The more music sounds like music the more it is fraudulent and deceptive but nonetheless tempting to accept. This might sound slanderous to music lovers, but what “sounds most like music” comes with the tag telling us the world unquestionably accepts and identifies it as signifying that word. It bears the stamp of authenticity, yet no one can pinpoint the source of authority for that judgment. If music comes with that image of broad agreement our feeling of boredom with it stands against the world, creating an alienation easily taken for granted. “I’m not part of the mainstream” is even a matter of pride.

Music with a clearly defined melody, simple harmony, obvious feeling, conventional instrumental sound is like comfort food prepared by the world and brought to our table, a free gift, yet we let these sounds pass through us or settle into the background. The weight of authority and the free gift however doesn’t mean that a huge number of people really enjoy it. For instance 19th century classical music is at the pinnacle of “real music” yet the audience for it continues to diminish without it losing its position of authority. Like so much common political opinion, few give much thought to whether they really want to listen to it or not. It is assumed that other people do, and so that is that, it’s just there, and will always be there.

The flip side of the most authentic music is “difficult” music (experimental music; modern classical composition, free jazz), supposedly intended to challenge people, however mildly. Like classical music it too does not have many regular listeners, but it comes with a tag that says it is unpopular, and so those thought to listen to it are people who choose to be outside the mainstream, or at least feel obligated to test the water. The latter are the ones who say, “I like all kinds of music” (like “I’m not prejudiced”) until confronted directly with something they really can’t stand. That would be an experience they would hope to avoid, for their educated musical taste requires not inquiring too closely what is out there.

When we as young children were taught how to make music that sounds like music, we were flattered with “good job,” for we achieved something that would be recognized as the real deal. Since we could never get enough recognition we kept trying to do a better job, get more reward, and so on up the never-ending ladder. But an anxiety can creep in with the reward, prompting a suspicion that all this could be a game of which we are the fools and victims. We’ve made music that people only pretend to like and listen to, without really making a decision about it. The question then is, how do we make music that is authentically our own, that has no imaginary authority to validate it?

Advertisements