An Analysis of Analysis
An Analysis of Analysis
One of the pet peeves of every theory department of every Music University I know is: The general level of musical knowledge in the student body is falling. Which means: the students become worse and worse in tasks like aural training, sight reading, analysis and harmony. Of course this doesn’t mean they become worse as musicians – in fact the general level of musicianship and versatility as a musician is most certainly still rising, as the battle for the coveted orchestra jobs becomes more and more intense as there are increasingly less opportunities.
Some Universities are even insecure if their own level of theory is high enough – I recently got an email from a college in Tokyo asking me about the level of musical analysis of contemporary music in my composition department, to compare it with their own. I could not really answer them, as I’m not forced to do in-depth analysis with my students as they have to go to special classes with other professors to do it. But when I see them appear at exams I can usually note that there is a lot of suffering and angst with the subject of analysis, even with composition students who actually have to focus on such things.
I am not in the least doubting the usefulness of analysis of scores. I have done it myself countless times and have learned a lot. But sometimes I doubt if the way we teach analysis is the correct way – or to put it differently: is our way teaching analysis overlooking some aspects that are actually much more important to understand the meaning of a piece?
Because the art of music is partly an art of mathematical proportions and symmetry a lot of focus is spent on exactly these subjects. We all have read books like “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in which Douglas Hofstadter brilliantly goes on at length about the fascinating symmetry in Bach’s fugues and brings them in a context with geometrically complex visual arts (Escher) and highly erudite mathematics (Gödel). But nowhere in the whole book is there any discussion about the possibility that even a most ingeniously constructed fugue with “perfect” counterpoint might actually end up being a completely boring piece of music. Even if – and I know that some people will see this as a sacrilege – it is written by the master himself, Bach. And yes, I have found myself waking up at a prelude when listening to the well-tempered piano, simply because the amount of musical surprises here is usually higher than in the sometimes mechanical Fugues (still, some of these fugues are of course masterworks, no doubt).
Some musical analysis is so complex that it arrives at quite banal answers. I always had a good laugh when looking at Schenker’s analysis of Beethoven’s Sonatas for example, where even a wild and crazy piece like op. 111 ends up summed up in some isolated notes and chords with scribble in-between. Is this actually the essence of op. 111? A simple cadence?
There is this nice German proverb about the forest that you can’t see because of all the trees. Or the Indian story about the blind man who cannot grasp the concept of an elephant because he is only touching parts of it. Of course these truths also apply to musical analysis – very often it goes into great details about aspects that the composer has probably not spent a lot of times on, working more intuitively probably when making his decisions (I know I do!). A lot of the current understanding of Baroque counterpoint is based on retroactively making up rules about things that the composers of the time intuitively found beautiful, very often out of simple aesthetic considerations that only made sense in a certain period of time, not later, not earlier. And it usually overlooks the fact that these composers constantly broke these rules – because they were not even aware those were rules themselves.
But if a student today creates a weird counterpoint in a style copy of a Baroque fugue today, he will get a bad mark. For originality! This is something that I have never understood – that we (at an arts university after all) give bad grades for things outside the norm, when art itself is outside the norm by definition, otherwise it’s not art.
It is interesting to compare musical analysis to let’s say text analysis or fine art analysis. The analysis of a good screenplay for example would only partly be about the typical tropes of today’s screenplays, for example the famous “3-act form”. At some point the analyzer would have to talk about characters, their relationship in the story, how they are introduced, how dialogue is handled….and most certainly about what story the screenplay actually tries to tell and if it is successful or not in doing this.
In (fine) art analysis there is also talk about things like the golden mean, or what materials the artist used, and how he used them. At some point though there absolutely would have to be talking about psychological elements: how the painting is perceived, how the artist draws attention to certain details, what emotions the picture conveys.
When I compare musical analysis to the analysis of the painting I feel constantly that the musical theory tells me which way the single hairs of the brush went, but very little about WHY the brush went this or another way. I read about intervallic relationships, spectral analysis, modes, techniques for the organization of polyphony….in short: I read a lot about “material”, very little about the spirit of a piece. Is it exciting? Is it boring? Is it funny? Is it crazy?
The analysis of “material” is very shy talking about important aspects like “inspiration” or “keeping up the interest of the listener”. A listener will not like a piece more because he hears a perfectly realized serial counterpoint, there have to be other things that keep up his interest: dynamics, variety, surprise and yes….mostly good old craziness! There is no rule that you can make up to create an exciting piece, there always is an element of indeterminacy, of spontaneity, of intuition by the composer. Of course we can all tell that a composer like Brahms preferred the low registers, but there is no system behind it, it was simply a decision of personal taste, from instance to instance, with no specific rule behind it like “you have to write in the low register”. Actually, if there had been a rule like this at work in Brahms’ oeuvre his music would be much more boring than it actually is (and it isn’t).
There is no “perfect” musical analysis, I know. But perhaps we can try to put the focus on things that are more interesting than counting the bars of the exposition, or when the piece modulates to what, or what tone material was used, or which techniques were used to transform and permutate it. I personally find these “findings” extremely trite and boring, even though I know that there a lot of people who get a kick out of them.
Still, if we find a different approach to musical analysis that perhaps resonates more with the actual experience of listening to the piece for the first time (where you don’t count bars or listen to inversions) our students might actually become more interested in it.