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The impossibility of describing music

Will Fly 21 Jan 18 - 07:35 AM
Tootler 21 Jan 18 - 11:58 AM
Tattie Bogle 21 Jan 18 - 01:45 PM
michaelr 21 Jan 18 - 02:06 PM
Will Fly 21 Jan 18 - 03:54 PM
GUEST 21 Jan 18 - 04:14 PM
GUEST 21 Jan 18 - 04:16 PM
leeneia 21 Jan 18 - 06:40 PM
Andy7 21 Jan 18 - 07:45 PM
Gibb Sahib 21 Jan 18 - 08:40 PM
Stanron 21 Jan 18 - 09:10 PM
Bee-dubya-ell 21 Jan 18 - 11:10 PM
Will Fly 22 Jan 18 - 03:21 AM
Will Fly 22 Jan 18 - 03:33 AM
BobL 22 Jan 18 - 03:59 AM
GUEST,matt milton 22 Jan 18 - 04:23 AM
Bee-dubya-ell 22 Jan 18 - 05:16 AM
Joe Offer 22 Jan 18 - 05:50 AM
Tattie Bogle 22 Jan 18 - 07:51 AM
Jim Carroll 22 Jan 18 - 09:50 AM
GUEST,akenaton 22 Jan 18 - 10:28 AM
Mr Red 22 Jan 18 - 10:41 AM
Jim Carroll 22 Jan 18 - 10:58 AM
GUEST 22 Jan 18 - 11:06 AM
leeneia 22 Jan 18 - 02:15 PM
Mr Red 22 Jan 18 - 07:26 PM
leeneia 22 Jan 18 - 09:15 PM
Jack Campin 23 Jan 18 - 08:16 AM
GUEST 23 Jan 18 - 08:19 AM
GUEST,Rahere 25 Jan 18 - 04:40 AM
Andy7 25 Jan 18 - 05:19 AM
Ernest 25 Jan 18 - 06:22 AM
leeneia 25 Jan 18 - 11:24 AM
Tattie Bogle 26 Jan 18 - 05:53 PM
Donuel 26 Jan 18 - 06:30 PM
Will Fly 27 Jan 18 - 04:26 AM
Mr Red 27 Jan 18 - 06:26 AM
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Subject: The impossibility of describing music
From: Will Fly
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 07:35 AM

This is a sort of by-product of the thread I started recently on pretentious album sleeve notes - but with a wider context.

I occasionally read newspaper reviews of new record releases and, over time, I've come to the conclusion that they're thoroughly incomprehensible, particularly if I'm not clued up on a particular genre of music. You can read the review description as much as you want, but the words don't actually describe the sound. I've tested this by reading a record review and then checking out the actual sound of the record on Spotify, where possible. Much of the time I'm thinking, "What the fuck was the reviewer thinking when he/shewrote that crap?"

I recall reading Ian McEwan's book "Saturday", which I thought pretentious in the extreme (sorry, McEwan fans) - and particularly hated the passages where the author attempts to describe the blues playing of the surgeon protagonist's son. It just sounded fake somehow. I don't believe it can be done- you have to use your ears.

Shades of the writing in "Young Man With A Horn"..


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Tootler
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 11:58 AM

It's a form of what I call art babble.

There's a certain style of writing you get by scribblers trying to describe artistic (in the widest sense of the word) endeavours. Usually pretentious, the authors of such stuff are good at disappearing up their own posteriors.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Tattie Bogle
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 01:45 PM

There are a few reviewers whose reviews I would respect, whether of concerts or CDs. They are usually honest, sometimes to the point of being harsh, stay on the subject of the performers and the music, and don't wander off at airy fairy tangents or litter their reports with irrelevant quotes and speculation. I'd put in this category people like Jim Gilchrist, and a couple of others who write for The Scotsman newspaper (so brilliant that their names escape me right now!).
Then the CD reviews in "Living Tradition" magazine are probably on the whole better worded and the music better understood by their writers than some published elsewhere.
But there have been times when I have attended a concert, then read a review of same, and wondered if the reviewer had actaully been at the same event!


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: michaelr
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 02:06 PM

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

Who said that?


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Will Fly
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 03:54 PM

It's not so much the opinion of reviewers that puzzles me - it's the language used to try and paint a picture of the sounds. It's the same with art criticism, but perhaps I just don't have required vocabulary.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: GUEST
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 04:14 PM

One of our top female traditional singers keeps wittering on about "Filmic tones", apparently it relates to the suitability of her songs to be used as background music in feature films.....I despair


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: GUEST
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 04:16 PM

AKE ^


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: leeneia
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 06:40 PM

I used to say that a certain acquaintance had a voice that sounds the way soap tastes. I guess y'all wouldn't care for that.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Andy7
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 07:45 PM

If talking about music is so impossible and such a bad idea, how come Mudcat exists? :-)


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 08:40 PM

So is it 1) impossible to describe music with words
or
2) that these reviews are now describing it in a way that you think is good / useful / etc. ?

If #1, how can you expect #2 at all?

If #1, is this in any way unique for music? Would it not be arguable that all or most things (that are not words themselves) could be known better through direct inspection than through the media of verbal signs? And if that is true, does it mean the latter is worthless or "impossible"?

If #2, that seems to be a specific topic on writing style, or maybe on meta-language. What would one offer as an improvement to the writing style or the vocabulary of the meta-language?


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Stanron
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 09:10 PM

If you really want to talk about music, learn music theory. It's what it's meant for.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Bee-dubya-ell
Date: 21 Jan 18 - 11:10 PM

Instrumental music is hard to describe because it goes in the ear and straight to the brain. It doesn't need to be understood, just experienced. It doesn't mean anything that can be described in words. It isn't about anything other than itself. It is the most directly experienced of all art forms.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Will Fly
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 03:21 AM

I know all about music theory, but that's not what I'm talking about, and Bee-dubya-ell hits it on the head. I can look at a piece of sheet music and hear it in my head - what is irritating is reading the flowery language of music journalists and translating it into some semblance of the character of the music being reviewed.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Will Fly
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 03:33 AM

"There's a vulnerable lightness that pervades the record, in spite of fleeting moments of jarring dissonances and numerous spiky damce tracks. Simple lyrics such as 'I have no idea who I see in the mirror' sound isolated in the mix ... the result is an immediacy that revels in its shortcomings and errors..."

A typical effort.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: BobL
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 03:59 AM

This is just one instance of a more general problem - how to describe things whose effects on thought and mind go deeper than the five senses. How can you express in words the smell of a rose? Or the difference in flavour between types of wine, or whiskey, or apple? The effect of music by Beethoven or Mahler or Janis Joplin? Many try, few succeed.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: GUEST,matt milton
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 04:23 AM

I don't think it's all that hard to describe music in words; it's just that most music reviewers get caught up in trying to appear clever.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Bee-dubya-ell
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 05:16 AM

I would also add that humans were probably creating music on primitive instruments long before the invention of language. The natural world is full of things on which music can be made. Language must be learned, but the ability to rhythmically bang two pieces of wood together is innate.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Joe Offer
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 05:50 AM

Leeneia describes "a voice that sounds the way soap tastes." I think I have to applaud a description like that. I'm working very hard to imagine such a voice. But I think if I heard a recording, I might well agree with the description.
I think that if one combines a recording with a verbal description, then the description becomes clear.
But don't discount your description, leeneia. I think it may well be a very good one.
-Joe-


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Tattie Bogle
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 07:51 AM

Rob Adams and Sue Wilson - memory has come back. see my previous post.
But the #2s are definitely in the minority!


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 09:50 AM

Best description of music ever
"I know it when I hear it"
Jim Carroll


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: GUEST,akenaton
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 10:28 AM

Most of the verbal garbage is designed to turn "folk music" into just another commodity.
The folk revival was as I have already said, more of a social movement than anything else.....you could actually feel it in the clubs especially in the chorus singing.
It had very little to do with "politics".....this is the fact that disappointed ideologues like Seeger and MacColl, they wanted to use the music and the strong feelings it engendered for their own political ends and the movement stalled then turned into the academy and sales nightmare that it is today.
If traditional music survives it will be in the niche where it has been since we reconstructed society.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Mr Red
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 10:41 AM

well we all know, and absorb certain traits of music.

So there are a few basic rules that work for most people.

Certain keys, suit sad subjects. Minor keys are tied by usage to suffering, as in the blues. Some keys, particularly on fixed note instrument like piano and guitar, have non-mathematical intervals to keep the number of buttons/keys/frets down to a workable number. This is said to make a key melancholy, sad, bright etc. If you knew the key and its usual adjective you would nod in agreement.

Plonk words and tempi on the vehicle and you have sadder, brighter, funnier etc that is hard to deny. And then there is the pathos, and bathos, and curious - eg happy words on a sad key.

Discords strike fear - look at Psycho in the shower scene. We feel that one alright.

I guess like any endeavour, if you live the genre, like music critique, you get to see the gaps in the above and have words that fly past mere mortals like us.

But what do I know?. I am a drummer.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Jim Carroll
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 10:58 AM

Think you might have posted to the wrong thread Ake
Jim Carroll


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: GUEST
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 11:06 AM

Thank you Jim, but there is no mistake.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: leeneia
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 02:15 PM

"If talking about music is so impossible and such a bad idea, how come Mudcat exists? :-)"

To share lyrics, to share melodies and chords, to discuss song origins, to explain lyrics, to post and hear MIDI's, to get help with joint or voice problems, to advertise events...
=======================
Will Fly, I agree that that review you quoted is really pompous and doesn't convey much.

However, I believe that metaphors can be used to describe music. Once I went to a choral workshop, and a leader told us to sing "red satin" and then "brown corduroy." We did it. We didn't know how we did it, exactly, but we did it.

The thing is, we have a Manager, logician and critic in the left cerebral cortex, and it thinks it has to be in charge of everything. Much of music and sound are handled by parts of the brain which are deeper and more primitive, and they just go ahead and do their thing, and that irritates and mystifies the Manager.

At the choral workshop, the Manager could have ranted "Red satin!? That makes no sense. This is stupid!" But we were all ready to sing, and energized by being together, so we ignored the Manager and just let our music-making organs go ahead and sing red satin.
===========
Joe, thanks for your kind words.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Mr Red
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 07:26 PM

"red satin" and then "brown corduroy."

Ah synesthesia. We all have it to some degree, but a few have it to a very visible level. Like the conductor Sir John Barbaroli who was said to once ask for "more blue".

And what better than red?
The autumn fire of Ontario and Vermont.
The warm glow of wood embers. Rose tinted spectacles. Good luck in Chinese culture.

Colourful language! We speak in metaphore, and think nothing of it, till the metaphore is unfamiliar, contorted or pretentius.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: leeneia
Date: 22 Jan 18 - 09:15 PM

So true.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Jack Campin
Date: 23 Jan 18 - 08:16 AM

Some writers have done very well at describing their own or their characters' responses to music, putting the music itself in the background. Three that come to mind:

- Kerouac describing his response to George Shearing in "On the Road"

- Carson McCullers describing her character's response to the Eroica in "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter"

- Halldor Laxness describing listening to Roberto Gerhard's violin concerto in "The Atom Station".

These are all brilliant writing by any standard.

Thomas Mann does a virtuoso performance of describing a piece which is sort of based on Schoenberg's "Die Jacobsleiter" in "Doctor Faustus". In a way he makes it easy for himself by describing something imaginary, but he does get the effect of a piece using massive-scale formal mirrored structure right.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: GUEST
Date: 23 Jan 18 - 08:19 AM

Why don't you provide links, or at least a few quotes, Jack?

It would be most helpful.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: GUEST,Rahere
Date: 25 Jan 18 - 04:40 AM

Taking it in another direction, the use of Midi is simply the latest in the misunderstanding that the dots are the music. It doesn't really matter what notation was used, what the musician has to do is inject some spirit into the thing, or you end up with just a lifeless series of beeps, clicks and whistles. Even comparing digital transcription of analogue recordings reveals that the clipping is going the wrong way, from analogue, and the purist likely feels the same about analogue, if all you want to do is hear exactly the same thing time after time after time as a self-justificatory form of onanism, fine, however music is an evolving tradition, which means that we really should hear it from live performance for it to be at its best, speaking of and to the needs of the day, and that in turn places Folk at the cutting edge of it, because folk performers have always been among the sharpest critics of the weight of the day - as Billy Bragg would inevitably point out, and challenge you to take up his mantle, even if not necessarily so acerbically - you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Andy7
Date: 25 Jan 18 - 05:19 AM

“How shall I say it? Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have … And music transports me immediately into the condition of soul in which he who wrote the music found himself at that time. I become confounded with his soul, and with him I pass from one condition to another.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kreuzer Sonata)


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Ernest
Date: 25 Jan 18 - 06:22 AM

I remember an austrailian song describing a "voice like a billygoat pissing in a tin" - found that quite colorful...

Apart of that I agree with Will: a lot of journalists write pompously.
One reason might be that they do not really know the subject they are writing about. In fact, some newspapers should bear a note: "may contain traces of journalism".


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: leeneia
Date: 25 Jan 18 - 11:24 AM

"...the misunderstanding that the dots are the music."

If people really thought that, they couldn't tell a lullaby from a polka. Not very likely.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Tattie Bogle
Date: 26 Jan 18 - 05:53 PM

Afraid it is very possible, Leenia: if you pick up the dots of a tune off a website where there is no indication of tempo, phrasing or anything else, and you don't bother to listen to any recordings of the same tune, it is aggravatingly easy to turn a slow air into a march or reel. Oh yes, I've heard it done on more than one painful occasion!


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Donuel
Date: 26 Jan 18 - 06:30 PM

A person whose senses are shared by their other senses is called synesthetic. Visual shapes, color, skin sensations and taste will come easy, its what they feel from what they hear. Ear training can enhance even the non synstheet person to feel on multiple levels.

Describing experience is difficult. Try describing the color violet to a color blind person or a person with dark eyes. Only people with blue or green eyes see true violet into the ultra violet range. To them it looks like a very unique violet to bright black.


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Will Fly
Date: 27 Jan 18 - 04:26 AM

A technique used by wine people to describe the taste of a wine is to relate that taste to other, non-wine, tastes that can be related to. I was at a tasting once and was asked to describe what I tasted with a particular white wine. My reply, based on what I could taste in my mouth, was, "A hint of Stilton cheese". Some people giggled at that, but the host said that the mould used to give that grape the "noble rot" (botrytis, I believe) was similar to that used in cheesemaking. Other wines were related to strawberries, melon, etc. This technique gets some snide remarks as being pretentious but, actually, it's one way of giving an idea of the wine.

A similar way of describing music would be to rely on people's ability to relate an unknown sound to one that is known. But if I said, "It sounds like Billy Pigg mixed with Jeff Beck", you would have to know Billy and Jeff to make sense of that...


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Subject: RE: The impossibility of describing music
From: Mr Red
Date: 27 Jan 18 - 06:26 AM

you catch more flies with honey than vinegar

metaphor or analogy? Either way it hits home.


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