Exhausted by the needless complexity of Joomla and webhosting, I vowed to take a month off, but in the meantime I'll tell you about something I've noticed gradually over the years: my attitude toward music is unusual, which surprises me. In particular, what you and I mean, think of, and feel when we say "music" or "music theory" might be different. I'll take a few posts to explain why.
We're all music lovers here. Music lovers are common, but too few of us are disappointed in our beloved. I'm suspicious of musicians who like music too much. If you like existing music too much, the natural course of action is to imitate what already exists. Even a good imitation of a good model is bad—it fails because it is boring. Usually the imitations are poor because the musicians lack skill and knowledge. Often the models they choose to imitate are bad, because they lack taste. Recall Sturgeon's Law that "90% of everything is crap." So, 90% of existing music—available models for imitation—are crap. Musicians are very likely to choose bad models for imitation because the same law applies to them: 90% of the audience is crap.
Then again, some people don't like music at all—then they don't try to understand or produce it. I'm lucky to have an attitude in the sweet spot between loving music unconditionally and not liking it at all. I'm in the narrow region in-between, where I like it, but I can see that it has a lot of room for improvement—and I want to do the work of improving it. Music could be good someday, but it needs a lot of work.
Music is okay as it is, but it has the potential to be great. I want to make the general music-loving public see that. Why don't they? Why are they overly impressed with music? Why is my reaction to music so different? Part of it is because I'm imagining technical improvements musicians don't know about yet. Mostly, though, it's because what I mean when I say "music" is different from what they mean. Let's take a close look at this by examining a typical music-loving situation.
Spectators at a local music venue appreciate music in the following way. The typical bar band can manage a steady beat and, in about half their songs, one recognizable melodic turn. Listeners' brains recognize these features and give themselves a small dopamine reward for a successful act of pattern-matching.
More of the act is about shouting slogan texts. It's so important that audiences can hardly conceive of music without it and habitually call all musical pieces "songs". In fact, the words have become so much more important than their ineffective musical settings that vast genres are devoted to different varieties of slogan-barking. Most of the act, though, is about costume and posturing, theatrical gestures presenting a character. Everyone believes that the musicians are projecting personality. The purpose of both the slogan and the clowning is to give the audience a model to identify with. Each can say to himself, "No longer am I a valueless blank slate, the same as all the others. Now I recognize that I am the same as the bold fellow on stage, affirming such-and-such a slogan." They get much more dopamine reward from this act of (prefabricated) self-assertion than from the meager musical material.
This is just the personal, psychological level, beyond this, there is a larger, social motive to the event. After all, the above purposes are better served by music on the radio, which is likely to have more musical content than the bar band, and slogans better honed for consumer appeal. At the bar, though, one can be a part of the tribe unified by slogan-acceptance, identity emulation, and the event gathering. The serotonin release triggered by the sense of tribal belonging is the biggest and best reward of all.
To the spectators, "music" means the whole event, with its potent psychological and social rewards. To me, the only "music" at the event is the fragmentary sensation of rhythm and melody I described above—the poor musical setting that is the excuse for the social event. In general, when I say "music" I mean the specifically musical sensations—rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, and form—that arise out of certain auditory sensations and onto which we project aesthetic and other feelings. (The "musical" part of music is what I describe in §1.3 of AMFB, "The Musical Layer".) It doesn't have to be poorly done as it is in the bar-event. Music can be rich, complex, subtle, varied, and interesting (to invite similarly rich aesthetic projections), but in typical situations of music consumption most of the rewards are extra-musical, so there is little incentive to make good music and this part of the event is neglected. Also, it's a lot easier to find a crap band than a good one.
Let's consider the event from the point of view of the band. The sound producers are the focus of the social mechanism. The microscopic pleasantness triggered by their audio earns them the title "musician". Fair enough, but the music is a small part of the act and a smaller part of the event. The actors producing the audio signal onstage get to be thought of as important. I'm reminded of Frank Zappa's description of duelling doo-wop groups in highschool. He describes how the musical quality didn't matter at all. They were exactly like sports teams, with audience members supporting either the home team or the visitors according to their personal affiliation.
To both fans and musicians in this picture, "knowing about music" means knowing about famous recording artists, and especially knowing about their personal foibles—the interest is in personalities, not in music (a distraction that plagues academic Musicology as well). In this world of music consumption, some discographic data and some biographical information about the eccentrics and drug addicts who make the records is taken for musical knowledge. I differ here too. The important thing to me is the knowledge that helps us to make the music—to create the audio signal that triggers the sensations of rhythm, melody, and so on that should be at the heart of the process. To me, "knowing about music" means knowing the technical details about how music works or about how to make it, but this is not considered a subject for conscious thought in the popular music world. There is another catch: the technical details probably aren't what you think they are, but that is a subject for later posts.