This critical review is in response to Phenomenology and the Ethnography of Popular Music by Harris M. Berger.
Berger begins this piece by explaining how he began his career as an ethnomusicologist. As a music major at Wesleyan University, he was taught that rock music, his love and passion, was not sophisticated music. As much as he tried to convince himself to enjoy other genres, he continually felt drawn to rock. When he took his required ethnomusicology class, he was attracted to the freedom amongst the subject, how ethnomusicologists could study whatever type of music they wanted to.
He continues to discuss how "all musics are equally worth studying; that music is inextricable from the rest of culture; that music doesn't have an inherent value, but is only valuable to particular people in particular societies..."(64). Berger takes a very philosophical approach to the study of ethnomusicology, often calling it "phenomenology of ethnography". He emphasizes the importance of experience in creating music, relating to music, and finding meaning in music. Those who write music can only write what they know, which is their own personal history and experience. What is meaningful to them will not reach out to everyone, because everyone connects to a single piece of music differently - no two people will have the same response to the same song because they come from different backgrounds.
It is important for ethnomusicologists to understand the importance of meaning in both making music and reacting to/listening to music, as both are incredibly personal experiences. Technical sophistication in a piece does not in any way guarantee more people will enjoy listening to it. In fact, there is no way to teach someone how to listen to music. Yes, we can learn to pick out different instruments and timbres and time signatures, but we can't teach ourselves how to find meaning. As Berger illustrates, music is not merely a string of notes or a sound, but someone's past, someone recounting an event or personal experience through a different medium other than speech.
This makes me think about the thousands and thousands of trained musicians in the world, and how few of them actually make a name for themselves. Is this because they are more technically skilled than their peers? Maybe on a certain level, but more than anything I think it is because of their passion. The players who truly make themselves vulnerable and emotional during their performance are the most brilliant. But I also wonder, what kinds of experiences lead people towards connecting to different styles of music? Is there even a trend? Or is it so individualistic that we really can't recognize any patterns? How do the events going on in our lives while we listen to music influence how we view that music?