We need to talk…

On Saturday evening, I had the pleasure of returning to the city where I spent five happy years as a university student – Nottingham – to give a pre-concert talk about Brahms’s First Symphony. As the train rumbled north out of London, I spent a bit of time staring out of the window and remembering what an exciting, busy, challenging time I’d had as an undergraduate and masters student, and the friends and memories I had to show for it. Late-night pizza and CD sessions, trying to guess composers of unfamiliar works, or shouting down unimpressive recordings. Hours of sight-reading piano solos, duets, chamber music. Patiently recording things onto tape, in the library, to take home. In my second year, living with two other musos and a trombone-playing economist, we used to sit together in the front room, drink tea, eat chocolate digestives and do listening assignments together.

Whilst a number of university tasks involved solitary work – essay writing, piano practice, assignment readings – my recollections of my time in Nottingham are packed full of company and conversation. Above all, we talked about music, because that was why we were there – that was the love we all shared. And I have come to realise, with the passing of time, just how crucial those conversations were to our learning and development as scholars, performers, composers and researchers – regardless of whether or not my fellow students chose to pursue these roles professionally.

Time, and our musical culture, has moved on since we worked our way simultaneously through Andriessen orchestral works and packets of Hobnobs. No taping in the library now, no fight for control of the living room CD player. We all have phones, laptops, tablets which can conjure all manner of music, notes and scores out of thin air; and we have the noise-cancelling headphones to match. From the point of view of student resources, this is amazing – we can get anything we want, any time, for our own work or pleasure (or both).

But this proliferation of music seems to have stunted our ability to talk about it. My undergraduates of the last few years have diligently completed their listening assignments, but when quizzed, almost none of them listen to music socially, or indulge in the name-that-tune style games that I enjoyed. As an experiment earlier this year, I asked all students in a particular class to choose a piece of music that was new to them, listen to it and come along to tell us about it in class. I kept various streaming programmes open so that we could listen to a bit of each piece chosen. As we talked and listened, students started jotting down pieces that they decided they’d like to explore themselves; some asked for further listening suggestions; I found myself scribbling down the details of a nineteenth-century American composer I’d never heard of, whom one of my class had discovered. We all learned something, and were all inspired, too.

Ed Yourdon/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Ed Yourdon/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Talking about any subject requires the development of an appropriate vocabulary. If you never actually talk about something out loud – for all that reading can help, of course – you will never discover which words are the right words for you. Or how to string them together. Or how to refute someone else’s view on that thing which you might not agree with. This is a trial and error process, and for those of us (I most certainly include myself here) who worry about getting it “wrong”, or saying something “stupid”, learning an appropriate vocabulary can be a daunting prospect. Also, it is a fluid set of words: there might be particular technical, terms that we can all agree upon, and even certain kinds of characterisations; but you might think something is vague whilst I consider it to be merely whimsical, and you might think it too direct although I would read it as eloquent in its forcefulness.

Just like learning French, Latin or Mandarin, there are also levels of… if not proficiency, then perhaps subtlety and confidence. And because music itself does not hold absolute definitions, its interpretation and thus our means of discussing it can vary enormously. We must find our way of speaking about it in forms we consider most comfortable and appropriate to us. This may be purely analytical, steeped in theoretical terminology. Or perhaps you can’t read music and hear it, instead, in terms of colour and moods, shapes and lines. Maybe you think of it as poetry, and find analogies in Milton, Shakespeare and Larkin. The exact shape and nature of your vocabulary will be unique to you. The trick then becomes finding a means of expressing yourself in a way that facilitiates conversation with others, shared points of reference, and so on. The more you talk, the better you’ll get.

Convivial listening might seem strange now. For the majority of people, it does not take place any more around a piano. Instead, recordings are the basis of our musical environment – relentlessly so, in shops, cafes, bars, and the tinny thud of fellow commuters’ not-so-soundproof earphones. They are so ubiquitous that we don’t tend to acknowledge them, let alone talk about them in detail, because they are either a feature of being in a public space or a means of cutting yourself off from one. Instead, we should make more of listening with a few friends or family at home. Maybe dancing around the kitchen whilst making dinner to a song you all love. Maybe watching a film in which a particular song or theme has real significance that has you shouting at the TV or weeping into your cocoa. Maybe just by the radio listening to a live broadcast, or sitting clustered around a score of a Schubert string quartet. And when it’s over, talk about it! Dare to verbalise what you love, hate, what has you on your feet or singing along. Don’t just say it’s beautiful or cool or corny. Why is it any or all of these things? You’re the one listening. You just spent time and energy engaging with it. So have a think, and then have a chat. As Bob Hoskins told us on many occasions in the 1990s: it’s good to talk.


  • Mike Wilson

    Right with you on this one; and I think it is sadly applicable beyond music. The inability of some musicians and music scholars to talk about music in a clear and engaging manner is the most disappointing aspect of my various involvements with the music world… when they let me out of my administrative ivory tower!

    • Katy

      Thanks Mike. Agreed that matching a vocabulary to an audience is a skill that needs thought and practice… The crucial thing, though, is to have a vocabulary at all!

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