Get Out of Your Music Box

This post is addressing primarily music lovers who are beginning or considering formal studies in music, but could easily apply to anyone who loves music. In all music disciplines, we are confronted with music that is new to us and often foreign to our musical tastes. My encouragement for you is to allow these new sounds and styles to penetrate your present musical experience to see if they might change you in ways you could not have anticipated. Musical tastes are very personal. And I’m not here to criticize or challenge anyone’s musical tastes. My encouragement to you is to venture outside of your music comfort zone, that is, your “music box.”

Too Much Music?

There’s a lot of music out there, and a lot of music still waiting for us to discover. Scholars of music history and ethnomusicology are constantly opening up new doors to music previously unheard of from the past and from all corners of the earth. (So far, none from outer space or the future that I know of!)

The more you learn about any given topic, in this case music, you discover that there is much more to learn than you can possibly take in during a lifetime. Benjamin Disraeli once said, “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” When I completed my graduate degrees, I was struck by how much I still did not know about all the facets of music, even though I had just earned the highest degree possible.

Obviously, you will learn things that you have no use for. But every new thing you do learn in music, you must examine and allow it become a part of you and change you, making you a better musician and person. If it turns out that this new piece of musical knowledge (whether it be a piece of music, composer, or style) does not have an impact on how you consider, perform, or compose music, so be it. But you won’t know that unless you accept it as a possibility when you first are presented with it.

Music and Knowledge

None of us knows very much. which also applies to music. Imagine a blank piece of paper. Now imagine for a moment that the blank piece of paper represents everything there is to know about music. Draw a square on that piece of paper and make it a size that you think represents the amount of all musical knowledge that you know. For me, the box would be about a sixteenth of an inch square, and that’s pretty generous. If you are just starting in a music education program, your box would probably be smaller than mine.

Musical Tastes

So let’s get back to musical tastes and opinions. Most of my first-year students have a limited scope of musical experience, but they love music and have very strong musical tastes. Many of them are eager to learn more and are open to whatever I might throw at them. Then there are some that continually question the relevance of what they are learning to their goals and aspirations.

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The following is a hypothetical example, but it represents what I have seen many times in my music-teaching career:

Joel plays the guitar, and he has been emulating the style of some of his favorite guitarists, while also working on some of his own original music. He comes to music school because he wants to expand his understanding, but he has very definite goals and ideas in mind for his musical career. During the course of his first semester of music theory, he is presented with the concept of figured bass. In other words his “music box” (the one we represented on the piece of paper) has just been penetrated. He doesn’t see how figured bass fits into his box. He learns figured bass because he has to, but he approaches it as something that is completely irrelevant to his musical goals. He leaves it outside of his music box, as it were, and doesn’t allow this increased musical knowledge to expand it.

The point I’m trying to make is that the only way you can truly say a musical concept is irrelevant to you, is if you already know and have considered everything about music. But no one has done that, and no one will ever be able to in a lifetime. So once again, it comes back to a matter of attitude. Embrace musical knowledge that is unfamiliar to you and allow it to expand your box. Ponder it and try to apply it to your present musical understanding. From experience, I can tell you that I and many of my students have changed musically over the years in more ways than we thought possible. And personally, all of these changes have made me a better musician, teacher, and person.

So, get out of your music box! Have your opinions and tastes, but we music teachers have a responsibility to show you the wealth of great music there is in our world. And it is your responsibility to allow it to inform your music box and make it larger and more complete.

One final thought for you to chew on: we learn and study great music because it is great music, not necessarily to make it relevant to our musical goals and aspirations.

Thanks for reading! And please use the contact form if you have any questions or comments.