Music II

When I first made myself commit to posting weekly, I was trying to make myself spend a little time every day of the week thinking and writing and whittling away at old drafts. Instead I’m here at 10:40 PM basically starting a brand-new post. Oh well.

I last blogged about music in 2013. I tagged two other posts with “music” since then, but neither is particularly deep: 8 Songs for 18 Years and Drop-In Filler. Let’s continue the tradition of self-analysis part IIs from nowhere…

I meditated a little bit in Conversations about “lacking experience or interest in a lot of the commonly discussed culture.” I think this applies to me and music as well, although not as fully. Back in Taiwan, when mentally bracing myself for coming to the U.S. for college, I sometimes worried about not knowing enough about pop music and bands and not listening enough to popular albums, and having trouble integrating into the culture for this.

Turns out, among the communities I wandered into and friends I made, it was a more frequent obstacle that I didn’t know enough about classical music and composers. Whoops. Some of the names rang faint bells from either music class or conversations with high school friends who did do classical music, but I could not identify or remember any styles or eras, and would remember composers only by unreliable first letters or unusual substrings of their names.

(Although this isn’t particularly unique to music, and is adequately explained by me just being bad at names. Fun fact: In first grade or thereabouts, during “computer” “class” where we practiced making Microsoft Word documents about things, I wrote some sort of introduction to Leonhard Euler and said that he proved that there were infinitely many primes. I believe my first-grade self conflated Euler with Euclid by assuming that only one important mathematical name would ever start with such an odd digraph. A digraph of two vowels at that.)

(Mental challenge: In two minutes, list as many of your friends whose names start with two vowels in a row as you can. Go!)

I don’t think that not following pop music helps either, but when I visited Taiwan over breaks, I realized my sister learned more about U.S. pop music by staying in school there than I did actually studying in the U.S.

Music (possibly “singing”) is on my list of interests, but I think I have been a consistently self-deprecating music enthusiast. I’m just not that talented or experienced. I know two songs on the piano, total, and can sort of play chords on it or on a guitar, but that’s not much and I don’t even have a guitar any more. I know my voice isn’t that good either. But I try not to be discouraged — in fact, to some degree, I like music and cling to it as proof that I can be interested in and dedicated to something I don’t necessarily have talent in, that my determination means something.

During my second semester at MIT, I doubled-down into the academic freedom of college I had been anticipating for years — getting to ignore the constraints of class availability at my tiny high school and taking classes in whatever I wanted. I took some music classes.

21M.301, “Harmony and Counterpoint”, was a music theory class where we learned the rules for composing music (in the Western tradition). The class featured a piano and sight-singing lab, so suddenly I was recalling and re-applying all the scraps of piano and music theory I had from elementary school, and pretty glad I had them. But the core of the class was about learning rules and guidelines for what notes and chords go together, applying them to melodies, analyzing pieces with them, and at the end, writing a (very short) string quartet in four parts. It was loads of fun.

(Yet another minor aside: in addition to remembering musical knowledge from elementary school, I also realized and was struck by how completely intuitive, even instinctive, solfege syllables were for me. I know their order and how they correspond to intervals without conscious thinking. Apparently this isn’t as basic a musical skill as I thought it was. (I don’t know if “skill” is the right word — you don’t need those syllables to sing scales; you could sing numbers or letters or whatever. I guess it’s a convention.))

21M.011, “Introduction to Western Music”, was a music history class that also featured a lot of listening to music and writing. It was the fifth class I added to that semester (my advisor vetoed having a sixth), initially chosen largely because I was out of things that fit into my schedule and one of my floormates suggested I got the writing requirement out of the way, but I liked the class. It’s cool to get a sense of all the background and historical developments that led to pieces of music today. And I became slightly less confused about composers.

Unrepresentative story that just came to my mind and mostly gives the silly impression that I learned all this because it might be useful one day on a puzzlehunt (an excuse I do legitimately use to justify learning some other things, though!) but I have to tell anyway: One day after class, I returned to a half-completed cryptic crossword in a folder of mine and read this clue

Berlioz finally appears in catalogue as composer (5)

and where I would have been clueless before, I was instantly like “Oh yeah, that’s the guy who did the program music symphony with the idée fixe and the guillotine chord and the creepy final movement!” and then almost as instantly solved the clue, even though it had nothing directly to do with this knowledge whatsoever. Still, I feel like knowing things about composers makes it easy to be assured I’m not missing some obvious piece of cultural knowledge and start thinking down other paths.

In related news: I think I finally realized all parts of what this clue, from a totally different source, meant:

Ring composer? We rang composer! (6)

Back to the post, though.

I had been talking tongue-in-cheek about plans to minor in music at college for a long time. The semester made it a bit less tongue-in-cheek. Just a tiny bit less.

Considering how much I sometimes implicitly concern myself with conformity sometimes, I am surprisingly unperturbed by having this plan and still not being that into classical music (a somewhat nebulous term; I’m crudely thinking of pieces for the orchestra and/or piano or any subset). This goes back to Part 1 and I am too tired to do this in any format other than a really short bulleted list.

  • I like music with words and tightly integrated feelings, because they make the emotions easier to grasp and more vivid. Maybe it is, for whatever reason, hard cerebral work for me to try to convert music to emotions and I cannot do it instinctively or relaxedly. Maybe getting strong feelings over wordless music clashes with some reflexive skepticism I learned from literature class of claims that that everything is a metaphor and hides a deeper meaning.
  • I like music a bit more repetitive than most classical music from what I know. This is probably a red herring though, marred by not knowing what sorts of music to look for. “Theme and variations” is a totally valid genre. I just don’t know where to look. Or maybe I feel like this is anticorrelated with “studying music” for some implicit questionable reasons that also explain why classical music is correlated — “repetitive” stuff is simpler and less impressive and less worthy of study or deep appreciation. That’s phrased snarkily but I think there may be a valid argument one could make inside it. But I guess System 1 analysis leans towards thinking it’s all subjective and these are the wrong concerns to be having.
  • Maybe it is just largely a self-fulfilling prophecy because I like music I listen to many times. While some (most?) people get tired of a piece of music the second or third time they listen to it, I think how much I like a piece of music peaks after maybe five to fifty listens, and even after it starts declining, it recharges really quickly after I stop listening to it for a while. Some songs I actively hate on first listening become songs I like after I hear them enough times. Even the ones I still actively hate become songs I instinctively sing along to. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, they say.

    This definitely happened for Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which I listened to hundreds of times for a 21M.011 paper and enjoyed more and more.

    It’s so obvious in hindsight. And it also explains why I am so lazy to seek out new music, or at least gives me an excuse. My bandwidth for finding new songs to enjoy is very low because I have to listen to them many more times than most people before really enjoying them, and most of the time the bandwidth is already saturated by songs I hear through passive cultural osmosis.

    Probably, I just need to throw classical pieces that aren’t too long into InfiniteLooper now and then I will end up really liking them. I do plenty more for the sake of having a shared experiences with people.

Hmm, it seems I verbalized something important about myself today. Beyond that, though, there is no point as usual, and also I have to get to work early tomorrow. But I discovered this tweet and feel a lot better about this general state of affairs.

(editor’s note: there was a now-unavailable tweet from 2016 that read:) me, an idiot, every time: “this post goes all over the place and fails to conclude anything useful, no one will like it”

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