A musical journey begins. Do do do do do…

I derive a great deal of pleasure from music. However, I’m semi-literate at best.

It is a great source of frustration that I can’t really explain precisely why I love the sound of my favourite music (e.g. a Robert Simpson string quartet, Freddie Mercury’s voice, and modal jazz), fully appreciate great operatic works like Der ring der Nibelung for the musical innovation (not just the plot/philosophical development), and often fail to completely understand sleeve notes (looking up the meaning of technical words can only reveal so much), especially of classical and jazz recordings that include descriptions of key and time signatures, and even sections of musical notation.

The worst of it is I had begun a journey that may have eventually resulted in a deep understanding at an early age. I took up the violin in kindergarten (I can’t work out whether I decided this based on my admiration of Claude Rains in The Phantom of the Opera, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, or Larry from the three stooges…yes, I was a very strange child) and persevered for four years before quitting. I also played bass guitar in my high school band, but I didn’t develop much theoretical knowledge during this time.

Now I have decided to once again learn the basics of music theory and the ability to play a simple piece of music on the piano and/or violin. I hope to achieve this using a number of books to help me develop a basic understanding (see references for a few examples), including Shanet’s famous work, the back cover of which claims, “…it will teach ANYONE–even the tone-death– to read melodies and pick them out on a piano.” I may also look for helpful YouTube videos at some point.

I have the following goals,

1) Develop an understanding of basic music theory, including how to read music.

2) Use the theory that I have learnt to the cultivate a greater appreciation of music (e.g. picking out key signatures, make informed comparisons of music at different stages of development, etc).

3) Play some simple songs on violin and piano.

Of course, after I have achieved all this I would also love to develop the ability to read scores (sounds like a wonderful skill in Absolutely on music), play jazz, and learn a number of other more advanced techniques. However, I fear my clumsiness, lack of ear, and limited time to learn may combine to make even the three primary goals unattainable.

You may wonder why I should bother at all. Well, I’m convinced by Bertrand Russell’s proposition that developing a deep understanding of a topic (exploring details and mechanisms) “makes pleasant things more pleasant”.* I am often distressed by the lack of an ‘informed’ appreciation of the fine aesthetic qualities of natural history by artists throughout history (as you will discover in future rants). There have been a number of important artworks inspired by nature (e.g. Wordsworth’s poetry, the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, etc), but these are largely completed without any sort of detailed understanding, with the artists in question expressing an admiration for what is merely a pixelated ‘green fog.’ This point of view is expressed much more effectively in the introduction to H.E. Krehbiel’s beautifully written book, How to listen to music: Hints and suggestions to untaught lovers of the art,

“I cannot conceive anything more pitiful than the spectacle of men and women perched on a fair observation point exclaiming rapturously about the loveliness of mead and valley, their eyes meeting involuntarily in tenderness at the sight of moss-carpeted slopes and rocks and peaceful wood, or dilating in reverent wonder at mountain magnificence, and then learning from their exclamations that, as a matter of fact, they are unable to distinguish between rock and tree, field and forest, earth and sky; between the dark-browns of the storm-scarred rock, the greens of the foliage, and the blues of the sky.”

Will I succeed? You shall find out in good time.


Music theory

How to listen to music: Hints and suggestions to untaught lovers of the art by H.E. Krehbiel

Understand music theory: A practical overview of the mechanics of music by Margaret Richer

Learn to read music by Howard Shanet

Instrument guides

Step one: Teach yourself violin –Music Sales America

Other sources mentioned

Absolutely on music by Haruki Murakami with Seiji Ozawa

‘Useless’ Knowledge from In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

*Russell’s example,

“I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced the to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word apricot is derived from the Latin word for ‘precocious,’ because the apricot ripens early; and that the A at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.”

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