Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 2 (Spring 2003)

Insights and Outlooks: Why Highfalutin Language Has To Go

By Dr. France Fledderus

One Monday morning, in response to their inquiry about my weekend, I related to the colleagues at my day job that I had been to the opera. As I instantly saw myself being re-slotted in their eyes from normal person to someone in a different category than themselves, I realized that I had made a faux-pas. Whether this was a social or socio-economic miscalculation, it was clear that my affiliation with art music was considered odd by this group of people. Ever since, I have been thinking about the prestige that art music continues to hold in certain circles and marveling at just how long classical music has been able to maintain its high cultural status-even in the face of postmodern plurality. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) Pierre Bourdieu laid the blame for "naturalizing" the superiority of high art squarely on the shoulders of academy, which to this day continues to mystify art music in one way or another (25). Whether aware of it or not, as academics, we are all implicitly involved in this project via the language we use-the discourses of musicology itself.

Now to be fair, musicology uses an inherently inaccessible language-more so than, say, literature-by the very nature of having to employ numbers to discuss the sounds themselves (in addition to the specialized terms used to analyze texts in other disciplines, such as fine art and literature). But when it comes down to forming a narrative about music in an article, is it really necessary to use obscure language in order to communicate a complex idea? I think not.

Naturally, a certain amount of jargon is unavoidable when talking about an art as abstract as music, especially in analyses of its technical aspects. Such broader issues as history and sociology, however, need not be discussed in an inaccessible manner. For example, we do not use esoteric rhetoric in our classrooms. Explaining things simply is what undergraduate teaching is all about. Why then do we continue to use such impenetrable discourse in our scholarship? Are we so committed to the elitism of academia that we actually wish to exclude undergraduates from being able to partake in dialogue? Are the things that we discuss actually too complex for undergraduates or is it more likely that our students cannot understand how we have difficultly worded our ultimately simple ideas?

It strikes me that what is crucial to facilitate understanding in communication-academic or otherwise-is not so much using simple content as it is using an approachable tone. Even the most complex of ideas ultimately can be explained in simple language. Why then does academia assume an incomprehensible tone that makes entrance into this world completely intimidating-even to those who are open to doing the hard work of translating high-end terminology into common-place meanings.

Of course, the argument can be made that scholarship should be different than teaching because our writing is the criteria for the tenure that we all desire as the goal of our early careers. In order to achieve this end we must publish (apparently the only other option is perishing) in prestigious journals, and this requires using the expected discourse. But if the aim of the humanities is to investigate human constructs and concerns, and only a handful of other people ever read your esoteric article, is such a system actually useful for society? Is it even useful for the performance of music, in which we all presumably still share an interest? My sense is that it is not.

One of the things that interests me about rock criticism is the fervent belief held by rock journalists in what they perceive of as the rock 'community.' While this is more of a reified term than a homogeneous group of people, rock magazines are indeed widely read-not only by rock critics, but also by rock performers and fans. One might say that by utilizing language that is common to all three user groups, rock journalism bridges the divides between scholarship and performance or musicians and their audiences. What is more, because many fans are wannabe performers who read rock magazines to both inspire and improve their knowledge and playing abilities, trade magazines also facilitate a relationship between high and low players and performances. Would it not be amazing if academia could achieve the same effect-if scholars and performers could sit down and discuss music not only with each other, but also with concert audiences?

Indeed, imagine for a moment if academics-with all their knowledge of repertoire and socio-historical background as well as their capacity for critical thought-actually toned down their use of highfalutin language, as they do in the classroom, and contributed articles to trade magazines and newspapers (not just in the field of rock, but in all their chosen specialties). This might lower the prestige of their publication list, but think of how it would increase the level of critical thought among the vast numbers of people who read trade magazines. Certainly, it would not turn every subscriber into a scholar, but I believe that a surprising number of people would initiate more dialogue than that to which they are accustomed. Bridging the gap between the academic community and the rest of society may sound like a sort of utopian fantasy (or a communist nightmare, depending on your perspective), but it may also be the first solid rationale for the existence of academia in the humanities since the nineteenth century.