Kenneth Eggert embraces music’s mysteries in new book

NATURAL PROGRESSION: Alexander-based composer, performer and educator Kenneth Eggert's first book uses personal anecdotes as springboards into complex musical concepts. Photo courtesy of the author

With his new book, The Myth of Perfect Pitch, Kenneth Eggert isn’t trying to disprove that some people have the ability to identify any musical note by name after hearing it.

“I can vouch for the fact that it does exist,” says the Alexander-based composer, performer and educator. “I’ve had it my whole life, and it’s something that about one in 10,000 people are born with.”

Instead, the intentionally misleading title seeks to encourage readers toward a fuller understanding of music, starting with a different interpretation of the word “myth.” In the book’s introduction, Eggert notes that, to him, “a myth is meta-truth, a story that is not true in the same sense as a historical record but nonetheless contains ‘truth’ on a grander scale, relative to concepts such as consciousness and culture.”

“It’s more a matter of exploring the myth of music itself — the myths behind the practice,” he says of that core concept. “So I wanted to have a chance to explore that idea from multiple angles.”

Getting personal

Before delving into the deeper meanings of music and its potential as a unifying power, Eggert opens each chapter with a personal anecdote from his life and career that’s relevant to the topic at hand.

“I wanted to write something that was not just an academic work, but something that could be accessible outside of the realm of academia,” he says. “But there’s quite a bit in the book that is pretty involved on the subject of music, so if you know absolutely nothing about music, there will probably be parts of it that are a little harder to penetrate.”

Eggert started out working primarily as a rock ’n’ roll, musical theater and jazz musician, and eventually trained to become a classical composer. But his artistic interests have taken him in what he calls “some unusual directions,” including forays into world music, African drumming and Native American traditional music. Along the way, he studied the philosophical side of music acoustics, including “just intonation,” an alternate approach to tuning instruments based more on acoustics and mathematics than standard forms of tuning.

“And so with all of those different pursuits, it led me eventually to have a unique set of experiences with music that was the basis for the book,” he says.

One of the main reasons that Eggert wrote The Myth of Perfect Pitch was to document thoughts and ideas that he’s typically unable to express in the context of a music theory course, which is primarily focused on practical skills. He teaches four levels of undergraduate music theory at Brevard College, and opportunities to significantly explore the topics he’s passionate about rarely arise.

“During an undergraduate program, there isn’t as much time really devoted to the philosophical, so I wanted to have somewhere where I could put that information and that would be available then to my students if they were interested,” Eggert says.

He notes that an emphasis on the meaning of music has been pushed out of music education, a shift that he attributes to the general movement in Western culture toward a more materialistic or scientific worldview.

“Music theory is primarily a study of how music works and, of course, how music works is also subjective, dependent on the culture that you come from,” he says. “Our ideas of how music works in the West are going to be very different from Hindu culture or Arabic culture or Indigenous culture when it comes to music.”

He continues, “But the territory that I really enjoy exploring is finding the points of connection — the commonalities that occur between them. And if you go far back enough in the Western tradition, there is a lot of wonderful metaphysical ideas and philosophy to explore there.”

Mystery writer

Ultimately, what keeps Eggert going and excited about life in general is a sense of mystery and that there’s always more to discover. Central to that optimism is music’s mysterious nature, its effect upon people and its importance in our lives.

“It’s certainly part of every religious tradition, pretty much that has ever existed, and it serves a purpose that is beyond just mere entertainment,” he says. “I think when we focus too much on music purely as entertainment or as art for art’s sake and begin to lose a sense of art as a means of connecting to the mystery — connecting to divinity, to the underlying nature of things — we lose something really crucial to the experience of being human.”

Though Eggert has been engaged with these topics for decades, putting them together in book form provided multiple epiphanies. One particular notion that the process unlocked for him concerned connections between the Christian concept of the logos (i.e., the Word of God) and life’s relationships and harmonies.

Throughout The Myth of Perfect Pitch, Eggert speaks to the concept of “right relationship” or harmony on all levels: with the self; with family and friends; between yourself and community; and yourself and society; and ultimately, relationship between yourself and whatever you conceive of as the divine.

“To me, the importance of understanding this greater meaning behind music is about finding, or exploring really, what that means to be in right relationship in all areas of your life,” Eggert says. “And ultimately, I think one of the universal principles of religion is to discover that sense of being in right relationship on all those levels. Music, to me, exists as a grand metaphor for that striving — that purpose to find that exact relationship.”

The best part about that quest for harmony? You don’t have to be one of the few people with perfect pitch to pursue it.

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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