Two Impossible Things: Music and Teaching

Musical notation deconstructs a piece into its component parts so that musicians can know which notes to play and how to play them. The odd thing is that great music unleashes power that moves us to tears, but no tears have ever dropped onto a sheet of musical notation. To do so would be like crying over the alphabet.

Musical notation explains, through representational symbols, the what (notes) and the how (rhythm, volume, etc.) What musical notation can’t explain is why music makes us cry.

“Why does this song make me cry?” Could it be the lyrics? Maybe, but what if you replaced the singer with someone else? Could it be the melody? Maybe, but what if the melody were played at a lower tempo, and with a sitar instead of a harpsichord? And what if you stopped projecting your self-pity onto the song? Then would you stop crying (you little baby?) …And so on and so on.

Musical notation explains how to play music, but it can’t explain the mystery of music. We can explain, teach, and instruct music and it’s mechanisms down into our bodies, but we can’t explain ourselves into that other world music seems to be coming from. So no matter how much we deconstruct and decompose through explanations, the fact remains. Music is impossible.

Now let’s talk about teaching.

Explicit information is something we can see, something to replicate, imitate, reproduce. Before information becomes intuitive, becomes unconscious (and therefor mastered), information must be made explicit. This is why teaching is so hard.

You’d think that after 10 years of driving a car, or playing the piano, it’d be easy to break what you know into easily understood sets of instructions for beginners. “I’ve been studying this for 10 years! Of course I can teach this!” But you’d be wrong. Teaching is damn near impossible because teachers must translate the language of the implicit into the language of the explicit. Teachers must translate behavior into word. Reaction into instruction. Unconscious into conscious. And so sloppy teachers instruct us by, “kind of doing it like this…you know, it’s kind of like this, no no, you do that, then this.”

Back to music, the insurmountable task of translating the implicit into the explicit is exactly why musical notation exists. Musical notation guides the hands of the untrained ear to the proper notes at the proper times. Musical symbols need to represent something specific so that we know what to do when it’s our turn to play our instruments. This is the critical role that explicit information maintains. “Do this at this time for this long.” The same is true of how we teach math, computer science, language, and even the arts.

But, and proof of this final statement exists in the atrocities of human history, the progress we’ve made in translating the implicit into the explicit has led us into a deadly trap: that human behavior can be notated.

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