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Saturday morning quotes 2.8: The music is nothing special

July 14, 2012

“There’s nothing special about a song…”

Early this morning one of us was exercising his Constitutional right to engage in online political discourse when the conversation turned quite unexpectedly to the music business.  Our correspondent, whom we only know from an anonymous forum, and who didn’t know that he was talking to a professional musician, made the following pronouncement:

I fully support the “free culture” and think that if musicians want to sell something they need to do something special that connects people with their art in a way that they were either too lazy or didn’t have to do before.  For example: there’s nothing special about a song.  “The music” is not special.  So when you’re talking about monetizing music these days you can’t think of that as selling a CD, because no one cares, they can go to Spotify and listen to it for free.  But there is something special about having that song on limited edition split colored vinyl. That’s something to show off to your friends.

The music is not special?

Wonder what kind of music he listens to?   If it takes the physical product of a limited edition split colored vinyl to make a song special, then we have clearly been going at this thing in the wrong way – and working much too hard.

Disgusted, we turned off the computer and spent nearly two hours immersed in a particularly beautiful chanson by Antoine Busnoys, staggeringly complex in its imitative counterpoint and proportional architecture.  Yes, two hours working out the minute details of one song.  We exhausted our bodies and our brains long before we’d exhausted the mesmerizing depths of the music, to which we we eagerly look forward to returning.

Of course, we may just be the slightest bit biased, but the reactions we hear from our audiences (even those who’ve only heard us on Spotify, Jango, or Pandora) have convinced us that this music really does touch people in a unique way.  After concerts, members of the audience often approach us to describe their emotional reaction to the music—feelings rather than analysis.

One particularly thoughtful listener once opined that perhaps the reason audience members  approach us with their emotions close to the surface is because our music so delicately intermingles sound, texture and quiet, offering a safe aural space.  The music actually allows the listener to let down his guard, opening him so fully to the beauty and intensity of the words and music that he is absorbed and overwhelmed by the experience.

We sometimes read aloud a snippet of the following favorite quote, a 16th-century description of the power of music:

‘Music is the sovereign mistress for solacing grief, appeasing wrath, curbing boldness, tempering desire, healing sorrow, easing the misery of poverty, dispelling weakness, and soothing the pangs of love.

You could relate a great number of ancient stories on this subject, but you would hardly find one of a more striking proof than that which was recently told us…by Monsieur de Ventemille… who while staying in Milan…was invited to a sumptuous banquet…where, among other pleasures of rare things…appeared Francesco da Milano – a man who is considered to have attained the end (if such is possible) of perfection in playing the lute well.

The tables being cleared, he chose [a lute], and as if tuning his strings, sat on the end of a table seeking out a fantasia. He had barely disturbed the air with three strummed chords when he interrupted conversation which had started among the guests.

Having constrained them to face him, he continued with such a ravishing skill that little by little, making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those who were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that…they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing, as if the spirit, having abandoned all the seats of the senses, had retired to the ears in order to enjoy the more at its ease so ravishing a harmony…

…I believe (said M. de Ventemille) that we would be there still, had [Francesco] not himself – I know not how – changing his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit and the senses to the place from which he had stolen them, not without leaving as much astonishment in each of us as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transport of some divine frenzy.’

Nope, there’s nothing special about a song.

  1. Bruno Correia permalink

    Hi Ron,

    The author of this statement “There’s nothing special about a song…” probably never heard music as an art form in his entire life. Unfortunately most people became deaf and unsensitive to either poetry or any kind of art. But they should not be blamed for this sin, because this is the crude reality of our contemporary world. In music, the advent of the gramophone started the modern music business and with the aid of technology killed it 100 years later. The huge amount of recordings at everyone’s disposal nowadays makes any song seems irrelevant, specially for those in the pop culture.


  2. Thanks for your insights, Bruno.

    To be fair, the person who wrote, “There’s nothing special about a song…” was affecting a wry, cynical attitude that is (unfortunately) characteristic of the way Americans communicate today, and Donna highlighted the comment to set the overall tone of a dialogue that was about the music business. Sometimes the wryness and irony with which one writes can come across as arrogance, which is how we interpreted the statement and thus was the impetus for Donna’s post.

    Your observation, that a prevailing insensitivity towards art and poetry is spawned by an excess of availability, is certainly true. I think it is made worse by the American tendency to think that the sale of any given thing—shoes, peanuts, automobiles, toilet paper, music—is more important than the intrinsic value of thing itself.

    I once saw an excerpt of a televised interview with Umberto Eco, one of my heroes and among other things a specialist on aesthetics in medieval art. Eco opined (to paraphrase in a nutshell) that the American tendency is to collect things not to appreciate their aesthetic qualities but rather to have a collection. It’s all about the money and the prestige of having a larger quantity of things than one’s neighbor has.

    On some level, we lutenists probably have an elevated sense of the aesthetic value of something as elusive as historical music and poetry. The effort it takes to play the lute well involves a level of focus and listening with an intensity that trains us to appreciate nuance and subtlety, qualities that are not seen as necessarily important in the music business today. Instead, it’s all about the power and volume level of sound, and about moving your product to make some money. I think more people should play the lute.


  3. I think that person hit the nail on the head, albeit accidentally: There is a difference between “the song” and the artifact. “Selling music” has meant “selling records” for the past fifty years or so. It doesn’t any more. As long as that difference isn’t properly understood, and its implications properly worked out, there will be no end to this discussion. And yes, that includes the likes of Spotify not as a means of dissuading people to buy records, but another way of making yourself heard (preferably for fair remuneration). BTW what’s so bad about receiving 0.3 cents for a play on Spotify when on Youtube, you get nothing at all?

  4. Thanks for an astute observation. Your point approaches the issue from and expresses concerns similar to ours, but from a slightly different angle.

    Yes, I think the person making the original statement was perhaps writing from the point of view that content and substance (the music) mean much less than the physical object through which the sounds are transmitted (in this case, a vinyl LP).

    Of course, there is a great deal of subtext involved in the statement that must be clarified: 1) the person appears to be a recording industry professional and was thus selling his wares (manufacturing vinyl LPs); 2) the person is less interested in the ‘creative art’ aspect of music and more interested in sales of product as a measure of success, or even effectiveness, 3) the person acknowledges the transition that has so affected the recording industry resulting in a devaluation of recorded music, and he thinks this can be overcome with a concentration on enhanced packaging.

    Your observation implicitly acknowledges these things much more succinctly. But there is also a subtext in the original statement that implies the music has no value until it can be properly monetized and marketed, using the best available means.

    Our message is clear enough: It’s an unfortunate state of affairs when people place less value on the emotional content of the music than they do on the physical or electronic means by which they obtain and archive the recording.

    As for Spotify, ah, you’ve touched upon a subject that in our household is a sensitive issue. Spotify represents the worst case of an abusive relationship between an artist and a marketing mogul, a topic which has been discussed (I almost typed disgust) elsewhere. Youtube is worse in many ways, as you so aptly point out.

    What’s wrong with Spotify paying so little when the music can be had for free on Youtube? An analogy, Using this approach, I could march into the offices of Microsoft and tell them I do not wish to pay for any of their software products because others have already stolen them and distributed them for very little money or for free. Therefore, stop complaining and come up with something new. Here’s three cents for what I’ve taken.


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