Musical Thoughts, Reflections, Questions, and other Ephemera…

As most of you know, I’ve not been blogging nearly as much as in the past–I go through periods like this. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing/thinking/analyzing things. I was just looking at all the recent drafts I’ve been working on and decided rather than trying to finish one I’ll just post some of the things I’ve been exploring in these posts–kind of a “cliffs notes” version of my blogging thought process. Some of this is inspired from some recent discussions I’ve been having on Facebook or other social media (where it seems like I’m having much more active interactions about these subjects), the rest is just I’d like to get some of these ideas out there even if they’re not complete thoughts yet.

So–here goes nothing–titles are taken from the working draft titles of the blog posts.


Music is [not] a Universal Language

I got to play Tunisian Photographer, Amira Karaoud's opening reception "I will have soft hands" with the wonderfully gifted world musician, Gregory Acker at the OPEN Gallery. We moved through Indonesian, Thai, African, and Middle Eastern music throughout the evening. October 2015
I got to play Tunisian Photographer, Amira Karaoud’s opening reception “I will have soft hands” with the wonderfully gifted world musician, Gregory Acker at the OPEN Gallery. We moved through Indonesian, Thai, African, and Middle Eastern music throughout the evening. October 2015

This seems to be a persistent trope. I think the main reason for that is that for many of us, music has such a deep emotional connection that can’t be explained in words, but at the same time, we’re often so parochial about what we consider to be “music” that we can’t recognize how significantly different other forms of music can be and how those may have little to no emotional connection with us. As someone said–and I really can’t recall who it was that first coined it–“If music is a universal language, then it’s a language so many forms of grammar, different dialects, syntax and semantics, that it’s not universally understood.” (my terrible paraphrase).

In other words, we can understand when someone else is using a verbal language–and we might even understand something from it (some studies have shown that we can pick up quite a few of, though not all, cues from the non-verbal components of language interaction even if we don’t understand the actual words or structure of the language itself. I think this is similar to music–we can understand broad and general contours, but that’s as far as the similarity goes. The subtlety and nuance of verbal language is lost if you can’t understand the actual words or how the words are structured. Same with music–there are thousands of scales (many of them using microtones or macrotones) around the world. There are probably just as many different rhythmic modes. And since the vast majority of music is vocal, then we’re talking about hundreds of languages and dialects. Music is only universal, like language, in that practically every culture has both–and that’s pretty much where the similarity ends.


The Bastard Stepchild of Classical Music: Concert Bands

Jon Silpayamanant playing bass with the IU Southeast Concert Band. This was during the world premiere of composer, Peter Felice's "Arctic Sphere" for Concert Band. November 15, 2015
Me playing bass with the IU Southeast Concert Band. This was during the world premiere of composer, Peter Felice’s “Arctic Sphere” for Concert Band. November 15, 2015

In keeping with the theme that the Classical Music Crisis tends to focus unrepresentative samples as emblematic in the field (see my post about Choirs) I thought Concert Bands almost never figure into these discussions despite the likelihood that they are much more ubiquitous in American culture than the rest of the SOBs. As Drew McManus reminds us every Memorial Day, the US Government is the biggest employer of full-time professional musicians–and the majority of those ensembles are Bands.

I remember when much of the talk about the American Soviet Youth Orchestra was about how invariably the winds and brass would consist of primarily Americans and the Strings would be mostly Soviet hinting at the fact there was a disparity in music education between the two countries. Band programs are much more common in the US than, say, String programs. String programs are often cut long before Band programs–part of this is due to the fact that band programs feed into Pep and Marching Bands which tend to have much more focus (and overall funding) in US schools.

While the above is slightly problematic, what is more disturbing is how often orchestra culture disparages band culture. I was in an orchestra rehearsal where the conductor recently berated members of the brass section about their tone quality saying something to the effect of, “this isn’t Concert Band.” Yet, there are probably also many more Concert Band, Wind Symphony, Brass Band ensembles in the US than there are Orchestras (even including the many community orchestras). Much of that has to do with the larger number of players of wind/brass/percussion instruments due to the greater number programs in schools.

Another thing that’s often not brought up in these discussions is the repertoire–a far larger proportion of new or recent music is being performed by Concert Bands than in, say, Orchestras. Being a composer myself, I’ve always been intrigued by this.* As I being my first semester as the official bassist with the IUS Concert Band, I look forward to learning much more about the repertoire (as well as the culture) of Concert Bands.**


NYC Opera Companies formed since 2000

View from my seat in the pit for Thompson Street Opera Company's production of "Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris" by Eric Lindsay. June 2015
View from my seat in the pit for Thompson Street Opera Company’s production of “Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris” by Eric Lindsay. June 2015

I’ve posted much about all the new opera companies formed since 2000. My most recent collection of data is here, and of the nearly 80 new opera organizations, about 55 are still active. This touches on some of the ideas I’m exploring regarding the lifecyles/lifespan of arts organizations. Also, given the relatively high attrition rate of for profit corporations, it might be incumbent on us to understand why there might be a higher percentage of long-lived arts organizations as opposed what seems like a much smaller percentage of long-lived for profit corporations.

This is important because we’re seeing shifting talk about making arts organizations more like for profit corporations. this is all in the effort of “saving” the arts. But, again, we have that sampling bias–successful long-lived businesses are rare, and few business survive beyond an average 40 years (in some cases as low as 12.5 years) with their identity intact. So why do we think a for profit focus would actually do more to keep the arts afloat? Think survivorship bias again. We look at those few examples of success–the big pop star, the fortune 500 corporation–and we associate the exorbitant revenue these get, while ignoring all the groups which have done exactly the same thing but somehow failed. We then take what made this small sample of successes and cull some principles they have in common and translate that over to the arts field while ignoring other factors which might have been integral to the success of the former and which the latter isn’t expected to mimic.

Without a comprehensive list of arts organizations, we have little data to work with and we can’t be expected to understand a more general developmental history of them. We don’t even really know the actual attrition rate, much less the environmental factors which contributed to their existence. That’s what these lists are about for me–culling actual data to work with rather than simply focusing on tired tropes about Decline/Death/Failing Arts.

Another question that comes up–if new groups are forming at this rate, then what do we even mean by a decline in Classical Music anyway?



One of the reasons I’ve been far too busy to blog is my much busier performing and teaching schedule. I’ve recently started teaching cello classes at the Virginia Chance Elementary School in Louisville which has basically filled in the gap of age levels I’ve taught music–I’ve now taught music to ages 1 to Adult, and that has given me a fairly rounded understanding of learning styles, as well as preferences for music for a relatively wide variety of folks.

I’ve already performed three events this year–January is invariably light for me as I don’t like to risk travel given the possibility of bad weather. I’ve already got well over 70 other shows lined up for the year, and usually continue to pick up additional gigs until year’s end. While I don’t expect to pick up proportionally as much as I have in years past given this starting point (I usually start with 30 – 40 shows booked by January for the year, and end up with a range of 100-150 shows by years end), I imagine there will be a slight increase in performances following the trend I had from the growth of last year from previous years.

This all seems to track pretty well with how musicians (of many genres) have increased revenue streams that was studied by the Artist Revenue Streams project and interestingly, some of my biggest growth spurts happened during the recession–a time when I was hearing musicians from all side of the pop/classical divide complaining about lack of work.

Needless to say, I’ve become far too busy making a living doing music to talk about making a living doing music, but these topics are still at the back of my mind and I’ll post as frequently as I can though it will be with far less frequency than in the past.


*In my work in schools and early string instruction, I’ve also noticed how more often new or recent works are being played by young musicians. This is until they get older and “graduate” to playing the “classic” rep.

**In some of the youth organizations I work with, I also get the opportunity to have discussions about instruction, repertoire, and reflections by Concert Band educators on a regular basis. Many of the conductors of local youth symphonies that I work with are primarily concert band directors.

FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: photo of me playing an improv show with Misha Feigin and dancers, Ann Law, Polly Curtis, Lori Teague, and Meg Gibbs in Chattanooga, Tennessee. November 2015. photo by Ernie Paik.


  1. Nice post! I have missed your blog but am glad that you are busy edifying the world about music in person!

    About the universal language thing: I always took it to mean that one simply hears music; one does not have to learn anything specific to have it enter the mind. Even a baby can listen. Of course, the more one knows about how the specific piece “works,” the more one can enjoy it (in theory; sometimes it doesn’t work out that way). Also, it would seem that extensive study of Western music can give one a leg up on understanding non-Western music, and vice-versa. I.e., I can tell sometimes when a non-Western scale is using microtones and can appreciate that difference.


  2. Thanks, Matt. I really do miss blogging regularly, but need to figure out how I can do that with my busy schedule.

    I think most people don’t really use that trope, or think about it in that way. I believe I wrote about another common one in a past blog–the “I Like Everything Except Country and Rap” trope which invariably means the person saying it generally likes other Western Pop Genres (e.g. Rock, R&B, Disco, Funk, Pop, etc.) and have created a sharp dichotomy between those and the disliked genres, namely County and Rap. Thousands of other genres from around the world rarely figure into the dichotomy because most people don’t have much familiarity with anything outside of regional/national mainstream genres.

    Another similar trope is “I Like All Kinds of Music”–I remember playing some noise music for someone who told me that years ago and and he said, “Well, I don’t like that!” 😛

    It’s all a matter of perspective. The music we’re familiar with, and that we really enjoy, usually becomes the benchmark for our value judgements about what music should be like–nothing wrong with that at all, and it’s a perfectly normal way to approach most anything. But any “universal language” would need to be comprehensible to, well, practically everybody.

    I posted some of my favorite anecdotes about how musicians from other cultures have cultures have viewed Western music in a past post (might have been before you started reading my blog)–my favorite has always been the one posted on the Society of Ethnomusicology listerve and has been use in some texts. It was by an Armenian music who says some things about both Western Classical Music and Western Pop music:

    “I found that most European music sounds either like “mush” or “foamy,” without a solid base. The classical music seemed to make the least sense, with a kind of schizophrenic melody—one moment it’s calm, the next it’s crazy. Of course there always seemed to be “mush” (harmony) which made all the songs seem kind of similar.”

    or this observation of rock and pop:

    “The rock and pop styles then and now sound like music produced by machinery, and rarely have I heard a melody worth repeating. The same with “country” and “folk” and other more traditional styles. These musics, while making more sense with their melody (of the most undeveloped type), have killed off any sense of gracefulness with their monotonous droning and machine-like sense of rhythm.”

    Obviously, with globalization, Western music as a whole has become much more familiar to world audiences, but I don’t think we should mistake the effects music colonialism with music being a universal language.

    Going back to your baby comment–now that there’s been so much more research of early language and early music acquisition, we are in a much better position to know how musical cultures influence acquisition of musical ideas and styles. We in il Troubadore were having a discussion about one of our new Balkan tunes and the rhythm being used in it and I brought up some research about how Westerners have a much harder time understanding the complex rhythms found in Macedonia/Bulgaria than the natives do. Also, the research shows that babies are attentive to all sorts of rhythmic modes until they start to acquire a preference for the rhythmic modes they are constantly hearing (very much like language phoneme acquisition).

    So yeah, as infants, our palates for all kinds of things are pretty open–but by immersion in particular linguistic or musical environments, we soon learn to prefer certain microsounds which then become the bases for quickly picking up larger segments like words, rhythmic modes, and musical phrases. Apparently the rhythmic understanding crosses over into Classically trained musicians who have just as hard a time hearing them (unless they are native). That early acquisition is most important. I know it’s taken me years just to be able to hear some of these rhythms and scales AND be able to do something with them (whether it’s dancing to them, or playing them).


  3. Edifying information, thank you!

    BTW, I like country and rap. 🙂

    Apropos of those genres, perhaps something can also be said about the relative worth or “capacity” of different types of music, which can lead to different value judgments and thus lessen the “universality” of the language.

    To give an example: I am a huge fan of the Vienna Troika. In that sense, I love atonal/”pantonal”/12-tone music. Nevertheless, I think those three guys happened to hit it out of the park, leading others to believe they could too–and no one ever really has, though I like a piece here and there. I think the appeal of 12-tone is fundamentally limited. In essence, everything starts to sound the same.

    I feel the same way about rap: just as 12-tone was an exciting contrast with classical music that had come before it, rap was an exciting departure from previous rock and R&B. But I also feel that it’s been played out to some extent. Eventually, everything sounds somewhat the same. The tonality of what counts as “country” is also rather limited, and I feel that genre has been pretty close to maxed out as well.

    In theory, there are an infinite number of 12-tone/country/rap pieces. But I think the ear can get weary after awhile. And various genres around the world seem to have this issue in varying degrees. E.g., Bollywood music seems very tired to me, even though I haven’t been saturated with it my whole life. To give an example from Western music, people who dabble in Classical always seem to love Baroque first, but I find it a little boring (with many exceptions). I prefer the intellectual power that goes into creative a nice development in the Classical period and beyond.

    In short, understanding can be an aspect of the “universal language,” but I think ear fatigue can be as well (and the two are bound to be interrelated: understanding can stave off ear fatigue by allowing one to go deeper, yet it can also reveal the magician’s tricks and cause disappointment).

    Just some more thoughts!


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