Musical Knowledge and Musical Enjoyment

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I’m coming back today to a topic that Michael Callahan raised in response to my post about Practical Aesthetics earlier in the year, and which I noted as a big one that deserved separate reflection. The question is this: to what extent does an audience need to be informed to enjoy a performance?

Michael’s comment was framed, to match the post he was responding to, in terms of knowledge of musical aesthetics, but I think the question extends further to concern other aspects of musical knowledge: style, genre, technique. Do you have to understand what the musicians are doing in order to enjoy it?

A search in this blog for ‘connoisseurship’ revealed that when I have considered audience expertise before, it has often been in the context of how a sense of insider knowledge can produce a musical culture that is opaque, or even off-putting to outsiders (see for example here and here). And I have also reflected on the ways that familiarity with an idiom increases perception of what makes a particular instance distinctive (or not).

So that gives us a starting-point that suggests that an informed audience will definitely get more out of a performance than a novice one, and that there are aesthetic questions for musicians about the extent to which they want to demand connoisseurship of their audience. Making your music less niche and more mainstream can be labelled either positively as accessibility or negatively as selling out, and neither label is entirely wrong.

But this generalisation doesn’t account for those moments of discovery, when you happen across an unfamiliar musical world and fall into immediate fascination. Though as my reflections on the process of ignition suggest, these moments are frequently not entirely out of the blue; there is often some prior brush with an idiom that primes us for the spark.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that so many people who enjoy listening to music aren’t at all musically educated, at least in the sense that musicians would usually understand. If one needed musical training to be a fan, indeed, the music industry as a whole would be in trouble.

The distinction that, for me, makes sense of this is the difference between declarative and implicit knowledge. Formal musical training, whether through individual lessons or ensemble experience, gives you a precise technical vocabulary with which to talk about both musical content and the motor skills required to perform it. This declarative knowledge provides a shared discourse that allows practitioners within a particular genre to work together and to negotiate a common set of values for what counts as good.

But there are a lot of intelligent and avid listeners out there who have never had much by way of formal training, but still have a deep and thoughtful relationship with the musics they care about. They’ll also have a shared discourse, though one mediated by the music press aimed at fans rather than practical technique. This implicit knowledge provides vocabularies that may be limited for the purposes of making music, but allow subtle and nuanced insights into the listening experience.

These are the people, incidentally, who all too regularly label themselves as ‘not musical’, which is not only to my mind inaccurate, but also quite ironic, since if the trained practitioners don’t also pick up a fair helping of this implicit aesthetic nous, they’re not going to be very good at what they do.

And of course, because human beings like to reflect upon and chat about the experiences they share and that matter to them, this implicit knowledge generates its own forms of declarative knowledge. Lucy Green has documented how many popular musicians learned much of their craft by deep listening and emulation, and this in turn develops through interaction with other musicians into specific, musically-productive discourses.

So, back to the question that started this off. A listener who lacks relevant implicit knowledge of the music they’re listening to will get less out of it than someone with more extensive relevant listening experience. But they’ll still have all the experience of music they have encountered to draw on, which for people living in the 21st century is going to include a pretty wide variety from our musically-saturated environments. So, yes, being an informed listener makes a difference, but we probably want to measure what being ‘informed’ means in terms of dedicated attention paid to immersive musical experiences rather than of simply command of conceptual vocabulary.

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