Thursday, November 22, 2018

Naive and Sentimental Musical Sensemaking

Readers who have followed this site for some time know that I have a tendency to fall back on the noun “sensemaking” when talking about the nature of listening to music. While this word is not in the Oxford English Dictionary (although the hyphenated version “sense-making” is), it had been adopted by several of my former research colleagues to address the rising problem of being able to extract “useful meaning” from very large bodies of data. The Oxford definition of the hyphenated version does little more than echo the two component words; but, if we look back about half a century, we find that Friedrich Hayek was dealing with the same issue when addressing sensory data, rather than databases. The term he introduced was “sensory order,” the biological drive to find order in what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of sensory signals.

from the Web page for Comparing Notes

With that as context, I found it hard to resist reading the book Comparing Notes: How We Make Sense of Music by Adam Ockelford. Ockelford is Professor of Music at Roehampton University (in England). He also directs the university’s Applied Music Research Centre. He occasionally makes reference to his doctoral studies in music, suggesting that he got his advanced degree in music. However, much of his research has involved the acquisition of musical skills among young people with sensory or cognitive disadvantages. His practices thus keep one foot in music and the other in psychology.

That sort of background should, by all rights, have made this book both fascinating and valuable reading. For my part, however, I was profoundly dissatisfied; and that dissatisfaction can be traced back to the second word of Ockelford’s title. At the end of the day, he has little to say about anything other than those marks on paper that all practicing musicians are expected to be able to decode. What that as his foundation, he dwells on that tiresome question of what music actually is, how it “works” (whatever that means), and, ultimately, how we “make sense” when it comes to either performing the music or listening to it. Only at the beginning of his final chapter does he cite sociomusicologist Christopher Small’s contention that music is not some kind of “thing” but, rather, “an activity, something that people do.”

My decision to devote personal time to writing about music owes much to my ability to spend a fair amount of time hanging out at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), which is only about half a dozen blocks from where I was living. Through my own experiences in higher education, I have come to a naive but probably useful conclusion about where who learns what. In universities we learn about theories about music; in conservatories we learn about how music is practiced.

Universities occupy their curricula with things, to such an extent that one might almost say that education can be reduced to a knapsack of noun phrases. Ockelford’s noun phrases come from a wide variety of sources, almost all of which have to do with academic publications that may or may not signify to anyone beyond other academics. The grammatical infrastructure of the conservatory education, on the other hand, is build on verb phrases. One emerges (hopefully) with refined skills for doing, often without necessarily verbalizing (or, for that matter thinking about) what one is doing.

In his academic context it is understandable that Ockelford cannot get his head out of all those notes on staff paper. He has some clever ideas (which he calls his “zygonic conjecture”) about a foundation based on replications and transformations of patterns; but these are just familiar concepts dressed up in a new notation. As a doctoral student I was taking the same sort of approach to music in my thesis, except that my patterns were modules of computer code and the transformations resulted from parameters passed to those modules.

As a result of observing master classes at SFCM, I came to appreciate just how limited my perspective had been. Apparently, Ockelford has yet to encounter that revelation. Nevertheless, to be fair, shifting attention from nouns to verbs is no easy matter. Even the very idea of how one describes grammar for verbs has major qualitative differences from the almost computer-like formality of noun grammar. However, Ockelford never seems to accept that sensemaking cannot be anything other than an ongoing process. Like sound itself, if you try to freeze it in a single moment of time, it all vanishes.

When I read Ockelford’s title, I approached his book in the hope that someone had finally come up with, if not an underlying theory, at least a usable roadmap for negotiating the complexities of verb-based thinking. Instead, I encountered that very noun-based song-and-dance that I have been trying to escape for at least a decade. My guess is that those music-makers who really “get” the verb-based activity of their work are too occupied with the work itself to waste any time theorizing about it.

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