Friday, February 10, 2006

The difference between art and music

My watercolor painting class prompted me to compare learning a musical instrument to beginning to draw and paint. I surprised myself with this analysis and I'm not certain what to make of it.

When you learn a music instrument your skill level is instantly recognizable. It is only after one attains a certain mastery that matters of style and interpretation come into play. Not so with art. Take me, for example. I am just beginning to grasp the skills of watercolors painting and my drawing ability is strictly amateur. Despite these limitations, some of my paintings compare favorably to those of highly skilled and experienced watercolors. How is this possible?

The answer lies in our brains. I believe practically all people, musicians and non-musicians alike, develop a high sensitivity to pitch and rhythm. We know when someone is singing off key or playing out of tune. We know when the beat is "off." How do we know? It's because of music standards that we absorb naturally, without conscious effort. So most people know when they are listening to an amateur versus the performance of a professional. All you have to do is watch and listen to American Idol and my point is clear (I hope!).

But this sensitivity does not apparently apply to art. True, we all tend to recognize a child's art rendition. There are the stereotypical shapes of people, pets and houses. But, children grow out of this style because it is very much a maturity of vision and mental processing than it is a skill issue. Upon reaching a certain maturity, art expression changes. The assessment of art becomes much more subjective and the issue of skill blurs. Unskilled people are very capable of producing stunning art that is enjoyable to view even by highly talented, well-schooled artists. My point is that, like some of my work, art can transcend ability in ways music cannot.

So what do I make of this difference? My take is that humans are much more "open-minded" when it comes to things they see. Since we are consciously "seeing" most of the time, we get used to many and varied combinations of shapes, colors and forms. Our eyes "see" better than a camera lense, for example. By this I mean we view the sight before us in all its dimensions while a photo has limits to its focus, depth-of-field and proportions. I believe our range of appreciation in art is much wider than in music because of the way we see and interpret things versus our expectations for music.

In fact, expectation is the real key to the difference between the two arts. We expect music to fall into certain familiar styles. The cues that prompt our "music filters" occur almost instantaeously when we hear musical sound. If it is folk music, it sounds this way. If it is jazz, it sounds this way. If it is rock 'n roll, it sounds like this. And so on. If something is off--in other words, not in keeping with our expectations--we recognize it and react, usually in a negative way. But, familiarity can breed tolerance. Take bebop jazz and rap/hip-hop music, for example. When people first heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the new style offended their ears. But, over time, listeners became familiar with the "strange" harmonies of bop. Today, bebop is an accepted style of jazz and we do not cringe when hearing it, even if it isn't our preferred style of music. Rap followed the same pattern. From a cultural niche style asociated with fringe elements of society, rap grew into a mainstream style that is preferred by a high percentage of teenagers over other styles of music. Go figure. And when you do figure, meaning "stop to think about it," music must meet more strict standards and pass through finer filters than art.

I consider this a benefit. Even with my limited skills, I can produce art that a lot of people find pleasant to view. This is why I alwasy encourage people to express themselves graphically. Artistic creativity is far more accessible to people than they think.

Of course, you can DRAW your own conclusions!

The Stickler


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Blogger Sekar Srinivasan said...

Nice analysis. I was searching net to understand music versus other arts and saw this blog. A painting once hung on a wall may be pleasing often when one sees it. A music if rendered again
may have allowed variations every time the person sings. Thus a song can be creative every time one sings.

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