On Knowing Music In Practice And In Theory

What is the difference between knowing music practically (e.g. as a musician or composer) and knowing music theoretically (eg. as a musicologist, critic, or super-informed fan)? 

On the one hand, the musician/composer proceeds intuitively, building on his/her years of practical experience playing an instrument, or otherwise working with sounds. The musician/composer’s body is intimately involved in this process of knowing music’s depths, providing informed directions on what, ergonomically speaking, works or doesn’t work, and also how well and to what ends. We consult this body knowledge like a compass whenever we evaluate one another’s musicianship too. For instance, the way I know my friend Carter to be a musical drummer is in part by knowing the finesse required to do the things he does. I’m talking about his touch and flash-dazzle technique—which extends past my own—but also the subtly thoughtful choices Carter makes through his playing, such as knowing what not to play, how he plays soft as much as he plays loud, and the general flow of his musical time. A quick heuristic I use in my evaluation is to compare what he does to what I might have done.

On the other hand, the musicologist and critic come to music from its outside because their disciplines expect this objective stance. They might evaluate Carter’s playing too, but maybe on the basis of formal analysis, comparing it to what they know from other musicians, or in terms of their knowledge of drumming in general. Musicologists and critics are speculators trying to build connections and elucidate meaning built upon theories of music’s surfaces. The musicologist and critic might proceed along the following lines of inquiry:

This music is in that minor key, and built upon this dissonant counterpoint.”

This earlier music influenced that later music.”

This music expresses/articulates/symbolizes/signifies that subcultural style or social assemblage.”

“Carter’s less-is-more drumming recalls the restrained grooves of Jim Keltner.”

All of these assertions are helpful for explaining how music works, but may miss the point of it from the practitioner’s perspective. For the musician music is: a felt terrain that is negotiated, a means of personal expression, and a way to be with other musicians. For the composer, music is a terrain to invent, a set of relations to explore, and a guide for other musicians to get together and coordinate their playing. In short, for musical practitioners music is action or prospective action. What, then, is music for everyone else?

The problem with speculating about the meanings of musical experience is that no matter how detailed the history, how robust the analysis, or how elaborate the theory, talking about music sidesteps what practitioners already know—which is that music’s primary pleasure is a function of its own energies. In an ideal world, we would all be practitioners with skin in the musical game. In the meantime, the musicologist’s and the critic’s words seek to explain music while musicians know that the best word about music is the music itself.

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