I get asked this question A LOT. It seems that many people see analysis as a purely mental exercise that’s more likely to spoil music than reveal anything worthwhile.
But any time we step outside of our experience of music to try to answer questions about it, that’s analysis. Maybe you’re a fan trying to put your finger on how an artist’s third album compares to her first two? You might be a home recording artist trying to emulate a particular guitar sound on a music video? You might be a hand-wringing parent worried about how “explicit” the explicit lyrics are in the songs on your kid’s playlists?
Few people would call such activities “analysis,” but they have more in common with the more conventional modes than you might think. Theorists tend to analyze for underlying structure. Musicologists look for social relevance. Performers look for cues for expression. Educators look for teaching opportunities. And composers look for new ways to make our music speak to an audience. In other words, everyone has their own reasons for wanting to know more about music.
Let’s redefine the goal of analysis.
I find it helpful to pair the word “analysis” with “awareness,” as in, “The goal of analysis is deeper awareness.” I didn’t always feel this way. I used to believe “analysis” was synonymous with “apprehension.” True, apprehension means “to understand something.” But in every dictionary I’ve found, that’s definition #2. The first is: “to catch and arrest someone who has not obeyed the law.”
And that’s what I used to try to do when I analyzed music. I wanted to show (first to my professors; later to my peers) that I could make the music “confess” what I already believed about it.
I no longer analyze music to prove a point. At least I try not to.
That’s where for me, “awareness” comes in. Analysis not only offers a means to know more about “the music itself,” but its place in our lives: why it affects us, why it ultimately matters. When we do analysis “right,” our questions bring us into an empathetic encounter with the music we interrogate. I’ve found this is true even when I analyze for structure. (For example, what I found in the last section of my analysis of “Eleanor Rigby” surprised me). The more honest my questions, the more I find that it’s the music doing the interrogation.
And when we do analysis “wrong?” There are simply too many small-minded options to summarize. And like I said, I’ve been guilty of several.
So why analyze music?
I’m curious how others’ journeys – how your approaches to analysis have evolved over time. What sorts of questions “open up” a piece of music to enrich your encounter with it? What goals do you currently bring to a piece of music? What have you decided to put behind you?