Musicking | The Meanings of Performing and Listening

Excerpts from Musicking – The Meanings of Performing and Listening 

Author: Christopher Small

Music is not a thing at all, but an activity, something that people do. The apparent thing “music” is a figment, an abstraction of the action whose reality vanishes as we examine it at all closely.

The presumed autonomous “thingness” of works of music is, of course, only part of the prevailing modern philosophy of art in general.

What is valued is not the action of art, not the act of creating, and even less that of perceiving and responding, but the created art object itself. Whatever the meaning art may have is thought to reside in the object, persisting independently of what the perceiver may bring to it. It is simply there, floating through history untouched by time or change, waiting for the ideal perceiver to draw it out.

The fundamental nature and meaning of music lie not in objects, not in musical works at all, but in action, in what people do. It is only by understanding what people do as they take part in a musical act that we can hope to understand its nature and the function it fulfills in human life. Whatever that function may be, I am certain, first, that to take part in a musical act is of central importance to our very humanness, as important as taking part in the act of speech, which it so resembles.

Every normally endowed human being is born with the gift of music no less than with the gift of speech. If that is so, then our present-day concert life, whether “classical”, or “popular”, in which the “talented” few are empowered to produce music for the “untalented” majority, is based on a falsehood.

It means that our powers of making music for ourselves have been hijacked and the majority of people robbed of the musicality that is theirs by right of birth, while a few stars, and their handlers, grow rich and famous through selling us what we have been led to believe we lack.

It is not just those performers who are called great who can do this for us; it is open to anyone to use his or her powers to descend into the underworld and return with new visions. Everyone can be his or her own shaman.

So if the meaning of music lies not just in the musical works but in the totality of a musical performance, where do we start to look for insights that will unite the work and the event and allow us to understand it?

The answer I propose is this. The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning, but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as a metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be: relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world.

The relationships of a musical performance are enormously complex, too complex, ultimately, to be expressed in words. But that does not mean that they are too complex for our minds to encompass. The act of musicking, in its totality, itself provides us with a language by means of which we can come to understand and articulate those relationships and through them to understand the relationships of our lives…the integrity of the person affirmed, explored, and celebrated.


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