Internet Forums, Symbols, Value, and the Golden Rule
If you are a regular visitor to artofcomposing.com, you may have realized I have not been posting very much recently. The main reason is, I have been doing a lot of reading. And consequently, I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking. Most of this has actually not been about music, instead being philosophical in nature, mostly related with education, society, history and politics. I haven’t composed anything in about a month or so, but I am okay with that.
This Article is Not About Politics
Do not worry at this point, I am not going to go off on a political tangent, especially with what has gone down in the last few months in America.
Instead I thought I would try to bring what I’ve learned about why I compose music; why I choose the specific styles that I do; and why both you and I should neither worry about fitting into anyone’s mold of what a composer is or isn’t, or what music you should be composing.
Anger and Disgust
About a year ago now, I wrote a piece called Anger and Disgust, which was a short piece for string quartet. I was purposely using dissonant harmonies and minimalism to attempt to portray my feelings.
After composing it I posted it online, and to my surprise, I had people tell me they thought the piece actually did not portray anger and disgust and the harmonies were actually sort of “sweet.”
While I don’t think sweet was what I would have used to describe the harmony, on reflection, I kind of see where they were coming from.
This forum discussion sat at the back of my mind for a long time, really not going anywhere. That is until I started reading a book called The Trivium, by Sister Miriam Joseph. This is a very interesting, if not difficult book to read. It dates from 1937, and was originally written for a Catholic College. The first few chapters are about the meaning of language, and what language is.
To sister Mirium, and for the most part I agree, language is a system of Symbols, created out of convention to communicate ideas, emotions, and so on. The key to me is “created out of convention to communicate.”
When you get down to it, music doesn’t really communicate anything concrete. Sure a minor chord sounds sad most of the time… but why? Because we all grew up with it being used to “mean” sad. I’ve heard that in different cultures around the world, minor chords sound happy. Who really knows. My point is, if a minor chord sounds sad to me, and a cluster sounds like anger, who is to say otherwise, besides… me. Particularly if it is my music.
Can Music Have Real Meaning?
Yes. But that meaning does not transmit and it is definately not universal. I remember when I really started getting into Mahler’s 6th Symphony. To me, the 3rd movement really meant something. I could feel the pain of Mahler losing his child… except… Mahler had not lost his child yet. In fact, it was considered by Mahler one of the happiest times of his life. When I started listening to it though, I didn’t know all that. What did Mahler feel his 3rd movement meant? I don’t know, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter, is that it has internal meaning to me.
Conditioned by Society
What I worry about is that we have been conditioned by society to do certain things, perceive things in a certain way, and criticize things that don’t match up with our “archetypes” of good and bad. The internet itself has come a long way to help bring tone that down, but I find it interesting to see debates online about the value or meaning of music, or in fact whether specific genres of music should be pursued seriously or at all. Does anybody argue that music doesn’t has value or meaning?
The main reason why I wrote Anger and Disgust was because of the anger I was feeling about not being able to identify a genre of music that I fit into. That sounds sort of shallow, but in reality, I felt like I was floating around without any idea where I wanted to end. I especially felt like I didn’t have a teacher to look up to and guide me on the path, wherever that may lead.
But over the last month or so, I think I’ve come to the realization that I will never fit into a style or mold in my lifetime. Sure, other people looking back can always label you, but what bearing does that label have on anyone while they are alive? None whatsoever.
If I want to try and write what I deem in my mind to be a classical style piano sonata, and then immediately turn around and write a country song, there is nothing at odds in that, and they both have value and meaning.
But this also goes to anyone who is beginning and is writing music that they themselves feel is not very good. I have composed many pieces of music that are bad – in my own opinion. Do they have value? Yes. Are they going to be listened to by anyone? Probably not. But their value is in building my musical character. If my pseudo-Mahleresque piece of junk Symphony half-starts help me to make a less psuedo-Mahleresque half-way decent non-symphony in the future, then it has a lot of value… I just don’t know what that is yet.
Love One Another as You Love Yourself
So to leave you with a practical piece of advice, I would treat other composers how you would like to be treated. Most people know when their music isn’t worth listening to. I know when mine isn’t. So if someone posts something online, they may not be looking for an indepth critique of their capabilities. Maybe they just want people to know who they are and that they are composing. If you don’t like it, don’t comment on it. If you are going to comment, try to make it actually useful and not just a comment that hurts them. What matters is that we are all growing. If you like it then by all means let them know.
Telling someone, “Thanks for sharing this,” or “I really liked your piece,” will go a long way towards allowing them to teach themselves more. Telling someone, “This piece isn’t really good,” translates to, “You suck at composing, and you are clearly not as good as I am.”
This doesn’t mean that if you have a real built up relationship, and you both understand where each other is coming from, that you can’t offer critiques, but that is 9 times out of 10, not the case online.
And if you post your stuff online, be prepared for someone to say something unexpected or downright mean. Unexpected can be great sometimes, as seeing other people’s points of view can expand your awareness. But downright mean… well I would guess they just have some unmet emotional need in their own lives and don’t know how to get that need met. So don’t let it effect you.