How Important is Context in Music?

Whenever you create music, you are creating music within a specific context. The nature of the musical context you have created not only depends on the environment in which it was created, but on the genre of music you are playing. You can see it gets complicated.

If you’re playing jazz guitar in a concert hall in India, you’re recontextualising the music. The same thing goes for playing flamenco guitar in my bedroom in Singapore, or playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata at a university masterclass in Argentina.

Why are these situations considered ‘out of context’? It’s because these musics are being performed and consumed in an environment outside of the ‘original’ context in which they were created. Music in its original context would be jazz in a jazz club in New Orleans, Flamenco in a tablao in Andalusia, and Classical guitar in a concert hall in Germany.

But does it really matter? Who cares if you play jazz guitar at a birthday party as opposed to a proper jazz club? Jazz is jazz after all, as is all other music.

Well, as a lay listener, it doesn’t really matter all that much. However, as a musician, it matters a whole lot, especially if you are learning that specific musical genre. Now I know a lot of you listening are practising and aspiring musicians, so listen closely!

The intangible domains of music

There are five main domains to develop when learning and practising any style of music - technique, repertoire, theory, expression, and values. I talk about these domains more in my other videos, but for today’s discussion, all we need to understand is that in order to truly develop a holistic understanding of any musical style, we need to intentionally study and practise all five of these domains.

These five domains range from tangible to intangible in the order they are listed - technique, repertoire, theory, expression, and values. It’s very clear to conceptualise what techniques are required in a musical style - you can physically see them! For repertoire, it’s also easy to grasp the various songs and pieces you need to learn.

Now for theory, yes there are some very tangible elements such as how specific chords are constructed out of specific notes. However, there are also more intangible elements such as when and where to use certain chords over others.

As we move to expression and finally values, these get increasingly intangible and difficult to put into words. How do you quantify playing a melody in a more joyful or sombre way? What are the values governing the creation of flamenco styles, and in what ways did they inform the sound and structure of the music?

There is an elusive descriptor of authentic, emotive, and passionate flamenco music called ‘duende’. It’s hard to explain, and different flamencos define it differently. Some say it is love, some say it comes from an empathetic connection to the plight of the Andalusian gypsies, some simply say it comes from a glass of wine. Needless to say, you can’t just study how to evoke ‘duende’ from reading a textbook on flamenco music - you need to cultivate a deep and personal relationship with the context of the music.

Context Affects our Music-Making

Music is about human artistic expression, and we can’t possibly create meaningful music in a vacuum. The way we articulate each note, rhythm, piece, and melody, will be and should be affected by our understanding of what the music is, what it communicates, and what it represents. If not, it would be the same as inputting a series of numbers and codes into a computer program and having the machine churn out a series of sounds we label as music.

Understanding musical context may not be the first thing you encounter on your musicianship journey, but it is a crucial part of your development as a musician. It is an intangible factor, and one often overlooked, that separates a good musician from a brilliant one.

I hope this has been enlightening for you, and do let me know your thoughts in the comments below - is understanding musical context an essential part of being a musician, or one that can be bypassed? I look forward to furthering this dialogue with you, and until next time, I’ll see you again!

By Neil Chan


The ideas and contents of this post are inspired by the book 'Facing The Music' by Huib Schippers.