The Three Types of Musical Curiosity

We all connect with music in different ways. None of the ways are less valid than others. It’s all about your personality: what do you connect with personally? Are you a person who cares deeply about how others feel? Do you look at the technical aspects behind a thing? Do you care about where something came from — it’s history?

With those questions in mind, here are the three types of musical curiosity.

1. Emotional Curiosity

The emotionally curious musicians seeks to understand the feelings behind the music.

Music, it’s often said, is a language. If that’s so, it’s a holistic language. Steven Mithen (aff.) suggests that music arose from a shared ancenstry with language. Namely that early hominids communicated with a relatively complex, multi-modal system in which utterances were complete in and of themselves and designed to generate some sort of action (they were manipulative). In other words, an utterance could mean, “give that to her.” But there wouldn’t be words in our sense, just one utterance.

Music today can be regarded as much the same. Certain musical gestures might convey a general sense of emotion or emotional meaning. Sometimes composers will make these explicit with a program, other times it’s more general.

Some musical elements are universally perceived as positive or negative. Look no further than the “Infant Directed Speech” for an example. There’s a surprising similarity when mothers from any cultural background speak to infants. Mothers use the same exaggerated prosody regardless of where they are from. And certain music-like gestures will mean love and support while others may convey ill will or disappointment. Again, these music-like gestures are surprisingly universal.

Our musical culture, starting from birth, tells us that music has a huge amount of emotional content!

The emotionally curious musician seeks out this content. They create a connection with the composer and piece by discovering the emotional content. If it’s not explicit, an emotionally curious musician will assign meaning to facilitate a connection.

2. Historical Curiosity

Some musicians are musicology buffs. They are interested in the composers life, times, and how a given piece fits into music history.

Historical curiosity can take several forms. Sometimes it just means learning about the composer. Other times, it can be an investigation into the socioeconomic conditions in which the composer, and his contemporaries, lived.

This curiosity may take the form of an interest in the art and literature from the time of the composer. In other words, how did the composer and piece fit into the larger artistic movement at the time?

By learning about where the piece and composer came from, the historically curious musicians creates a connection with the music.

3. Theoretical Curiosity

Some people are interested in how a piece works. That is, they care little about the historical background, but are more interested in how a piece was constructed.

Theoretical curiosity draws heavily on music theory and knowledge of musical style and practice. It learns to recognize patterns and when norms are ignored and deviated from.

The theoretically curious musician creates a connection by ripping a piece apart and seeing how it works. Such people create interpretations not by feeling, but more by logic and knowledge of what sounds good when a given harmonic pattern or musical idiom is presented. Such knowledge comes from good teachers and a lot of critical listening.

The Ideal Musician

None of us sit in any one of these categories alone. We all draw on a blend of all three when learning a piece. Sometimes we lean more heavily on one category, other times we blend all three. The truth is that all of us need to work to be more curious all the areas. As musician it’s our duty to try and understand the emotional content, theoretical construction, and historical significance of a given work.

These types of musical curiosity are universal. A rock musician can be emotionally curious (with Lyrics, it’s really easy to be so. Just look at art song!). It’s all a matter of what generates a connection. How can you be truly involved with a piece without making a connection with it?

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship