The Musical Ascent of Herman Being

I picked up a copy of The Musical Ascent of Herman Being recently, and this morning it seemed like a good short text to read while lounging at the pool. Ah, summer.

If you know absolutely nothing about classical music and would like a little impetus to sit down and listen to a forty-minute symphony and actually learn to like it, I’d recommend this book. If you’re so immersed in the music that you have trouble explaining the basics to a novice, it stands as a nice reminder that really, this stuff isn’t your average pop music, and no, not everyone just gets it from day one.

It’s short – less than 100 pages, and in a larger text format. I read it in less than an hour, and I’m a slow reader. So there’s no excuse. Pick it up.

The author, Robert Danziger (from CSU), takes a stab at presenting western art music to beginners, without any technical jargon. He introduces a twenty-five year old guy with no musical background who wants to learn: Herman Being. Herman consults a music guru friend of his, and through this, he is pushed up the ladder – on a musical ascent. His motivation is also driven forward as he crushes on a graduate music student (okay, it adds interest).

A few “secrets” are revealed to the reader as the dialogue progresses:

“Well, we’ve established that I respond to pop music; that this response depends on repeat listening; and that pop and classical music aren’t as essentially different as I thought. The logical conclusion would be: apply the repeated procedure to classical music; and that’s the secret.” – p. 47

Personally, there are some composers I can’t stand to listen to. It doesn’t mean I can’t find laudable moments in their works, or even that I wouldn’t teach them. I can appreciate them, but it’s not something I’d add to my iTunes Playlist. I completely agree with the above statement, however. Consider this:

“You see, when you hear a piece, let’s say six times, not necessarily one right after the other, but within a reasonable time, changes occur in your perception that are unexpected. The first few times through, you’ll have little or no hint of these changes. After several repetitions you’re astonished that a degree of affectivity has crept in. It’s a revelation! Where was it hiding? How could you have missed it the first time? It comes as a matter of wonder… Each time it works unexpectedly.” –p. 48

I experienced this with the Mozart (K. 388) I recently conducted. After hundreds of hours of staring at that score, discovering the cultural context behind the piece, and listening to every recording I could get my hands on, I nearly fell in love with the damn thing. It was a Julie Powell meets Julia Child vicariously through her cookbook kind of moment.

There’s a lot of discussion about pop music vs. classical music in the book. The two unstitched that the main audible difference between them is length and quality. Classical music requires a longer attention span – of course this isn’t always true.

***This isn’t a “classical music is better” argument. On the contrary, it’s a “why classical music can fit into your life in addition to pop music” argument. They serve different purposes.

But there’s more:

“…there’s another aspect to this. Extending a musical concept over a span of time adds something more than just minutes. With length, comes depth. A twenty-minute symphonic poem is not the same as eight or ten short pieces strung together. Think of it in terms of literature. The short story and the novel share many characteristics aside from length, right? And it might be fine and very pleasant to read short stories one after the other. But this won’t offer the fullness, the capacity for deepest involvement that you find in a great novel.

It’s possible to have positive, valid experiences with both types of music. But, when you look for something beyond this, something greater; when the capacity for deep involvement is in question, then we find a difference between the two types.” -p. 70

I do agree with the above points – to an extent. I understand what he’s saying, but he could have elaborated more here. Some pop music carries extreme levels of depth in only a few minutes. Or reflect on the masterwork of John Cage – 4:33. Though it may be subjective, it can be the epitome of depth.

Speaking of epitome, The Musical Ascent of Herman Being attempts to answer one of the big questions: Music has no obvious function, yet most of us can agree that it satisfies some kind of human need. Why is that? He refers to a Darwin quote from Descent of Man:

…we may assume that musical tones and rhythms were used by our half human ancestors during the season of courtship, when animals of all kinds are excited not only by love, but by the strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph. From the deeply laid principle of inherited association, musical tones in this case would be likely to call up vaguely and indefinitely the strong emotions of a long past age.

Music evolved with the inception of communication and the beginnings of speech. From day one, it explains emotions without a common [spoken] language. To paraphrase Danziger here, it was life sustaining and held original function in the mating process (p. 75).

This says quite a bit about why we listen to music, but the book stopped short of explaining just how the process of listening (and thus, an emotional experience through music) occurs. The author acknowledges this (pp. 76-77).

I have a bit of a physics background, but I won’t bore you with the technicalities. Perhaps we can relate this to a recent post of mine on iDosing – the new-fangled way that kids are getting high, digitally. As posted, they’re using binaural beats to produce whatever feeling they like – it effects our nervous system by transmitting emotion-producing signals to the tiny bones in our ears as we listen. Though it’s not classified as music by ‘experts’, other musics are used to create similar effects. Think of all the Baby Einstein/Baby Mozart lines, or the meditative ambient sounds we hear to ease anxiety, or to promote sleep health.

In any case, Danziger’s book is a fabulous “primer for a primer” on how to appreciate classical music. It’s used in universities all over the planet to promote interest and act as this primer. The author, obviously not a fiction writer (the text can be a bit dry) aced his objectives with this. There have been a few updated editions since this version that I read, so I’d be interested to see how he has further edited the content.

I was happy to have read it, and already passed it on to someone who’s constantly asking me some of the questions Danziger unravels.

…onward and upward!


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