Talking to Non-Musicians

As a professional musician, it’s simultaneously interesting and frustrating to talk to non-musicians about music.  While music is an undeniably integral part of our society, it’s surprising how narrow minded most people are about it.

The conversation usually goes something like this (after the obligatory “what do you play” is out of the way):

  • Them, “Oh you’re a musician?  Cool, who’s your favorite band?”
  • Me, “Well, I’m not really sure I have a good answer for that.  I tend to like high quality stuff, regardless of the band or the genre.  Most of it can’t really be classified as a “band.”  But if I had to say something, maybe Gordon Goodwin?”
  • Them, “Oh…I don’t know who that is.” (then the conversation usually turns to something else, but if it doesn’t) “Ok, but like who that’s on the radio?”
  • Me, “Again, I’m not really sure what to say, most of it sounds very similar.”
  • Them, “TOTALLY!  I know what you mean, Pop music all sounds the same now!  That’s why I like {fill in the name of a popular band from sometime in the past 20 years}.” 

Sigh…I know it sounds like they’re agreeing with me, but that sentence is usually a pretty clear indication that they have no idea what I’m talking about.

That said, it’s obviously not deliberate.  In fact, most people probably aren’t even aware that their view is narrow at all.  I tend to chalk that up to the failure of our political/educational system to recognize the importance of arts education, but that’s a topic for an entirely different post.  For now it’s enough to say that there’s tends to be a lack of knowledge on the breadth of music.

A Quick Primer

So with the goal of alleviating that a bit, here’s a general list of the kinds of variables musicians (of all genre’s) have to work with when creating new music.

  1. Time signature – The basic metric breakdown of the “beat”.
  2. Tempo – Speed.  How fast or slow it is.
  3. Key/harmonic structure – What specific notes are chords are used.
  4. Form – The larger phrases and how they line up/interact
  5. Orchestration – What instruments/voices are used and what ranges they’re used in.
  6. Depth/Complexity – How many different things are going on and how they relate to eachother and other parts of the piece.
  7. Lyric (if applicable) – If it’s a song with words (probably over 50% of music written doesn’t have lyrics, it’s just instrumental), what those words are and how they interact with all the other choices made.
  8. Production – Some people may disagree with me on this, but now that we’ve reached the point where the VAST majority of music people engage with is recorded (not live performance), I think production techniques are a very important aspect of making music.

This list is certainly not comprehensive, but it’s a good starting place.  I would submit that if you look at the top 1000 songs of the last 30 years, I’m guessing that 90% of them will fit into this box:

  1. Time signature – 4/4
  2. Tempo – between 120 and 160 (good “dance beat”)
  3. Harmonic Sturcture – Almost all basic major and minor chords (with a few 7ths every now and then) all fairly easy to play on guitar.
  4. Form – Little more leeway here, but mostly “ABCABCDBC” (Verse=A, prechorus=B, chorus=C, Bridge=D)
  5. Orchestration – Singer, guitar (maybe 2), bass, drums.  Anything beyond that is an aberration.  Remember how “innovative” it was when Dave Matthews has a Sax and a violin?
  6. Depth – 1 Groove with a repetitive “lick,”  Single melodic line.  (SUPER simple).
  7. Lyric – This is the one area with tons of variation.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s also the only area that doesn’t require knowing how to read music.
  8. Production – INCREDIBLY static.  There are trends towards higher compression, but almost every “hit” was produced using the same processes and techniques.

Open Your Ears!

That’s what I mean when I say they all sound similar.  It’s like a professional chef saying it’s all similar when talking to someone who isn’t aware that there’s any kind of food other than burgers.  “I like burgers with pickles, cause they’re TOTALLY different that all those other burgers that don’t have pickles.”  Yes, technically true, but it’s still a burger.  What about, strawberry crepes?  Or deviled eggs?  Or Italian wedding soup?  Or Sushi?  Or lasagna?  Or Quiche? Or Hershey Bars? Or Pad Thai?  OR BANANA BREAD????

There’s so much more music out there than late 20th century American popular music, and most people lump it all together as “classical music.”  They’re taking all the foods that aren’t burgers, lumping them all together as “fancy food,” and saying “I don’t eat it.”  (side note, I’m kind of hungry, which is probably leading to this food analogy).

All that said, I’m sure this isn’t unique to music.  I’m sure every professional group has this kind of thing to deal with.  If I talked to a professional stunt driver I would probably sound just as narrow, I don’t know anything about stunt driving beyond what I see in the theater.  But music seems to be particularly susceptible to people thinking they know way more than they do, and it drives me batty.


In the interest of intellectual honesty, there is some deviation from this in some situations.  A lot of people like orchestral music when it’s in the context of a movie soundtrack.   Jazz/fusion seems to be ok when it’s mixed with funk and played by a band on a late night talk show.  Wind ensemble music is ok when it’s something your high school band played.  And there are some subcultures that are very into their own specific form of music that doesn’t fit in the “late 20th century American popular music” box:  barbershop, bluegrass, broadway, etc.  I’m sure there are others that don’t start with “b” that I’m not remembering right now.

However, all of those forms of music stay crammed in their niche.   One of my goals as a musician and educator is to open people’s eyes to the wider world out there.  Hence Fun Performance Friday!  I have my own preferences, but I’ll try to mix it up with a lot of different kind of stuff that’s…off the beaten path.