Music as Universal Language: A Lovely Thought; A Dangerous Proposal!

Not THE theory of music, but A theory of SOME music! A Music Adventurer warns against the comfort of training within disciplines

LILA:  We would like to discuss the pedagogic scope of music as a language with you for this issue of INTER-ACTIONS themed ‘Language’.  You work with young children also, bringing them to work together with professionals. Can music be universally taught like any other language, as it is also linked to musical talent? How do you view this as a practicing musician, a music thinker as well as an academician? Do these three roles generally represent three different perspectives in the field?

Zack Moir: I can understand why some people like to think of music as a language – I even admit to finding this idea slightly seductive. The idea that music could be a universal language and that it can link people and overcome social, political, and linguistic barriers is obviously a lovely thought. While it is true that (almost) all cultures have some form of music, it does not follow to say that the universality of music means that music is universally appreciated, understood, and valued – this is, in my mind, no different to language. So, and I appreciate that this is somewhat controversial, but I believe that perpetuating the idea of music as a universal language actually serves to trivialise the importance of music in people’s lives, and is particularly dangerous when we think about music education. You ask whether or not music can be ‘taught as a universal language’; I would say that I really don’t think that it should be. Yet, in many ways, that is what people do. I would go as far as to say that personally, I have very little interest in the idea of ‘teaching’ music at all, which is an odd thing to say for someone who considers themselves as a hugely passionate music educator. I feel that much of the standardisation of musical forms and styles, and the hierarchies of musical ‘worth’ and ‘importance’ have developed (in part) as a result of a work-focussed, structuralist approach to music education that reifies ‘music’ and encourages people to engage with it in certain ways, that may or may not be compatible with their personal or cultural understanding of the notion of music. Given that music as a phenomenon is so diverse, and can be interpreted and valued in so many different ways, it is very difficult to think of it as being universal. One might argue that because of the cultural value that has been attributed to music of the Western classical common practice period, it has come close to being universally appreciated, and many forms of music education around the world have adopted an approach that supports and perpetuates the repertoire and values of this tradition. However, I would argue that it would be more valuable, to my mind, if we stopped focusing on ‘music’ as if it was something real/tangible and universal, and spent more time thinking about the way that people use, value, and engage in music and musical practices (both production and consumption), and place that at the centre of our approaches to music education as this is far more meaningful and person-centric. Maybe what we need to focus on is the universality of people and their desire to engage with music, rather than some type of music that can be universally understood or appreciated.

Zack speaking about his work in popular music education at the Association of Popular Music Education annual conference in Denver, Colorado. 2017.

LILA: You have worked with people with various disabilities. Obviously, there needs to be a lot of innovation while doing this. Could you tell us about your approach here? How do you understand musical intelligence and how do you deal with different levels of intelligence? 

ZM: I have worked with musicians of all ages and levels, and with some musicians who would identify as having disabilities. In some ways, as you suggest, there needs to be a degree of innovation when working with people who have physical impairments that result in them engaging with musical instruments in different ways. This may involve discovering new ways to hold traditional instruments or re-tuning stringed instruments to allow open chords, for example, or it may be a case of using other technologies (e.g. iPads, movement sensors, laptops) in musical ways. In some ways this aspect of working with musicians with disabilities, this could be viewed as a trivial or superficial task that simply involves finding ways to overcome mechanical issues. The real issue, again, is thinking about what it means to engage in music making. Yes, it may well be the case that someone with a condition that impacts their fine motor skills will find it difficult to play a Bach flute sonata, for example. If this is the measure of a person’s ability to engage in music making, then it is easy to see how disability may be seen as a barrier to participation. If, however, a wider understanding of music making is embraced in education, and we recognize that the unique creative offerings of people making music (in whatever way they feel comfortable) as valuable, then we change (and more importantly, broaden) our understanding of the nature of ‘musical ability’ and ‘musical intelligence’. This also involves an ideological shift away from our preoccupation in music education with performance of musical works. Improvising, composing, and production are, in my personal opinion, equally important examples of musical activity, and should also be considered as valuably so.

LILA: Do you think there is a transformative role that music can play in the society? If you would envisage a movement for that, how would you describe it? 

ZM: Absolutely, I think that music has extremely potent transformative potential. It has the power to bring people together, and to become a common area of interest for people from diverse backgrounds. However, in order for music to really transform society, I think it is important for us to move away from viewing musicians as specialists or viewing music as something that only ‘musicians’ can do, and to make musical activity a normal part of life that anyone can participate in. Anyone can be musical and anything can be music, provided we move away from having such rigid ways of appraising success and musical worth.

LILA: You have made use of technology in a very fruitful manner in your projects, and have bridged the physical distances between musicians. How would you reflect on the future of music vis-a-vis technology?

ZM: For me, as a popular music educator, technology is imperative. Yes, I have been involved in a project using a system called LOLA (through my friend and colleague Dr Paul Ferguson) in which we use low latency networks to connect musicians playing in remote locations (hundreds or thousands of miles apart), in real time. For example, we ran sessions in which I played saxophone in Edinburgh with a drummer in London, another in which I was connected to a drummer in New York, and another session in which I played in real time with a guitarist in Boston. This was not only hugely impressive as a technological feat, but a meaningful musical experience in which genuine interactive improvisation occurred, despite the vast physical distances separating us. While this is still an emerging technology, and is by no means available to everyone at the moment, I think it is an area that would be really important to develop so that musicians can work together without having to travel as much. This obviously has significant financial and environmental benefits, and breaks down some of the barriers that currently hamper international collaboration. There are asynchronous technologies that allow relatively easy collaboration at present, but the ability to interact in real time across vast distance is one important area that I would like to see develop.

Zack in the studio recording with bassist Ewan Gibson. This picture was taken during a LOLA session in which Zack was playing in Edinburgh in real time with a guitar player in Boston.

LILA: You are an academic and a music thinker. Beyond studying how to read the notations and related skills, how do you appreciate music theory? Given the enormous traditions and trends in music across the world, how does one hope to educate oneself ‘about’ music, or even ‘think’ about it? Is there a way to connect at once with musical traditions as diverse as Indian Carnatic Music and Heavy Metal? If we are to evolve an intercultural musical discourse founded on time, sound and silence, what should be its theoretical direction? 

ZM: I have always really enjoyed the things that people typically refer to as ‘music theory’. I was pretty good at it as a teenager, and having spent time playing and writing ‘jazz’ (for want of a better word), things like harmony and rhythm, and musical analysis have always been of great interest to me. However, I personally always enjoyed doing this type of work in the same way that one might enjoy doing a crossword puzzle. It was a game – it was simply about applying rules and working things out. The more I developed as a musician and composer, and the more I studied music education, the clearer it became that referring to such an area as ‘music theory’ is something of a misnomer. People often talk about the theory of music, but what we really should talk about is a theory of some music. Of course the same ‘rules’ don’t apply to every type of music. Many forms of music (even including western popular music) are best theorized and analysed in ways that don’t necessarily place melody and harmony in the foreground, for example. Also, so many of the things that we focus on when engaging in what people typically refer to as ‘music theory’ exercises, are those that can be easily communicated on a printed score. Obviously, this can’t be a blanket or global music theory, so I think we really need to stop trying to put things in the wrong boxes!

Zack in the studio producing ‘How Does This Work, Then’ – his piece for solo cello.

LILA: Coming to the academy, considering that understanding sound involves understanding its physical qualities, how do you view the vertical specializations of music and physics under the University faculties of arts and science respectively? How would you bring a true interdisciplinary University experience to the learners of music?

ZM: Given that the vast majority of my teaching is in the area of popular music, and music technology is central to most of this work, I feel that this is hugely important. So often, musicians shy away from talking about ‘physics’ per se, but actually many of the artistic decisions we make in performance, composition, and production are a direct result of our musical understanding of physical phenomena. So yes, in terms of the academy, and particularly with regard to popular music education, I do think it is important that we think about the relationship between music and physics, but this does not necessarily mean that we have to teach our students physics. There are more appropriate constructivist ways in which we can encourage musicians to think in these terms and I wholeheartedly believe that we should build on their own lived experience as much as possible and provide theoretical underpinning and scientific frameworks where necessary, and by appropriate means.

You ask ‘how would you bring a true interdisciplinary university experience to learners of music’, this is a great question. One of the things that I see as really detracting from music in higher education at the moment is the importance placed on training. Don’t get me wrong, of course one of the things that people want from a music education is to be able to ‘do something’, be that playing a musical instrument or producing records. However, if our main focus is on ‘training’ then we often become focused on indoctrinating learners, and encouraging a particular ways of thinking or working that lead to certain outcomes. This, in my mind, frequently leads to instrumental understanding, in which learners learn rules, or protocols in specific contexts so they can achieve certain goals.  Clearly this is important for some people, but it typically leaves little room for wider interdisciplinary thinking, or the kind of critical, reflective analysis that I feel is important in higher education. So, in my personal opinion, I feel that a more meaningful higher education experience would be achieved if we remove the metaphorical blinkers of ‘discipline’ and avoid reverting to ‘training’ within disciplines as a default approach.

Zack chairing a panel at a conference ‘Continental Drift: 50 years of jazz from Europe’. 2016.

LILA: As a practicing musician, what are your views on remixes? There is a lot of piracy involved in this practice – is there a way to contain it? Is there a need to contain it? 

ZM: I love listening to remixes. I am a real music geek and love it when bands/artists release remixed versions of their music. As a big Radiohead fan, I spent almost as long listening to the King of Limbs remixes (TKOL RMX 1234567) as I did with the actual record. Obviously, this is an ‘official’ remix record, i.e. sanctioned by the band, so there are no copyright issues here, but I do see what you mean about the problem with piracy. For the most part, I think musicians and producers who engage in remixing are doing so through a love of the music, and not to rip off other artists for their own financial gain. As such, there is a respect for the original music, and artists will typically make the source(s) abundantly clear. In many ways, this is the digital incarnation of a cover version. Ideologically, I see no real need to contain it, as I believe that the majority of people engaging in these practices do so in a decent and honorable way. As usual, the biggest issue is that record companies fear that there may be some loss of potential revenue, and therefore it is the financial value of the music as a product that is foregrounded in this debate, and not the artistic value that drew remixers to it in the first place.

LILA: Could you tell us about your blog, Thinking about music? What was your inspiration/intention to start it, where is it headed?

ZM: Yes, Thinking About Music is a multi-authored academic blog that deals with any/all aspects of music. Sometimes posts are from people exploring ideas in a public space, sometimes it is people sharing examples of work or, sometimes it is just a space to comment on an idea or phenomenon of interest. I started it as a way to share ideas with people in a somewhat informal context and on a public site. Academic journals are wonderful things, but they are often behind paywalls, and generally contain articles that are written in formal, discipline specific ways. I wanted this to be a more open, exploratory space that people could use to share ideas (or even half-formed ideas) in text and media formats! The question ‘where is it headed’ is a more difficult one to answer – largely because it is difficult to find time to write content. I started doing it on a weekly basis and then it slipped to fortnightly and now it is even less frequent than that. I think it is difficult for us academics as (a) we have so little free time to write, and (b) when we do, we need to be thinking about writing papers or books that can contribute to our research profiles. Unfortunately, blog posts don’t really contribute to this. Therefore, I can understand why my colleagues and I find it difficult to prioritize this kind of writing. There are a few planned posts in the pipeline, and it is my intention to get the frequency of posts back to one a fortnight over the course of this academic year. I am also going to open it up to some of my postgraduate students as I feel that this may be a nice introduction to writing for the public in an open and friendly environment.

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