Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Music lives in flawed humans and not on the page

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Where does the music reside? in July 2007.

I met a painter a while back and he asked me if I was an artist. I told him that I didn’t paint, but that I worked with music. He then asked: “Where do you think the music resides? Is it in the written score?”

Carolyn Thompson

Carolyn Thompson by James Wm. Dawson

I was lost for words and didn’t really understand the question. Finally I answered: “I believe that music resides in the humanity of the people creating it”.

can a musical score ever be perfectly realised?

We went on to talk about how some people are attracted to the purity of the written score and the idea of the perfect realisation of it in practice. Of course, one can never perfectly realise a written piece of music (not least because music notation is not an exact system) because the people who create the music are error-prone and not perfect creatures.

But even if we could do that, wouldn’t that be rather like machine-produced music? I for one don’t enjoy choral concerts where the singing is so, so, ever so precise. The enunciation is perfect, as is the blend of voices – so much so that it can sometimes sound like a single voice singing. No! Give me some humanity and rough edges!

the imperfection and humanity of singing

I love the different textures of all the individuals in the choir, I appreciate everyone’s unique contribution to the overall sound. I enjoy it when not everyone is singing exactly the same pitch – that is where the harmonics, overtones and fullness of the sound come from.

I adore it when each person’s timing is slightly different, when small errors are made. In short, I love it when all the imperfections that we human beings are made up of are fully expressed through the singing.

I have heard singers who have ‘beautiful’ voices, who sing perfectly in tune, whose technique and talent are remarkable, and yet they leave me unmoved. However, I can hear some rusty old recording of a group of elderly villagers in the Balkans giving voice to an age-old traditional song, and I can be moved to tears.

They are communicating with me, they are working as one to express their humanity and their joy, and I in turn am moved.

singing in harmony is the great leveller

One weekend I was in the rare position of running three entirely different workshops in three different places with three different sets of participants. It reinforced for me what happens in singing workshops.

All three were open-access, no experience necessary, no musical scores in sight, no real expectations (except to have fun!), and yet they all produced the most wonderful, magical sounds. The whole experience was uplifting both for me and the participants.

It reminded me how universal singing is, and how egalitarian and levelling singing harmony together can be. I had no idea who these people were, what they did for a living, or if they had had any singing training or experience. The only instruction was to sing a part that they felt was comfortably within their own range.

strangers making music together

People ended up standing next to strangers who they had only just met, and yet they worked as a team helping to create an overall sound. Nobody was really worried about whether they had a ‘beautiful’ voice or not as they were soon taken over by the music itself.

And I just stood back and listened to the most beautiful harmony singing and was moved once more by the power of the music. And where did the music reside at that moment? In the hearts and souls of every single person who made up the group.

Yet still – unfortunately – people believe that they can’t ‘sing’ or that music-making is not meant for them. One of the workshop participants wrote to me: “I’m completely new to this kind of thing, having believed all my life that singing in choirs was something that ‘other people’ do.” Luckily he realised that singing is open to all of us and has now joined a local choir.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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