guy playing guitar
What Makes Music Matter?
Image: Lacey Williams

What Makes Music Matter?

A few weeks ago NewMusicBox posted my list of “Questions I Ask Myself” and, in the weeks since, it has led me into many big conversations with old and new friends that have both confirmed and challenged the feelings I shared. In many of them, I found myself struggling to make some point about what makes music matter, what mattering is. I was feeling a conviction growing inside but every time I tried to put it into words, it came out confused, facile, or worse.

I sat down to write, hoping that thinking slowly would help me figure out what I’ve been trying to say. Whether or not I’ve succeeded, I’m sharing it with you here in the hope that these conversations will continue.

What makes music matter?

Here are some of the things that I think of first:

  • its cultural or historical position
  • special qualities of its form/content
  • its ambition, scale, or scope
  • if it won prizes, was recorded, or was heard by lots of people
  • if someone important wrote it and important people play it
  • if it does something nobody has ever done before
  • if people agree that it’s the best

But when I consider the music that actually matters to me, the reasons are different:

  • I’m invested deeply in it, either by playing, studying, writing, or teaching it
  • it matters to someone I care about and they brought it into my life with infectious enthusiasm (wrote it, taught it, shared it)
  • it’s part of the life of a community that I care about
  • it gives me a particularly vivid and intense interior experience; it makes my eyes go wide
  • it inspired a sense of freedom and possibility and added fuel to my own creative drive
  • it gave me comfort or strength at a time when I needed it
  • it reconnects me with some time or place or person in my past

The mismatch between these two lists suggests that I have some fundamental misunderstanding about what music is. The items from the first list aren’t irrelevant. They set the public conditions for an encounter and multiply the possibilities of one. But they’re abstractions. The “mattering” is private, concrete, and rooted in life—labors, relationships, joy and heartache, private epiphanies and shared experiences.

A personal sketch (maybe you can relate): I spent some years in a very focused music school culture where it’s just a given that certain music really, really matters. I left, and the world felt like a desert. My constellation of heroes and monuments was unknown. My arguments (often from List #1) for their importance failed to move others. Temporary gatherings of fellow desert-wanderers made me feel like myself again. Other concerns grew—family, justice, politics, money—and my art, which once had real traction in my insulated culture, seemed to pass through them like ghost arms.

I was indignant for a while. The indifference of the world to List #1 offended me. I felt a duty to spread the culture I had joined. Exciting phrases included “educational outreach,” “let’s play it in a bar,” and “what if babies just grew up listening to Boulez and thought it was normal.” I framed my evangelism as a service, as if having big ears for difficult music constitutes some kind of moral force.

Really, I was just trying to make the world more comfortable for myself. Green my desert my own shade of green. Turn the people around me into people like me. Recreate the conditions in which what I do matters.

I still want to matter, of course. We all do, and it’s good that we do. It’s better for everybody if we make a life in which our efforts, creations, and passions aren’t just for us. But I misunderstood “mattering” by confusing List #1 with List #2.

List #1 is all just variations on being impressed, which, as an actual experience, compared to the deep web of life and love in #2, is pretty thin soup. But I think that the real trap of #1 is that it required me to identify with a specific culture: respect certain authorities, share certain opinions, subscribe to a certain narrative of history. If my work matters because it’s, let’s say, “a new synthesis of serial and minimal techniques,” without a shared ideology to prop up those words, it doesn’t matter. It is a scary and isolating position to hang my identity on, because as soon as I meet someone who doesn’t share that culture, I might stop mattering. It’s more comfortable to gather with people who believe what I believe, and the need to proselytize becomes almost existential.

Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life.

Instead of depending on an abstract culture, reasons #2 identify that value comes from the actual experience of building meaning, often with others. Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life. This shift in my thinking has been liberating because it’s all in my control. I don’t have to wait for prizes or recognition for my efforts to matter. My work doesn’t have to fit into a narrative of history. It doesn’t have to be the first or the best. And I’m not trapped in a single culture: we can create meaning together over anything as long as we dig in, work hard, and care about it together.

I want to give you an example. The most meaningful piece of music to come through my life last year was a song. It was written by one of my students, and it matters not just to him and me but to a musical community that I feel very lucky to get to be a part of. It’s in a prison up the river from where I live.

This community is really good at making music matter. We make it matter by wanting it badly and working hard at it. It’s rare and hard won. We’re 32 students and a handful of teachers who meet twice a month, and we’re in our fourth year. Our students are learning to play violins and cellos, keyboards and guitars, saxophones and drums, most of them with uncommon verve and dedication. They’re learning theory and notation. They’re writing songs, big band charts, string quartets, and an opera. We put on concerts and play in each other’s bands. I get to teach a little bit of everything, and I have never worked with students more motivated to learn.

“Music has the power to create community” is something we hear a lot, but I admit that the idea had become a kind of a pious formula to me and had lost, if not its meaning, much of its force. Now I have a vivid example. Our students tell us that it gives them new purpose and identity, a new way to think about themselves, a new way to be together inside, and also to relate to their families outside. “We don’t really have anywhere else to practice positive relationships, practice trusting each other, being vulnerable and opening up, but we can do that here” is a sentiment I have heard in many variations. This is now my personal gold standard of music mattering.

I want to tell you about this song and the man who wrote it. I’ll call him Ned. I want you to have a sense of what he’s like. He’d be the first to tell you: from the outside, he is grouchy, negative, dark, and cynical. He’s prickly and keeps other people away. He always finds the downside. If you point out something good, he’ll turn it inside out. If you invite him to do something, he’ll tell you he can’t (but he probably can).

Here’s how I know music has power: it took 20 minutes of playing guitar together for him to let his guard down. He’s also smart and artistic and sensitive. He’s a novelist and a poet. He somehow quietly learned music notation and chord theory without me noticing. You give him a compliment and a challenge, and it’s like the sun comes out. His grumpy facade is just a hardness that gets him through the day.

He had a creative explosion last spring. One week, I couldn’t have even told you whether or not he’d actually absorbed the theory and notation classes I’d been leading. The next week, he’s written out a lead sheet for a song — I remember it had a wild melody that arpeggiated every chord. I tell him that melodies usually stay within an octave and have more steps than leaps; the next week he’s revised it and written another. Then another. By the end of the semester, he’d written ten.

If my ideas of value were based on List #1, I’d consider this all sweet but not worth much. The songs weren’t innovative. They didn’t have “high quality” form or content. Maybe someday he’d write something truly great, but he’d have to work a long time at it for any of it to matter. (The idea feels so wrong to me that even typing these words makes me want to explode.)

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people.

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people. For him, and for those of us cheering him on, this song was an absolute breakthrough. It’s called “The Me You Can See.” I asked him last week if he’d be OK with me sharing it with you, and he said yes. Here’s the chorus:

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s just the me
I allow you to see

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s not the me
I wanted to be

The melody is plaintive, earnest. He wrote a special part for a cellist he’d started playing with more. The song is so open, so vulnerable, so true about himself, so self-aware. That he would want to open up like this with me or to other men in the program was significant and risky, because it compromised the identity he’d constructed to survive in prison. He went ever further: he wanted to share it with everybody. He asked me to sing it for a big “general population” crowd at one of our concerts. It was the greatest performing honor I think I’ve ever had.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened…. I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened. I might have assigned him a flute solo with a limitation on the number of pitches, with Musica ricercata as a model. I’d be pushing him to find new sounds on his guitar. I could have easily left him feeling embarrassed by his confessional poetry, triads, and simple arrangements, as I used to feel when I brought songs to teachers. I’d be saying, “Well, if you’re into songs you should really listen to Wolf or Björk…” I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine. I probably would have stifled something really important in him.

Thankfully my agenda wasn’t “champion new music culture,” it was “connect with this person.” Music gave us something in common. It was a way to spend time together, to care about something together. You might argue that this demotes music from sacred art object to mere social instrument; I say this is what makes it matter at all.

What would happen if we gave ourselves to people instead of ideologies?

What would happen if we could let go of our anxiety about not being the first or the best?

What would happen if we dropped the idea that art is justified not by its position in culture or history, but by the actual experiences of real people?

What would happen if we measured our success not by the quantity of people who hear us, but by the depth of the experience we have shared?

Elliot Cole (*1984) is a composer, performer, and “charismatic contemporary bard” (NY Times). His work is particularly embraced by percussionists.  His best known is Postludes, a book of bowed vibraphone quartets which evoke “sparkling icicles of sound” (Rolling Stone).  It is rapidly becoming a new classic of percussion repertoire.  Since 2012 it has been performed by over 200 ensembles on five continents.  In 2017-18 he traveled for residencies at ten US universities presenting The Future is Bright, a new a concerto for soloist Peter Ferry with film by Jodie Mack.  Another recent... Read more »

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “What Makes Music Matter?

  1. Mark Nowakowski

    Beautiful article. In many ways, in talking about meaning, you are talking about a part of aesthetics. And in seeking meaning, you’re potentially asking an ontological question. My own answer contains many of the elements you have listed, but I place “transcendence” at the top of the list. Music matters because it moves me simultaneously deeper into myself and farther outside of myself, into a greater reality, or as Hildebrand would say:”in conspectu Dei.” If I’m asking for money and resources to create music in a suffering world short on resources, I better hope that is has a potential value which goes beyond my own personal utility or opinion.

  2. Ray Lustig


    This is so beautifully said. These are things I’ve been feeling in my heart and guts in recent years, but I’ve not really put my conscious brain on it, nor been able to articulate it as powerfully as you have. Why have I just lost interest in certain things I used to feel like I wanted so badly? Am I getting lazy? Or am I growing into myself with my new interests? Whatever it is, life is feeling better, less anxious, and more exciting.

    I want to share these two articles of yours with my students, and I will, but I’m not sure if they’ll be ready to fully absorb it at first. It takes time. Maybe there’s something to being a List No. 1 person long enough to understand how much more important List No. 2 is.

    Your students, both up-river and down-river, are very lucky. And thank you for sharing with us all.



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