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Broken Windows Listening – The Reductive & Destructive Choice of
Surface Over Substance
MUSIC is not a GENRE - Season 3 Episode #27



Music is layered, both vertically & horizontally. You’ve got the vertical stack of ensemble music – orchestras, bands, choirs. And then there’s the horizontal layout of compositional structure – chords, melodies, verse/chorus or theme/variation, etc. Which means even a single a cappella voice is layered. In each case, you’re dealing with multiple parts that shape the whole. At times one part is dominant, but rarely for an entire composition. For a musical work to make a positive impression, all these parts need to work well together.


That doesn’t mean every part does the same amount of work, serves the same function, or is even of the same quality. Let’s first establish that perfection doesn’t exist. It never has & never will. Musicians & singers can do so well that they create the illusion of perfection. Then someone else comes along and does the same thing in a different way and executes it equally well. Neither one is better nor more perfect. They each succeed, and each make a different impression.


The same is true for parts not as close to “perfect”. We’ve all loved music that has less than stellar lyrics, passable rhythmic elements, “quirky” singing or soloing that doesn’t follow strict technique guidelines, or just plain sloppy playing. Does this make that music not good? No. The end result is a work that makes a positive impression, and contributes something valuable to the musical conversation. “Louie Louie” is no less worthy than “Moonlight Sonata” or “Blue Monk”.


So why is it then that some of us choose to judge a work based on surface elements like chops or sound or precision? Why do we often dismiss works that have one or more “imperfect” elements when perfection doesn’t even exist? To what standard are we holding these works? Answers to most of those questions are personal – based on taste, emotion, experience, upbringing. But that last question – what standard – I believe there’s one answer to that: the wrong one. When we judge a work to be inferior it’s because we’re using a standard that doesn’t fit, one that may be completely valid for another work or one’s experience as a listener or creator, but that doesn’t apply to most other works in the world. It’s unfair. It’s reductive. And it’s damaging because it not only dismisses the differing experience and origin of that work, it also completely overlooks its depth and its unique & extremely valuable angle of expression.


This is exactly how we judge people and communities too. If what we see or hear doesn’t fit our preconception of what a worthy person or community should be – i.e. only what we ourselves have experienced & valued & expressed, we mark that person or community as inferior, in need of help or pity or worse, discipline & control. This kind of judging based on standards that don’t fit is A. quick & shallow; B. highly subjective & prejudiced; and C. the cause of most division & destruction in the world. That includes racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism – pretty much any negative -ism & person-based phobia.


When police spend time, energy & money “cleaning up” a neighborhood by scrubbing graffiti, arresting vandals, profiling with stop & frisk procedures, and a host of more disproportionately violent responses, they’re ignoring the breadth & substance of a person or community in favor of surface elements like paint or skin color or mode of expression or behavior. And those are only the beginnings of a cycle that often ends in the most heinous and inhuman acts. This pretty much defines how our society is structured. We are built on a foundation of judging everyone by one set of standards, disrespecting entire bodies of history, experience, work, contribution, creation, context, expression, etc.


We can change this if we’re willing to be less reductive & reactionary. Every time your brain or heart tells you something or someone or some group is not living up to your preconceived standards, STOP. Take a moment. Reframe, rethink, open your eyes & ears to what is actually being done & said. In that brief moment, you might glimpse part of the substance you would have missed, and that substance might feel familiar, relatable, or at the very least, valuable. We have the power to take in  what we hear & see – from artists & from life – and find where we connect to it. And the more we do that, the closer we get to the whole point of being alive.

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