That Which I Don’t Write Down Will Help Me


Traditional Ottoman Music Practice

I recently started learning a new musical instrument – a TurkishTanbur, which I brought home with me after a month-long trip to Turkey last year. I’m trying a different approach  this time: I’m learning by playing and listening, getting right to work making music, and avoiding method books and printed music as much as is feasible.  This was actually how most musical knowledge was transmitted during the Ottoman period in Turkey.

This approach is similar to what my compadres in the agile community teach to teams that are learning to create software together.  Writing everything down before creating is something that’s discouraged.  It’s definitely not the way I’ve learned a new musical discipline, so this approach is causing me to awaken some mental pathways that have been hibernating for a long time.

I’ve been exploring the resonance between  an agile approach to creating software and learning music in older traditions.  Something that found me was written by the French organist Jacques Charpentier.  It was cited by Derek Bailey in his book Improvisation: It’s Nature and Practice in Music:

“When, at the end of the Middle Ages, the Occident attempted to notate musical discourse, it was actually only a sort of shorthand to guide an accomplished performer, who was otherwise a musician of oral and traditional training.  These graphic signs were sufficiently imprecise to be read only by an expert performer and sufficiently precise to help him find his place, if, by mishap, he had a slip of memory….Later on, the appearance of the musical staff on one hand, and symbols of time duration on the other, made it possible to move to real notation, which reflects with the exactitude of the whole of the musical material presented in this manner.  At this point in history, it does not seem as if the contemporaries of that time fully realised the consequences of their discovery.  For in actual fact, from that moment on, a musical work was no longer strictly musical; it existed outside of itself, so to speak, in the form of an object to which name as given: the score.  The score very soon ceased to be the mere perpetrator of tradition, to become the instrument of elaboration of the musical work itself.  Consequently, the analytical qualities of musical discourse took precedence in the course of centuries over it’s qualities of synthesis and the musical work ceased to be, little by little, the expression of an experienced psycho-physiological continuum – on the spot and in the moment it is experienced; and instead became of what is more and more prevalent today in the Occident – that is a willful, formal, and explicative construction which finds in itself along its substance and justification.”

In other words, when written music became the mode of transmission,  intellectual command of the material became more important than the working experience of music: the sound relationship between the player and the listener.  Interpretative and analytic chops took over from improvisation and presencing.  The head took over from the heart.

Forgoing the written objects and learning through listening and practice is going to be a fun and challenging journey.  How can I put this approach to work?  Victor Wooten offers some advice in his book, the The Music Lesson:

You should never lose the groove in order to find a note.

..find the grove before you start playing.  It doesn’t matter whether you know the song or not.  If you need to, let a few measures go by while you figure out what the groove is saying.  Once you find the groove, it doesn’t matter what note comes out; it will feel right to the listener.  People generally feel Music before they listen to it anyway.

Forget about your instrument.  Forget about the key.  Forget about technique.  hear and feel the groove.  Then allow yourself to become part of Music.

Time to go practice. 🙂

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