Experience, understanding and emotion in music

Hi All.

Ive recently been watching the excellent “How music works” series on Youtube with Howard Goodall. The programme on rhythm can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZJPnAer7EM

The man is extremely eloquent and clear in his presentation and the whole series is well worth a look BUT, there are some ideas and concepts and explanations that still are not completely clear to me.

As I teach rhythm for a living, one might assume that I would be able to deliver a clear, concise and universal background to the theory of rhythm understandable to everyone.

What I have discovered over the last 7 years is that IF there is such a way, I have yet to find it and I believe more and more that it is a futile quest. I believe we perceive the world and learn in so many ways that there is no “one size fits all” explanation. Words and concepts seem insufficient compared to experience.

For me, music is an experience.  It is an emotional experience. It is a felt experience. I feel it in my body. When I am drumming, I quickly enter a state of being where my hands are moving faster than I can think and analyse.

Learning through physical experience and using the body is known as kinaesthetic learning (learning through doing). Two other learning styles are visual (learning by watching) and auditory (learning by listening). They are also important and help us to learn but to actually need to play rhythms, to learn them.

Once we have mastered the physical co-ordination to play a particular rhythm, we can start to relax, enjoy ourselves and the music will often flow and we find ourselves playing the rhythm with accents or swing.

I feel that written notes on a piece of paper represent the music but is not the music. On a simple level, it is difficult to write down music with a particular ‘swing’. This means that certain notes are accented or pushed to give a different feel to the music. And yet, we can play the music with the accents or swing that feels natural without being able to write it down.

Being able to transcribe music, or in my case rhythms, is a really useful skill and I can notate much of the music that I have been taught by my African teachers. I use notation to aid memory and set down the bass drum and bell patterns and djembe accompaniments and solos but I also know that notes I am writing do not convey the feel of the music.

I have also noticed though, that the experience of rhythm changes at different tempos, that rolls sound and feel different, that subtle but audible accents turn notes into living music which flows rather than sounding robotic or mechanical.

Even to speak in terms of time signatures can sometimes be unhelpful and cause a mental barrier to some to understanding the music. Concepts can get in the way, it seems to me.

For example, many W African rhythms are in triple time but perhaps there are many different pulses layered on top of each other – we call this polyrhythm.

The language of music often appears self-referential to me. “this polyrhythm combines 3/4, 6/8 and 12/8 time signatures and the dunumba is entirely off-beat” – would be unhelpful for many people. What do the 3,4,8 and 12 mean? what are off beats and on beats?

It can be difficult to penetrate for many people and so I teach by example. I ask 2 or 3  students to play different rhythm patterns at the same time – to enable everyone to hear and experience the idea Im trying to convey. If there are experienced musicians in the class I can provide an explanation –  but all students are still able to play the different parts and experience the resultant music.

This is the way my African teachers work. Use your ears, listen and feel the music and rhythm in your body.

This also highlights an interesting phenomenon. When we play, our perception of the music as a whole can be radically affected compared to purely listening and observing.

Initially we learn to play our patterns and then we work out how it fits with other patterns that are being played at the same time, but sometimes this can be incredibly difficult to do. And yet, if we listen to the 2 patterns being played by others, the relationship may become very clear. An excellent idea is to dance to the music that you are trying to learn!!

It seems to me that to learn to integrate different patterns to make a whole -in which we are participating is a journey of developing a whole new listening apparatus for many of us.

And yet this is such an exciting and important aspect – the relationship of the part to the whole – not just in drumming with other people but in how we connect and relate to other people.

I have mentioned many times in my own classes, that by feeling very tense in my early years of drumming and feeling a lot of (self generated) pressure to get things right slowed down my learning . Over the years, I have learned to ‘soften’ which combines relaxing in my body and my breathing, trusting that I will be able to play the pattern, not putting pressure on myself and giving myself permission to get it wrong.

Softening feels to me like a key component to going from the conceptual (often critical) mind into the body and emotions where we can experience the music. Nowadays I go with these feelings as much as possible when playing  – listening in an open way to the melody we are creating together, knowing that I can listen and analyse the recordings later.

Another experiential piece of learning for me was that to learn a particular new rhythm part, I needed to soften and relax and by doing so I found new levels of understanding and feelings in the music. Often we try to use what we know already to learn something new but paradoxically, I find that can inhibit me. If we set up a rhythm pattern on a computer and set it going, it will continue, unchanging, forever. There is no sense of difficulty, fatigue or sense of achievement which is part of the learning process for me. When I have learned a particular pattern which was difficult and felt awkward to me but now feels more comfortable to play, I feel that something has changed in me.

When I have struggled to learn a new pattern with Nansady, sometimes he has just invited me to “open my heart” which to me means to soften, stop struggling, relax and trust and go with rather than resist. Im absolutely in the present moment and focussed and relaxed .

I truly feel this experience is fundamental to the therapeutic benefit often ascribed to drumming.

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