Interview with Dr. Jesse Fillerup, Ethnomusicologist and Professor of Music
Content by Lauren Oddo
Adapted for Web by Kelsey Shields
(printable version here)
Q: What are your pet-peeves when you read student music writing?
The most common problem I encounter is that students ascribe emotional content to the music they hear. Even after taking a music course, many students continue to describe music in a major key as "happy" and music with a slow tempo as "relaxed" or "sad." I think this happens because we've all been associating music with emotion since we were very young. The problem is that music is a subjective art: it communicates different things to different people. One person might describe a slow piece of music as "relaxed," while another might prefer the word "melancholy." How can this be possible when the musical content for each listener is the same?
There are two reasons. First, the musical content is never the same from one listener to another (or even for the same listener hearing a piece twice). Second, the listener is projecting emotional content onto the music. That content doesn't exist in the music; it lives in you, the listener. When writing about music, it's important to associate emotional content with human beings, not with pieces of music.
Another common problem is the use of descriptive language instead of technical vocabulary. When students use twelve descriptive words instead of one technical word, they raise the likelihood that their writing will be misinterpreted. Music theorists and musicologists have a shared technical vocabulary that helps us understand one another; students need to learn and use this type of discourse, too. For example, a student who writes this phrase-- "there are two melodies playing at the same time"-- would want to replace it with one word: "polyphony."
Q: What are some common misconceptions about music writing?
I think that writers tend to approach music with very strongly held but unexamined assumptions. Often these assumptions make it difficult to approach music from a critical or analytical perspective. The commonly held belief that music is a universal language, for example, implies these assumptions: 1) music "speaks" to us regardless of our cultural experiences; 2) criticism and analysis are unnecessary because music can speak for itself; and 3) music communicates the content that a language might communicate.
Writing about music works best when we ask questions about our musical experiences that challenge assumptions. To counter the three points listed above, we might ask these questions: How can music have a universal ability to communicate when listeners from different cultures understand and interpret music in different ways? How might criticism and music function differently than a language does? If it doesn't, can music still be considered a language?
Another assumption we make as listeners is that music communicates emotional content. There is ample evidence in music theory, cognition, and neuroscience to support the relationship between music and emotion. But music can be intellectual, gestural or spiritual too. Thinking about music in purely emotional terms limits our appreciation of a complex, multi-dimensional art form.
Q: What mistakes do you often encounter in student music writing?
Music titles present all sorts of problems to students, probably because there are so many rules to apply. Which titles are italicized, and which get quotation marks? Why are some song titles listed in italics, but others aren't? What gets capitalized, and what doesn't?
The best thing a student can do when writing a music paper is to consult a style guide, like D. Kern Holoman's Writing About Music. A style guide will help you decide when to capitalize "symphony" (answer: depends on how the word is used) and whether to italicize a song title (yes, in many cases, but not with opera arias).
Q: Do you have any general advice to help students write "successfully" about music?
Writing about music takes a great deal of practice. It can't be done successfully by writing a paper overnight. Consulting writing guides, music faculty, and especially the music librarian are the best avenues to success.
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