Groove-ology

New theories on the magic of music

| Web Specials Archives

During his graduate work in musicology at the University of Chicago, Charles Keil couldn't find a single theory that explained the immediate, vital drive of his favorite jazz. There was something in the texture, and push, and sexiness of the music that couldn't be touched by theories formed to account for the abstract architecture of a Bach fugue.

Out of Keil's, and other jazz- and world-music-aware musicologists' deep dissatisfaction with the abstracting, conceptualizing bias of Western music theory (and Western high culture in general) is being born a family of new theories of how music works at the micro-level. In the Winter 1995 issue of Ethnomusicology, Keil and others debate his theory of 'participatory discrepancies' (PDs), which seeks to register, record, and theorize the thousands of small, moment-to-moment, concrete gestures, decisions, touches, timbres, and other details in the doing of music. These can range from the almost undefinable 'push' that a polka band puts behind each note to the intricacies of 'swinging' in ensemble jazz.

'Swinging' is a vital example of what Keil and his colleagues call the 'groove' -- the mysteriously right ensemble feel. PD theory suggests that the groove emerges not as the perfect embodiment of some timeless musical essence, but as a dynamic pattern of irregularities (notes played a little off, rhythms retarded just a little) that 'fits' because all the players are adjusting to one another's contributions all the time, in a dynamic dialogue.

And it's that social, communal aspect of the groove that leads the PD theorists beyond theory. Via the Buffalo, New York-based organization M.U.S.E. (Musicians United for Superior Education), PD and groove-oriented musicians and academics -- including Canadian sound theorist/therapist R. Murray Schafer and African-culture maven Robert Farris Thompson -- are calling for a new, African and Afro-Caribbean-based musical pedagogy in which the study of 'music' will be replaced by what Christopher Small, writing in M.U.S.E. Letter, calls 'musicking, that remarkable form of human encounter in which people come together to make meanings, to explore and affirm, and, yes, celebrate for a while their common humanity...' In changing the idea music from a (Eurocentric) body of knowledge into a communal activity in the African spirit, the groove-ologists hope to inspirit children of all races with not

just the courage and will to make music, but with the habit of feeling the groove as part of larger planetary processes of beauty and renewal. Or as Charles Keil unabashedly puts it, 'fusing with the ancestor, the totem, the force, the sound, and therefore with the universe.