My musical self-education

Musick-er requests:

I’ve noticed that you tend to have pretty wide ranging tastes in music, and your recommendation on introduction to classical music was pretty spot-on. I’m wondering what training/expertise you have in music theory/aural skills?…As someone who is obviously very intelligent but not a musician (that I know of), I wonder how you interact with Bach or other master composers – what criteria do you listen for? What makes great works stand out from the merely good?

My history is this:

1. I learned how to play the guitar when I was twelve or so, and also figured out how a piano works.

2. I spent about six years studying jazz chords, American popular song, some classic rock, early acoustic blues and ragtime, Fahey/Kottke, and Bach.  I also learned how to listen with a score, at least for guitar and piano pieces.

3. Later in life, I focused on trying to make sense of early to mid 20th century classical music and Indian classical music, both excellent entry points for many of the other difficult musical genres and styles.  I tried to learn at least something about micro-tonal musics and ragas.

4. Starting in my thirties, I tried to develop a basic familiarity with world musics, not so much the European folkie stuff as those based on different conceptual principles, such as some of the Arab musics, Chinese music, and African musics including the Pygmies.

5. I cultivated “music mentors” to help me understand these musics.  Overall this is not a very book-intensive endeavor, though you will enjoy reading accompanying biographies.

I am not saying that is the right path for everyone, but I found it very rewarding, including for my broader understanding of history.

To address one of the specific questions, I think of Bach-Stravinsky, classic rock, and Indian classical music (live only) as covering some of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements, with only cinema in the running for possible parity.  Most of all just listen plenty, noting that the canonical opinions about what is best are actually pretty much on the mark.


Indian classical music - what would be one recording that we all should listen to?


Mata Kalika (Raag Adana) by Pandit Jasraj - numerous videos on youtube is a good example of an accessible north indian classical composition. It is a composition in a minor scale.

No expert here , but at Spotify if one searches for "indian classical", "carnatic vocal" and "carnatic Instrumental" , the playlists that are coming seem quite impressive.

None, if this is any guide - 'Indian classical music (live only).'

I think we have discussed this topic before, but a slightly different take:

1. I don't think there is a single recording listening to which will give yo any feel for Indian music. A useful starting exercise is to learn to distinguish between different ragas. Here is a great youtube playlist, with each video taking up a different raga:

At the beginning of each clip, they tell you the basic note structure of the raga - which of the 12 notes feature in the raga under consideration, and in which order. Then they sing a simple composition - first the notes, then the lyrics. This is elementary, but educational and really worth the effort.

2. I might have told you this earlier - one way to pick up feels for some ragas is to listen to film/pop music in those ragas. These are simpler and also more attuned to western sensibilities.

'classic rock ... as covering some of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements'

British music hall fans are crying into their warm ale, muttering 'it's a long way to Tipperary' as their memories of empire and youth overwhelm them.

British music hall fans are giving gracious thanks to Sir Paul McCartney, who gave music hall a century's extra lease on life by composing and playing it better than anyone else and submitting it to modern, that is, rock, orchestration.

All while playing the piano with two fingers.

Can there be great cinema w/o great music ? Doesn't Music do all of the heavy lifting in great cinema ?

The simple answer to your two questions are:


It doesn't have to.

You don't have children, do you?

I've learned a lot about music from Yana.

Is this an example of meta trolling, Prof. 'cowen'?

As a desperate and passionate devotee of the art, why do you need to ask?

"you don't have children, do you?" is a self-righteous little shit's way of asserting a sly superiority in the face of Tyler's polymath talents. He/she is baffled and irked by it. Children are difficult, but in the same way mucking a barn is difficult -- any conscientious , bovine idiot can do it.

What ivalue do you attach to unfocused listening? I listen to news, sports and podcasts in the car. When I’m hanging out with my kid—playing or cooking—we just chat about random stuff. Has it been anyone’s experience that music in the background sharpens an appreciation of music?

What are some ways that signaling by claiming to have sophisticated and wordly musical tastes has helped you advance?

Maybe a post someday on Indian classical music, what and how to listen?

How does listening to music fit into the Tyler Cowen production function? Is it a break from other pursuits, or is it compatible with multitasking?

RE: "with only cinema in the running for possible parity" ... Wait, are you really excluding classic literature from the list of "mankind’s greatest cultural achievements" here? Like, sorry Illiad and Bible and Mahabharat and Shakespeare, you're cut from the aesthetic varsity team?

Also, rather than "classic rock," I'd probably define the relevant aesthetic category as being Afro/Anglo/American "popular" music (yes, scare quotes, you know what I mean) from Armstrong to Radiohead, with maybe some latter-day contenders keeping the tradition alive. To my mind, it's all one big thing.

I thought Iliad was always paired with Odyssey and Mahabharata with Ramayana...

The Indian epics hover in the background of Indian Classical Music, especially South Indian.

I prefer the word ‘music’ to ‘musics’. Is there another art form subjected to such wanton grammatical collectivism?

I kid, I kid....mostly...

I have taste at least as broad but I've been driven entirely by the pursuit of pleasure. Cohen makes it sound like a job he had.

I get the sense Cowen's job is the pursuit of pleasure.

"To address one of the specific questions, I think of Bach-Stravinsky, classic rock, and Indian classical music (live only) as covering some of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements, with only cinema in the running for possible parity."

Would be curious to hear what you think mankind's corresponding great cultural achievements in cinema are! A quick rundown of directors/films would be fascinating.

How did jazz not make the list of cultural achievements?

RE: #2)

If you were to really study Pat Martino, you'd be stuck at #2, but you'd cover all the items that follow by studying Pat Martino in depth.

I'm surprised no country blues. First Western music to make heavy use of microtones, an invaluable source of social history, and some of the best musicians of the 20th century. Country blues + ragas = John Fahey.

Not sure how anyone can seriously assert that classic rock is superior to funk/soul from 65-75 (I say that as someone who loved and played bad alternative rock for a long, long time). Quality of production, musicianship, singing, songwriting, far superior, not even close. So perhaps just nostalgia for what formed you?

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