On a warm afternoon, I sat in a tuk tuk in Siem Reap, on the way to a Cambodian cooking class, looking forward to trying my hand at one of my favourite cuisines. Fish amok, a local dish I’ve always enjoyed, was on the menu. Despite having ordered this dish a number of times in restaurants, and knowing roughly what the ingredients are, I was surprised at the cooking process — this curry is steamed in a banana leaf parcel, rather than cooked directly in the pot like many other curries. I’ve spoken about how unfamiliar music and unfamiliar food are similar in that there will be accessible entry points of familiarity even if it’s new to someone, but it’s now time to take this discussion further, going beyond what goes into music — or food — to how it’s put together. Cooking methods change the nature of a dish and, in the same way, the way we put musical elements together changes the nature of music.
Portugal is home in many ways, and home is inextricably linked with food. One the dishes I regularly order when I’m back in Portugal is Carne de Porco à Alentejana. In my usual home in Singapore, this dish is never actually called ‘Carne de Porco à Alentejana’ — it goes by ‘Portugese pork and clams’, and is a favourite among my family and friends, and one of my go-to dinner party recipes. My guests, especially those unfamiliar with Portuguese food, often ask me about what’s in it and how it’s cooked, and here’s where I go into educator mode — I begin by explaining what’s familiar and accessible about the dish, in a way that they can relate to.
Vox Humana: Why do you think people are reluctant about musicology? Why is this even a problem?
JF: Well let’s look at people who’ve always surrounded by music, like amateur musicians who enjoy music, but feel like they’ve never really fully understood it, possibly because of the way it was taught, or they just couldn’t grasp some of the concepts.
VH: Definitely the case with many people. And there’s the fear.
JF: The fear of…?
VH: Music theory. It was the part of any music lesson I hated the most, even more than practising scales and actually even more than sight reading, if I’m honest. At least with sight reading you can pretend you know what you’re doing and make something sound like it sort of fits.
JF: See I find it interesting that you speak of theory in opposition to ‘practice’. I’d argue that, when you expand your understanding of musicology, you definitely move away from the practical limitations of your instrument, but you’re also simultaneously able to take this knowledge and apply it in a practical context.
VH: What you say makes sense, but once we get into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of theory, it is a real struggle to understand it, so there’s a gap in my understanding —
JF: — which is why we’re having these conversations.
I’ll stop here and explain what’s happening in this post. This is a series of conversations between myself (JF) and various people who have struggled to understand music theory for a large part of their life, despite being either enthusiastic amateur musician or even professional instrumentalists and music makers. Musicology and/or music theory are the bane of many students of music, as you see in the conversation above. But it is my conviction that understanding musicology doesn’t have to be painful. It can be challenging, yes, but it’s also rewarding, and it does have a very real impact on an individual’s understanding of how music is structured.