All your compliments and your cutting remarks / Are captured here in my quotation marks

Our favorite anti-academic academic Kyle Gann did his annual extolling of odd meters this week, with the added, especially fun bonus of some published transcriptions of Bulgarian folk music. And he had this to say in passing—

From my readers’ previous very informative debate, I know that some will object to the very notating of these traditional tunes, claiming that they can only be learned orally, and I reiterate the most relevant comment left by someone who knew this music:

[T]he Bulgarians DO NOT count out every “8th” or “16th” note while performing their music. They express them as long and short beats. They actively discourage trying to count it out, and expressed that the only way to hope to begin to play it accurately would be to feel the long and short beats.

Doubtless true, making the whole topic an excellent entrée into teaching students that there’s more than one way to scope out rhythms, and entire societies in which consecutive beats are not assumed “steady,” but can be different lengths.

—which, I realized, is a nicely efficient wedge into the whole question of notation and tradition and modernity and its discontents.

Kyle characterizes the objection to notation as “doubtless true,” and while the objections certainly exist, I myself have rather serious doubts whether they’re valid or not, especially nowadays. I would venture to say that a good musician could learn Bulgarian folk music from a combination of notated music, written description, and recorded examples, and play it just as well as someone who learned the tradition exclusively orally. What’s interesting to me is what the persistence of that distinction—between learning via oral tradition and book learning—says about the importance of folk music in modern society, a society that is a long, long way from the one in which such music was originally created.

There was a time when the only way to transmit folk culture was orally, but that time is gone; most folk cultures have been pretty well ethnographically mapped, and what few corners of the world there are still untouched by mass media and digital connectedness will be on the grid before too long. In other words, to learn a given repertoire exclusively through oral tradition and personal interaction is now a choice, not a necessity. And the criterion behind that choice is the perception of authenticity. I myself am pretty agnostic on that score—authentic, synthetic, I like them both—which probably means I just don’t feel as anxious about the fundamentally alienated condition of modern existence, or something like that. But I have no objection per se to an asserted authenticity, which I think makes for an interesting and sometimes provocative frame for an artistic experience.

That said, though, I do think that “authenticity” is an illusion, that all musical activity is in some way stylized and synthetic, and to make a moral distinction between oral traditions and written traditions on the basis of perceived authenticity is invalid. And what’s more—and here’s where my own personal annoyance springs to the fore—it verges rather uncomfortably close to anti-intellectualism.

This sort of privileging of oral tradition, as applied to music, always seems to me to be disingenuously ignoring the fact that classical musicians are trained just as much through a similar oral tradition as through scores. That’s why you study with a teacher, that’s why you study recordings, that’s why you go to concerts to hear various interpretations of the repertoire. There is not a musician in the world who thinks that the printed score is a complete and accurate representation of the musical experience—to notate the rubato in even the most Apollonian rendition of a Chopin nocturne would probably make one’s mathematical hair curl. Of course notation is an impoverished version of music, but all musicians know that, and approach notated sources appropriately. (Notice that to critically describe a performance as “mechanical” is never, ever a good thing.) Nevertheless, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read or heard such classical training patronizingly disparaged by those partial to an oral, vernacular tradition.

I don’t pretend to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I do rather proudly aspire to being an intellectual, in the sense that I take great joy in the possibility that some sense of the complexity and depth of the interaction between an active mind and the world it perceives can be generously communicated to complete strangers. I was tickled pink to see Kyle’s notated examples, because they represent a portal into a tradition that, for reasons of geography and time management, I otherwise wouldn’t have. To dismiss such communicative efforts strikes me as not only parsimonious, but distressingly unambitious—especially given the way the combination of notated and oral musical traditions catalyzes the process of learning. The true core of the intellectual tradition is not obscurity, not a discriminatory use of jargon, not any of the unfortunate abuses that are demagogically expanded into anti-intellectual bludgeons—it is, rather, the faith, the intellectual security that a persevering mind at any stage of learning can master any idea, any practice, any subject, and can then transmit a roadmap to such mastery to anyone else inclined to take the journey.

I don’t really have a personal motto as such—I’d hate to settle on any one—but definitely on my list of candidates would be a line Emily Dickinson once included in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “My Business,” she wrote, “is Circumference.” (Another poem of hers was addressed to “Circumference thou Bride of Awe”.) That process, and possibility, of expanding the mind to encompass any topic is half of the beneficial heritage of intellect. The other half? It’s the reason I can commune with Dickinson’s ideas, with the thoughts of a virtual homebody over a century removed from me. She wrote them down.

Update (9/30): Ethan’s smart comments goad me into summarizing the musical point in a different way: to the assertion that you can’t learn such music from a book because a book can’t capture the groove, I say that, if you know how to groove, of course you can learn it from a book.


  1. Great posting, really.I have been thinking about this subject recently myself, as a result of the death of someone with whom I’d had a heated onlne discussion about period performance practice a few years back. On the one hand, she hated period instrument groups (though I have wondered if what she hated was <>British conductors<> in period music); on the other hand, she made extravagent claims for a particular kind of authenticity in Bartok performance that you could only get by having studied with Bartok or a student of his. She gave little weight to the score in such cases. I have a few things to say about this, in any event, and perhaps this weekend I will say them.

  2. Excellent post; hits the nail on the head repeatedly. What you say about classically trained musicians could not be more true: a great deal is picked up aurally, without which we would be lost. As for why they are so often disparaged for their aural skills, I think we have to keep in mind what exactly it is that they learn aurally (time and tone), and conversely, what is almost always written down for them (notes). Despite the primacy of learning aurally, many of them still can’t pick out a simple tune and play it on their instruments, probably because that’s not something they’re ever asked to do. I have a story I’ve told a thousand times about a gig where it took all weekend (4 shows) for a brass quintet to solidify the melody of The 12 Days of Christmas (we were also encouraged to make partridge noises and the like…but there was no written music for the tune itself, which the hosts had hoped we would join in on; a jazz group of analagous ability, however, would have had it ready in any key with chord changes at the drop of a hat). It seems to me that what classical musicians learn aurally is largely rhythmic and timbral, which is a different proposition than being expected to learn a series of pitches by ear. Incidentally, as you hint at, this is precisely the value of writing down folk tunes even if the rhythm cannot be notated sufficiently, since at the very least, if the pitches are accurate, this is still of significant use (learning by ear means memorizing as you learn…which is great, but also time consuming; personally, if I’m expected to learn something of this sort quickly, I ask for both lead sheet and recording if they’re available; that makes it go much quicker).

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