Don’t Speak: musicality

This is the first in a series of articles from Bryan Hooten, a Richmond-based trombonist, composer and music educator, that seek to streamline the way people, musicians and non-musicians included, talk about music.

This is the first in a series of articles from Bryan Hooten, a Richmond-based trombonist, composer and music educator, that seek to streamline the way people, musicians and non-musicians included, talk about music.

Words cut. Words divide our sensory perceptions into “this and not that.” If words do not cut in this way, they are useless. Words are powerful tools that give us specificity. However, when we apply language to the densely tied knot of subjectivity that is The Arts, our words often loose some of their sharpness. I shall begin my streamlining mission with the word ‘musicality.’ This word, typically said with deep affectation and furrowed brow, is often used to praise or deride a performer or particular performance. Some usage examples include:

“Her playing wasn’t that technically proficient but she played with such musicality!”

“His playing was so mechanical. There was very little musicality.”

“I’ve been working really hard on my musicality.”

Saying someone played music with musicality is tantamount to saying someone ate eatingly or ran runningly, as if it were possible to do these things in any other way. To fully eviscerate this term, we must first decide what it means.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines music as “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity” and musicality as “sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music.” Let us discard both of these definitions, starting with the root word. The “ordering of sounds” occurs equally in the listener and the composer/performer. This is a truth that, when followed to it’s logical conclusion, asserts that when we perceive any set of sounds (car horns, wind, cell-phones going off in the middle of Mahler 9) happening simultaneously or in order, music is occurring. Even as a musician, I have no problem with such a broad definition, but I’m a “the tree does not make a sound if no one is there to hear it” kind of person. In short: no listener, no sound. Listener creates music. According to the above definition, everything we hear is music. Also, as we will discuss later, not all music is designed to convey “unity” and “continuity.” The above definition of musicality also does not express the degree to which one must have sensitivity, knowledge or talent for music in order to be musical. I suppose being able to hear at all counts as sensitivity, being able to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ counts as ‘knowledge of’ and ‘talent-for.’ Having established that the definitions for music and musicality are hopelessly broad, allow me to state what I think people think they mean when they speak this way.

“Musicality means the expression of emotions through music.”

This definition is warm and fuzzy but doesn’t work because it is too broad. We are never “emotionless” and therefore every performance occurs at an equal level of emotionality. Perhaps people think that a performer ‘moved’ them in some way, whatever that means. However, if you intensely disliked something, you were moved. If you intensely liked something, you were moved. If you felt nothing, you were still feeling. If we take emotion to mean a state of being, it is impossible to play music without expressing an emotion.

“Musicality means expressing a wide range of dynamics, timbres and tempos.”

I think we are getting closer to something but this definition doesn’t work because it is too specific. Some music, especially Baroque (despite the way most people perform the Bach Cello Suites) and minimalist does not always ask for a wide rage of dynamics, timbres and tempos. Antonio Carlos Jobim doesn’t sing about the apocalyptic battle of the Norse gods and a fat lady with a Viking helmet and accompanied by a massive orchestra doesn’t sing about lounging on a Brazilian beach. If James Brown’s drummer played Sex Machine with the rhythmic push and pull of a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, no one could dance to it. For every specific element we throw into the ‘musicality’ basket, some piece requires the opposite element, therefore destroying this definition.

Here’s what I think some people really mean when they use the word musicality:

“I’m a smarter and more astute listener than you.”

Obviously, this attitude doesn’t do anyone any good. Here we have a prime example of jargon as a dividing line between the initiated and uninitiated. I said earlier that words must cut, that they must convey “this and not that.” Words must do this, however, so that people can have a common experience, so we can be specific about places, times and things. We must use words to divide our experience into logical pieces, but not to divide ourselves.

There are two things I ask of you, dear reader. One: In the comments below, please suggest alternatives for the word musicality. Two: There may be some holes in my argument so please don’t hesitate to point them out. However, if you must criticize, please do so critically.

Bryan Hooten is a Richmond, VA based trombonist, composer and educator. He performs and records with No BS! Brass, Fight the Big Bull, Ombak, Spacebomb Records and recently released his debut solo trombone album, Richmond Love Call. Hooten teaches music at VCU, James River High School and Hanover High School.

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Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

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