Some problems with conceptual musical understanding

Using the so-called ‘elements of music’ was helpful at the time, that is, in the early 1980s.  We had found a fresh way of structuring what we did.  There they were – pitch, timbre, rhythm, pulse etc.  These were thought to be the building blocks of music. And we could see how this was paralleled in visual art: colour, line, perspective, composition etc. And even better, these elements could be thought of as ‘concepts’. Yes, music had a conceptual framework of sorts and something was needed in order to replace the ‘Theory of Music’ as a legitimate framework. (How can a theory be a conceptual framework?)

But as Keith Swanwick pointed out, music doesn’t have elements, it has features, and it is these features that give music character, interest and stylistic distinction and that get noticed. Not elements. These are abstractions, monster words and some distance from our musical perception. No wonder then that for the last thirty years music teachers have been coercing children to say them without much success. In fact the key words movement seems to have achieved very little.

The distinguished Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had something to say about this.

‘Pedagogical experience demonstrates that direct instruction in concepts is impossible. It is pedagogically fruitless. The teacher who attempts to use this approach achieves nothing but a mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that stimulates the presence of concepts in the child. Under these conditions, the child learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken through memory rather than through thought.’ [1]

Vygotsky compares this empty learning with ‘living learning’ implying that the concept needs to be internalised and in some sense personalised before it is useable. In the case of music, itself being non-verbal, while allowing concepts to be formed about it, the distance between experience and concept appears especially great. Thus we attempt to place conceptual musical understanding in a relationship to existential musical understanding. That is, what this means to me in relation to what this means more generally.

Of course, musical features can be thought of as concepts as well as elements. But at least they are what strike us about the music we encounter; a characteristic rhythm, a facet of melodic movement, a sharply articulated short sound, for example. End Licks, Snaps, Turn Arounds … these are the features that contribute to our sonic meaning making and that are everywhere to be sensed, perceived, felt, cherished and that inspire emulation. These we could refer to as first order concepts, although I am bit unsure about this. One thing that I am clear about is that in music our concepts need to be open and dynamic rather than closed.

So what might count as second order concepts?

Oh no! Please not the elements of music.


[1] Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and Speech. In L.S. Vygotsky, The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1, Problems of general psychology (pp.39-285) (R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton, Eds.; N. Minick, Trans.) New York: Plenum Press.


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