from movies to jingles to broadway...
> We so engrain it into their skulls through the means
> >of radio, television, movies, nintendo, etc, that all they know is tonality.
> >Where does that leave people like us? Must we write tonal music in order to
> >"make it" as composers?
> Of course not.
> >
> >
> >It is interesting that when I was a wee lad at Granny's house and would bang
> >away on the piano it was cute. Now when I do it and play my works it is
> >obnoxious. Naivity? On whose part?
> Well, slip granny a little more of that medicine in her cup and I;m sure
> she'll come around...:_)
> >
> >Thoughts?
> > Michael Simants-McDonald
> >
> >
> Rico aka P-t-K

True, tonality saturates most music people hear, and I agree that this
can be oppressive to us who prefer to move in other spheres, but
atonality and sound masses do not escape the general public. Movie after
movie from Hollywood employs non-tonal music to create drama. This has
been going on for decades, and it has been accepted with pleasure by the
consuming audiences (though perhaps subliminally). So I think we have to
look deeper to find the oppressive function of tonality.

In our times, music as personal expression and as context for community
has been almost completely replaced. Its salient functions are instead
to manufacture consent, encourage conformity, categorize and maintain
people in social status hierarchies, and moreover, to generate profits.
Jazz is an excellent example. What was once a socially empowering and
even revolutionary culture for blacks (and subsequently whites) has now
come full circle (a near perfect Marxist paradigm) and is now being used
to sell credit cards.

Music schools and the system of employement in orchestras and
professional music institutions reveal how music fulfills these
purposes. "Modern" music has been almost completely silenced--which
speaks to the fact that personal expressions which do not conform to the
culture of catalogued dead things are too much of an affront, and are
considered self-indulgent.

The importance placed on musical skill is used as a way to ensure that
musicians continue to serve these oppressive functions. In order to be
heard, a musician is required to exhibit the requisite skills prescribed
by institutions, which she or he can only acquire by attending music
schools and working within the corporate system. In the process of being
"educated" these musicians can then be wholly indoctrinated to serve the
needs of the system--which have nothing to do with the value of an
individual and diversity, and everything to do with accepting the social
structure and one's role in it. The reward to those who play the game is
a status which allows them to be revered and make money (very little in
most cases) and to deny that any other kind of musical expression or
function is valid. (This perpetuates itself out of scarcity--musicians
compete fiercely to maintain their positions of authority. They must,
lest they lose their employment.) Music education ceases to be about
self-actualization and communicating experiences and becomes a tool to
Deny music to anyone who has not gone through the system. The only way
these "amateurs" may experience music is by listening to what is
considered marketable and appropriate enough to be recorded or performed
in concerts. Of course, they may make music on their own, as long as no
one hears it.

Music education is where tonality is enforced the most, and this
enforcement creates a pool of listeners and performers who do not
consider anything other than tonal music to be true music. All of this
despite the fact that there just might be individuals and even groups
who honestly like non-tonal sounds and feel that these sounds speak for
them or to them in a way that tonality does not.

This is my very rough take on the problem of why "banging" on the piano
as an adult is unacceptable. But in addition to my analysis I'd like to
offer a vision of an alternative to put the current system in
Imagine living in a society where people get together and play music and
improvise together in their houses and in public spaces. They are not
necessarily "musicians" in the professional sense--and there is no
concern for skill in these sessions. The main concern is that people
listen to one another. The sessions create a community--and people come
and go as they please. What I am talking about is really folk music--not
in the standard sense that the label implies (as in Joan Baez, or
Bluegrass). To those of you who want to make money as musicans, you may
still do so. Skills are still respected, and even more, truly unique and
powerful individual expressions are validated (which could mean
compensated for with money based on social value). In such a world,
tonality would be only one idiom, with no more authority than any other.
Because people would OWN their music as a community and as individuals
they would once again have the authority to define what consititutes
music-- and that very well could include non-tonal music.

Such communities no doubt already exist, but the scale I am imagining in
my scenario is much larger. I'm thinking of music making "by the masses"
as a cultural institution equivalent to the way people go en masse to
movies now. Yes it may be an idealistic dream, but if we don't at least
imagine an alternative what chance do we ever have of being anything but
conformist puppets serving an interest that is destructive to ourselves,
but advantageous to a select few, or to a mindless social machine?

I mean it,
Matt Marth