1. Preface


Musical Sovereignty—Preface

First of all, thanks for reading this book. In this age of streaming video, it’s a good sign for literacy when any book is read, let alone one about music appreciation. Your choice to entertain my ideas here confounds the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Music is an aural art form that is supposed to be heard, not explained, the analogy contends, and to write about it misses the point of the art form. This analogy is problematic. Its structure,

writing : music :: dancing : architecture

suggests congruence between all the analogy’s items. It only works if we accept that writing, music, dancing, and architecture are all art forms that share equal status, and therefore all are interchangeable via the commutative property. Not all these items are congruent, however. Of the four, writing is different in an important way. While most forms of art communicate some type of meaning, writing communicates precise, semantic meaning. It is, compared to non-linguistic art forms, a superconductor of ideas and meaning.

One of the important ideas I explore in this book is the difference between prose and poetry. These terms belong literally to the linguistic domain, but one may apply them figuratively to other arts, which we will do later in the book. Prose is language that exists only to communicate information, necessarily devoid of artistic intent and content. Language aspiring only to the prosaic transfer of information is what makes writing the incongruent piece of the above analogy. It is not analogous to other art forms because it is not art. In contrast to prose, poetic language aspires to beauty. Its purpose is to create an aesthetic response from its audience rather than to communicate information directly. This kind of writing—poetic and artistic language—resolves the analogy. Poetic writing is analogous to other art forms because it is itself art. Thus the analogy is more appropriately constructed:

poetic writing : music :: dancing : architecture

Or, to extrapolate this Aristotelian construction into a coherent sentence:

Writing poetically about music is like dancing about architecture.

While this new analogy is now more logical than its previous version, the edit changes the spirit of the original analogy, which seeks to claim that attempting to explain music (with prosaic language) interferes with musical experience. I disagree with this fundamental premise—that music, or art more generally, is not served by having systems of language to explain artistic products or processes. If prosaic language were an artistic taboo, masters in all artistic disciplines would be unable to transmit advanced techniques to novices, and all art would suffer as a result.

In my first semester of college, one of the electives I took was a course on music recording technology. Of the twenty or so students in the class, only one other student aside from me completed the music theory/aural skills course sequence.1 The rest were aspiring rappers and rockers who wanted to learn the technology they needed to make their beats and record their hooks and licks without having to learn the language of music, which would have showed them how to assess whether or not their licks, hooks, and chord progressions were any good. One kid in particular bragged about how he was purposefully abstaining from learning music theory because he didn’t want it to ruin music for him, for music to lose its magic. And I’ve heard similar sentiments from other people as well. After several years of reflecting on the importance of learning music theory for one’s career as a musician, I developed the following philosophy: Studying music doesn’t take away its magic—it turns you into a magician. This philosophy also applies to non-musicians too: the more a listener learns about music, the more intimate his or her experience with it will be.

In the tradition of academic writing and the spirit of transparency, I am obliged to acknowledge my biases in order for readers to understand the perspective from which I wrote Musical Sovereignty. First and foremost, I write from the perspective of a musician. I had studied music for over a dozen years before a college history course piqued my interest in scholarship, so music performance has dominated my life in terms of both volume and longevity.

Second, I write from a pro-labor perspective. Two of the most influential music professors I had during my undergraduate music degree—Dr. Tom Tallman and Dr. Ken Paoli, both at College of DuPage—were active performers in the Chicago music scene, and were also strong advocates of union membership in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Both men are also vocal supporters of the College of DuPage Faculty Association (union), and for at least the duration of my time at COD, Tallman even served as a delegate of the Faculty Association. In my undergraduate history major, the study of the United States labor movement received thorough treatment, and after one has studied such events, it is quite difficult not to default to the pro-labor side in labor disputes. In fact, my senior history thesis covered the AFM’s strikes/recording bans during the 1930s and 40s.

Despite my disposition toward pro-labor advocacy, it would be closed-minded of me to support the labor side of arguments automatically in all cases without considering the legitimacy of the demands of both sides. In February 2015, members of the United Steel Workers union employed in the petrochemical industry (nationwide, but in this case particularly in the Houston/Galveston area) engaged in a strike for several reasons. Some of the reasons were related to job safety; these kinds of reasons nearly always justify a strike if the management does not provide a safe work environment. However, another demand made by the USW was to protect a loophole in the payment schedule that rendered all non-overtime hours eligible for overtime pay if any overtime hours were worked, in some cases.2 The engineers who were called in to temporarily replace the striking workers while a new contract with the USW was created and ratified, actually did a better job of running the plant than the union workers did.3 As difficult as it is to defend Big Oil today, it is just a tad more difficult to support the union’s defense of their overtime pay schedule loophole.

Those who advocate for organized labor do so in order to protect the dignity and value of human toil and of the relevant trades or professions. In exchange for this protection, workers have an obligation to be productive, to keep business moving, and to deliver quality products or services. In the labor dispute described above, the union workers failed to be productive (attempted to diminish profits by demanding overtime pay for overtime hours not worked),4,5 failed to keep business moving (initiated a labor strike), and failed to deliver quality products or services (consistently ran an unsafe plant). Effectively, a large part of Musical Sovereignty attempts to restrict the definitions of music, musical labor, and musical art. And while it may seem contrary to the current climate of liberalism to actively exclude (in this case, moving to exclude the label “music” from certain activities, products, and processes), I so argue in order to protect the dignity and value of the profession of music—what skills or products can be reasonably expected from someone who calls him- or herself a musician?6,7

Third, I write from the perspective of a logician. Though I have relatively little formal training in philosophical logic, the required use of evidence to support arguments permeates many liberal and scientific disciplines, including the disciplines of history and the other social sciences, in which I have significant formal training. In their current state, the arguments I propose in Musical Sovereignty are the evolutionary descendants of less logically-sound and less logically-valid ideas, which I have adjusted or abandoned in order to reconcile their logical inconsistencies. Show me a logical inconsistency in my present arguments and I’ll happily adjust them further, but at present, they seem sturdy enough. Thus if you accept my premises, the establishment of which constitutes the largest part of Musical Sovereignty, you must accept my conclusions, even if you find some of them offensive (which is entirely possible given the incendiary nature of some of them).

Fourth, I write from the perspective of an educator. Officially, my undergraduate studies culminated in majors in Instrumental Music Education and in History/Social Studies Education. These majors earned me a Professional Educator License (PEL) in the state of Illinois, a certification I recognize to convey certain responsibilities and necessitate certain standards with respect to the purveyance of knowledge and truth. Additionally, I have taught private music lessons since 2012, including time as an adjunct instructor for private and group guitar lessons at New York University while completing my Master of Music degree there. One of the cornerstones of good lesson planning involves thoroughly calculating exactly what prerequisite skills or knowledge students must have or know in order to succeed in a given lesson. Concepts herein are treated with the same considerations: I make no assumptions that readers have advanced background knowledge in music, nor in some of the other disciplines called upon to help explain some of my arguments. So while individual readers with more background knowledge may find some of my explanations tedious, I give them so that the arguments are accessible to as many readers as possible.

As a last note, my music professors made sure to emphasize that nearly all professional, working musicians did more than one “thing”, and by thing they meant revenue-generating, music-related activities. Put further, most professional musicians earn a living not just performing music in professional ensembles, but also teaching lessons and classes, composing or arranging music, and, less commonly, writing about music. This book is part of my attempt to carve out a career as a musician. I sincerely hope you have as much fun reading Musical Sovereignty as I have had researching, debating, and writing it.


1These courses are the fundamental courses for becoming a professional musician. They teach the language of music, and at some schools, aural skills courses are called ‘musicianship’ courses. Music theory and musicianship can be thought of as opposite or complementary skills. Whereas music theory teaches students how to hear (in their heads) and understand written music without it actually being played, musicianship teaches them how to transcribe and understand music they hear (from a live or recorded source), though these are overly simplistic definitions.

Sometimes when professional musicians use the term musicianship, they are not referring broadly to a quality possessed by anyone playing an instrument or singing, but to the specific set of skills developed in a musicianship class: interval recognition (e.g. perfect fifth, major sixth, etc.), chord quality recognition (mostly triads and seventh chords), and chord function recognition (with respect to the key/scale of the music, which note is the root, and what subsequent chord(s) does that chord imply?). The music profession recognizes these skills as basic and fundamental, so even if someone becomes a financially successful music performer (e.g. rockstar, singer-songwriter, rapper), if s/he does not have these skills, s/he will not be recognized by the profession as a strong musician. For more on what I call the ‘Rockstar Myth,’ see Chapters 9 and 10.

2I have intentionally omitted some identifying details in order to protect my source.

3The striking workers accused the engineers of running an unsafe plant, on the grounds that a semi-regular alarm bell that alerted operators of dangerous system levels must have been turned off by the engineers, because the striking workers never heard the bell. In reality, the bell didn’t ring because the engineers never let system approach dangerous operating levels, something the union workers had evidently done frequently enough to consider it normal. This kind of case, though, where the ‘scabs’ have more or better training (Bachelor of Science degrees in chemical, mechanical, and other types of engineering) than the strikers, is atypical of most labor disputes.

4For some perspective, the company was not gouging its union employees with respect to their regular pay. In areas where oil production is most prolific, union operators with no college degree can easily earn $100,000 or more per year, when accounting for plenty of opportunities to earn honest overtime pay. For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2015 that the median pay for this type of work, derived from a formula that does not include overtime pay, was $59,320. Citation below.

5Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015: 51-8091Chemical Plant and System Operators,” on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes518091.htm#(2) (visited 16 December, 2016).

6I also do it because engaging in a conceptual analysis of the term music is a completely legitimate intellectual and academic pursuit, with no explanation obliged. “If you want to know what a term or concept means, you can look it up in a dictionary. If you want to know what conditions must be met for something to be a thing of a certain sort, you have to reason” (citation below).

7Robert Stufflebeam, Lecture 4 Conditionals, conditions, and conceptual analysis; course textbook, accessed December 16, 2016, via iTunes U course “University of New Orleans PHIL 1101: Introduction to Logic.”

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