How to Respect Music

How to Respect Music

There have been many purposes for music—dance, worship, military formations, political campaigns, etc.—but listening can make all of music available to you whether or not you partake in those activities.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

In response to my contention last week that “there is much to be gained by giving [any] music the same respect we accord classical music by listening to it with the same level of attentiveness,” Joe Ornstein, an old friend and one-time bandmate in a bluegrass-inspired band, posited several comments on Facebook:

Just curious: Should one listen to dance music or dance to it? If you’re going to be respectful of the music, shouldn’t you participate? … To paraphrase Francis Bacon: Some forms of music are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

Bar Sur

When I visited Buenos Aires’s famous Bar Sur, I somewhat reluctantly agreed to get onto the dance floor to learn a few tango steps. But that wasn’t the reason I went there.

This raises tons of additional issues, which need to be addressed. On Facebook, I immediately responded to his initial observation, perhaps all too briefly: “In the case of ‘dance music,’ why can’t you do either (dance or just listen to it), and still be respectful to the music?” But with the hindsight that comes from deeper processing (something difficult to do when communicating via social media), perhaps my remark was somewhat disingenuous.

Before I began pursuing graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in the late 1980s, I was hoping that in so doing I would gain a deeper knowledge of the musical traditions of various world cultures. I was eager to broaden the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral vocabulary in my own music, going beyond superficial borrowings toward something that I thought would be more syncretic. As an undergrad I had already taken courses in the music of India, Indonesia, and the Middle East, and in the years I was away from academia, I collected tons of recordings from all over Africa and East Asia. I also immersed myself in salsa and other Latin American music. One of the reasons I was thrilled to enter the graduate program was that I’d be studying with Dieter Christensen. I knew that he had done field work in Kurdistan as well as in Bosnia-Hercegovina; I had not yet been able to find any recordings from these places and I wanted to hear that music.

But at the welcoming reception, upon asking Professor Christensen about these recordings, my bubble was quickly burst. Nearly 25 years later, I still remember the gist of his comments although the passage of time and the fact that I wasn’t carrying a tape recorder probably make this more of a paraphrase than a direct quote.

You don’t yet understand what ethnomusicology is. Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Why would you possibly want those recordings? What could you possibly get from them? This is music that you will never understand. I don’t listen to these recordings. When I’m at home I listen to Schubert.

I was crestfallen, and the first semester hadn’t even begun. I didn’t have a Schubert to go home to listen to. For me growing up in New York City in the 1970s, there was no music that I felt belonged to me more than any other. There was mainstream pop radio which I couldn’t avoid despite trying to, LPs of various latter-day crooners that my mother would occasionally listen to, and Broadway musicals which I discovered largely on my own through scouring sheet music bins back when there were such things (and eventually getting to see some of the shows since they were still affordable at that time). The standard repertoire of Western classical music was as much an alien “other” tradition as were those traditions of raga, maqam, and gamelan that soon became equally important to me once I had learned more about them.

My return to academia went mostly downhill after my initial encounter. Professor Christensen bragged that for several years he had not played any music during his Proseminar in Ethnomusicology, one of the required courses. I found it somewhat tedious. There was a class I really did enjoy, however, which was Transcription and Analysis, the only one that explored actual music in any depth. But I was soon warned that I liked that class a little bit too much, again with the mantra, “You don’t yet understand what ethnomusicology is. Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context.” Although I was enrolled for a Ph.D. with a full tuition fellowship, I quit the program after only completing one year of coursework. (Luckily I had taken enough courses to obtain a master’s and, thanks to the advice of another one of the faculty members, I wrote up a thesis the following year and so was able to walk away from the experience with a degree.)

This was a formative experience for me, perhaps as much as the story I related last week about how I came to focused listening. It was the first time I ever quit anything I had set out to do, and it still hits a nerve whenever I think about it. But I started thinking about it again in relation to Joe’s comments about purposes for music other than focused listening. Indeed, there are many: dance, worship, military formations, political campaigns, etc.

One of the great anecdotes in classical music lore is the story of Felix Mendelssohn finding the score of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in a waste bin and reviving it. It’s a story that has particular resonance this week as it will be performed countless times all over the world during the Christian Holy Week. It’s a piece of music that I came to love even though I am not a religious person. Am I being disrespectful to Bach and his music by not practicing the faith that his music was written to uphold? In the Middle East, some strict interpretations of Islam forbid the performance of music. Yet in all of the places that forbid music, muezzins still chant the Call to Prayer. It is culturally not considered music even though it follows the same basic parameters (melodic shapes, rhythms, etc.) as other things that would be considered music in that part of the world. I have several recordings of these chants and I find them extremely beautiful even though, once again, I don’t listen to them the way they were intended. When we get into the realm of music used for military formations and political campaigns, it becomes clear that purposes to which music can be put are not always purposes we might endorse—depending on where our allegiances lie. And as some of the commenters in response to my claims about listening suggest, Hitler and Stalin were both great music lovers and untold atrocities occurred under their reigns with the seaming seal of approval of the “classics” they used as part of their propaganda machines.
But these other purposes for music, to my ears at least, have nothing to do with the focused listening to music, any music—whether string quartets or death metal. Although Christopher Small—in the final pages of his book Musicking—seems to clearly implicate all of classical music as being an inseparable byproduct of the culture from which it emanated (a chauvinistic, colonialist society filled with class disparity), I believe it is possible to listen to it and not be adversely tainted. I believe that the same holds true for any other musical tradition. In fact, I would argue that listening to anything on its own terms, divorced from whatever additional context might be placed on it either by the society that has engendered it or some megalomaniac who attempts to repurpose it for nefarious ends, is one of the best ways to train oneself against groupthink. I’ve found focused listening to someone else to be the most effective way to learn another viewpoint. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with that viewpoint, but it’s hard to know that you don’t agree with it unless you’ve paid enough attention to know what that viewpoint is.

At the end of the day I will never be an “ethnomusicologist,” at least by the definitions I was given once upon a time. I probably will also never dance, even though there’s a ton of dance music that is extremely dear to me. But, by all means, if you want to dance, pray, or cheerlead, let the music sweep you away—although when it comes to some of the less laudatory usages that regimes have attached to music, realize that the music itself is ultimately abstract and follows its own logic which, no matter what role you might assign to it, can have a completely different one for someone else that is no less valid. And therein is perhaps a way to respect music.