Throughout school, I learned to accept at least one single truth:  I suck at math.  Hate it.  Think it’s pointless and irrelevant in daily life.   I’m more of an English/Social Studies guy than a Science/Math guy.  I’m interested in the arts.  You know— movies, TV, and music.

Well, at least I’ve long considered music one of the arts.  I guess I still do, and many people throughout the world do as well.  However, it has become increasingly apparent that music is not simply a form of self-expression or storytelling.  It is, essentially, mathematics.

Recently, some musically-minded friends of mine have attempted to teach me various music theory concepts.  The first thing that each of them has brought up is The Circle of Fifths (explanatory graphic posted above).  For those that have studied music in any capacity, this is probably basic, elementary stuff.  For me, it’s the equivalent of the recent debt ceiling debate.  No matter how hard I attempt to understand its importance, it still just doesn’t make sense.  Key signatures and sheet music might as well be hieroglyphics.

Before I lose all credibility as a music blogger, however, I should assert that I do consider myself able to understand and analyze other aspects of the music industry.  I recognize, for the most part, patterns in genres, live performance ability, and other key components that, in my opinion, shape great artists.  Yet, I do not truly understand the science behind what those artists create.

So, although I can hide behind the comfort of my computer and analyze a song as a listener and follower of pop culture/music in general, I cannot do so as a composer.  I might like the way a song changes in mood or tempo, but I won’t necessarily appreciate that songwriting mastery in the same way someone who has studied music theory might.

Despite my lack of musical knowledge, I have long desired to truly grasp at least the basic concepts of Music Theory.  I envy the musician that can simply hear a song on the radio and then almost perfectly perform it on his or her instrument of choice without any further research.  The ability of jazz players to improvise while staying in time and key astounds me.  Those that can listen to avant-garde music or experimental jazz while scoffing at the simple songs I and many others enjoy honestly impress me.  These types of musicians truly are talented and gifted people.

Recently, however, I have begun to realize that although mastery of music is a gift, it may also be somewhat of a curse.  For instance, while watching the film Crazy, Stupid Love today (great movie, by the way), I noticed a significant change in my friend’s emotions and demeanor each time music played in the background of a scene.  My friend studied Jazz at the University of Illinois and is quite proficient at upright bass, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to music theory.  But during the movie he seemed almost pained when certain songs played in the background, as if he was paying more attention to the music than what was happening with the story onscreen.  He would whisper when he recognized pieces and he even chuckled when a somewhat ridiculous bongo sounded in the background.  Furthermore, when we walked into the lobby of the theater he commented on the organ trio that just played over the background of a commercial being played on a tiny TV.  I hadn’t even noticed the TV, the commercial or the organ trio until he brought it up.

This detailed attention and analyzation of music in otherwise unordinary situations and locations may not seem like too difficult of a problem to deal with.  In fact, one might envy a person with such an observant ear.  The true problem occurs, however, when the music is, somehow, off.  After I commented on my friend’s extreme attention to the music in the film, he told me a story about a time when he was watching a blues band in Chicago.  He claimed that everyone in the audience was enjoying the band, dancing and having a good time, but he couldn’t help but notice that the drummer and the bassist were slightly out of sync tempo-wise.  Even such a subtle error reduced his ability to enjoy a band that was giving so many others a great time.

It would surprise me if there aren’t numerous other jazz snobs or music buffs out there that feel exactly the same way as my friend.  Alone and misunderstood in social situations that incorporate some aspect of simplistic or watered-down popular music.  In other words, music snobs.  Music is the livelihood, favorite hobby and possibly even profession of such a snob, but the very fact that the snob understands the science/art so well plagues them in a modern society filled with musicians glorified for making simplistic or error-ridden songs— as is the case with many pop and punk stars, respectively.  The life of a musically competent person would almost be as if there was a genius, Harvard-educated doctor that was forced to endure a society filled with physicians with no formal education that were famous and respected for being able to do something simple like applying a Band-Aid in a slightly unique and catchy yet still formulaic way.  That analogy is likely either embellished or  nonsensical, but somehow does seem somewhat accurate based upon several encounters with various music snobs.

Although many of us in this modern age of American Idol (including, admittedly, myself) have begun to consider ourselves infallible music critics, quick to call even a decently talented singer “a little pitchy,” casual listeners simply do not and cannot recognize the mistakes, repetition or simplicity that occurs in many songs and performances.  However, the phrase “Ignorance is Bliss” definitely applies and rings true in this context.  So, let us sympathize with the music snobs of the world, annoying as they may be, for their defining talent might not be as great of a gift as it seems to us common folks.  Or maybe I’m just jealous because I still don’t understand The Circle of Fifths.

 

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