- Hey, What’s That Sound?
“You may be sitting in a room reading this book,” writes the American composer Aaron Copeland in the opening pages of his 1939 book, What to Listen for in Music.1 The title of Copeland’s foray into music appreciation presumes an answer. After all, who would buy such a book merely to confirm the accuracy of his own senses? Over the course of his gently didactic pages, Copeland carefully calibrates his reader’s critical apparatus and offers a readymade vocabulary to deal with issues of form, technique, and style. But he also captures another of music’s effects. In his introductory notes, as if by accident, he describes the sublime thrill that precedes issues of scale, tone, timbre, or rhythm, if it does not negate their importance altogether: “Imagine one note struck on the piano. Immediately that one note is enough to change the atmosphere of the room—proving that the sound element in music is a powerful [End Page 963] and mysterious agent, which it would be foolish to deride or belittle.”2 For many of us, this is answer enough: it is precisely music’s capacity to produce “powerful” and “mysterious” effects that strikes us to our very core. As that note trembles in the air, everything changes.
Whether it is a composition that baffles or annoys us, drawing us deep into its inscrutable layers, or a charming tune that feels eerily familiar upon first listen, we react to music at a seemingly instinctual level first. Copeland’s authority notwithstanding, most of us do not believe we need to be told “what to listen for”—rather, music feels like a self-evident truth. Perhaps this is why writing about music has always seemed an undignified pursuit. The durable and oft-deployed comment comparing writing about music to “dancing about architecture” offers the swiftest retort, and maybe the murkiness of the remark’s origins—it has been attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, Thelonious Monk, Elvis Costello, David Byrne, and Frank Zappa, among others—epitomizes the timeless, everyman nature of this resistance to intellectualizing musical pleasures, as if the plaint were so universal that it simply doesn’t matter who uttered it first.3 The keepers of mystery will always claim the high ground, for the connections we forge with pop songs seem beyond scrutiny.
What motivates this distrust toward thinking too deeply about the history or effects of popular music? What is at stake when we write or theorize about music? And how did we come to anticipate such intimate responses to pop music—how did we learn what to listen for? Perhaps this ambivalence toward the concentrated study of popular music points to a fear that we will somehow taint or undo our feelings about the past—and perhaps this fear is a valid one. Pop songs do not exist outside of history, even if they work by making us think otherwise, as though time were standing still. One might hear, encoded in twentieth-century song the mythology of nation building, the consolidation of publics and counterpublics, the testing of new identities. Pop songs are artifacts cataloging discarded styles and formerly fashionable ideas about pleasure and pain, performance and spectatorship. These five new books about music in the twentieth century show what can happen when one listens closely...