How Musics Learn


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In music, change of one type or another is what we listen for, what we crave as information-seeking beings. Change is what keeps us listening and interested: we listen for the moments when something happens, dramatic or subtle, when one state of affairs transforms into another. Change can happen extremely fast—from one chord becoming another, from 3/4 to 4/4 in an instant, from a bass drop to an improvised melody that’s never the same in its winding journey from one pitch to the next. But musical change in the broader sense of how styles shape-shift and become or inspire new ones happens much more slowly. It can take years, decades, or even centuries for “new” musics to appear. Though it now looks inevitable as presented in music history textbooks, monophony flowered into polyphony, but that development took a very long time.

I’ve been pondering the question, How do musics learn? mainly because I like the way the phrase sounds. The phrase personifies Music, but it’s a helpful (and fun) trick which I’ve previously elaborated upon in a blog post about musical action in which I imagined melody as a dancer, harmony a bodyguard, rhythm a choreographer and stopwatch-holding referee, timbre a fashion expert, and form a sharp-eared marketer/promoter. Mix all of these personifications together and you have…Music walking down Time Street, coming from the past, in the present, and about to turn a corner into the future.

Imagine Music as this vibrant presence walking down Time Street, reacting to all the stimulations Sound City has to offer. Everywhere Music turns, people want a piece of it—trying to get its attention, use it for one reason or another, sell it stuff, emote, worship or meditate through it, show it off to their friends, etc. For some reason, everyone wants to bring Music into their lives because, in a chameleon-like way, Music has the power to be anything people want it to be. Music earned this power by being a careful and patient observer of human action, and in this imagined scenario Music has been learning continually by adapting to the activity around it—from the people who make and obsess over it (musicians and composers), from the instruments they use, from the sounds these instruments make, and from the reactions the sounds inspire in listeners. Through the maelstrom of its social, psychological, mathematical, and spiritual utilities, we could say that music’s learning is endless.

As much as I like the colorfulness of this scenario, it’s misleading because Music isn’t a person with agency and thus the capability to learn. It’s us—the musicians, composers, listeners and fans—who are doing the endless learning, and Music is only as learned as we are. A less colorful but perhaps more accurate characterization is that Music is like a mirror (in sound) that reflects back to us the present state of our thinking and our ongoing adaptations to being here, with these musical tools, this way and now.

Thinking about the question of how musics learn has me not only musing on far-flung musical personifications but also thinking about an article I wrote (for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies) about instructional videos by amateur hip hop producers. My three case studies looked at beat makers who make music in home studios using computer software and hardware. What I found interesting about their work—though I didn’t write about it—was how it shows hip hop learning. The producers work at some distance from mainstream commercial hip hop, sharing their work and building their fan base on YouTube. Each producer tries to replicate a different style of hip hop in their own way and astute viewers respond to these replications in the comments section, assessing the authenticity and power of the producers’ beats. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of such videos on YouTube, pointing to a much larger community of amateur musicians around the world who make beats. These microscenes constitute a kind of convergence culture (a concept from the work of Henry Jenkins) that is in constant dialogue with the popular hip hop sounds of today (and yesterday), stretching those sounds’ edges by querying and challenging them. Back to my personification of Music as a vibrant presence walking down Time Street: we can imagine Hip Hop paying attention to this online production activity, absorbing it in bits and pieces while considering where to walk next. As it does so, it’s slowly learning over time. Who knows, maybe one day a big hit will come from YouTube rather than big label recordings?

If music learns through its adaptations, then we should more closely consider what adaptation entails. What is happening? In a biological sense, an adaptation is a process of change by which an organism or species becomes more suited to its environment. Now bio-personifications come to mind: if music is like a muscle, it learns by responding to systematic overloading by getting stronger, or if music is like a virus, it learns by spreading itself through populations, or if music is like our brains it learns by responding to information by creating more neural connections. In all of these imaginings, music learns by helping us become more suited to our environments—it literally helps us evolve. Finally, remember that music’s learning can’t be predicted ahead of time. Musical adaptations don’t move in a straight line; instead, they follow a nonlinear path towards uncertain outcomes. (Music has always been a flâneur.) While some musics have proven to be robust to time, sounding just as good today as they did back then, it’s hard to predict which of today’s musics will endure and which ones will fade. Sometimes musics learn by the luck of having hung around long enough.

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