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Ralph Ellison and His “Living with Music” Essay

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Updated: Nov 5th, 2018

Music is that phenomenon which helps people to feel the harmony of the world expressed in melodies. These melodies are always around us. They are in our everyday reality and wait for us in the sounds of a rain or a violin. In his essay, “Living with Music”, Ralph Ellison depicted his relations with this magic world of sounds from very childhood to the moment of writing the essay. One of the most important questions which he discusses in the work is connected with people’s different visions of the correlation between classical and jazz music.

Why should the passion for classical music reject the enthusiastic interest in jazz? Ralph Ellison accentuates the idea that the sense of music cannot be dependent only on the perfectness of the melody. The beauty of the music is in the feelings, not in those which should be expressed according to the rules, but in those which the musician wishes to express and which arouse in the audience’s souls.

Ralph Ellison concentrates the readers’ attention on the fact that he always lived in music which could cause his moods or become the way to express his feelings.

Nevertheless, there was a definite struggle in his heart affected by traditional points of view related to the role of the music and the notion of musical harmony. The author understood the beauty of classical music and of jazz. Thus, he “had been caught actively between two (styles): that of the Negro folk music, both sacred and profane, slave song and jazz, and that of Western classical music” (Ellison, 2011, p. 119).

It is possible to find the harmony in the range of sounds which are combined in a definite melody only according to the author’s preferences and visions of rhythm, and it is possible to perceive his feelings which are expressed with the help of this melody. It is also possible to admire the traditional perfectness of classical music which involves in its world with its greatest melodies.

Why should people play not those melodies they really feel, but those ones which they should feel according to the traditional principles of classical musical education?

It was most confusing: the folk tradition demanded that I play what I heard and felt around me, while those who were seeking to teach the classical tradition in the schools insisted that I play strictly according to the book and express that which I was supposed to feel (Ellison, 2011, p. 119).

It is the choice of the musician to play according to his favourite styles and follow any melodies he prefers. Nevertheless, the beauty is not always in perfectness. Jazz music can be considered as the revolution in the perception of the melody and harmony of sounds. It makes accents on those combinations of sounds which reflect the real melody of the soul. It does not hide the emotions of the musician, but emphasizes them and reveals in a rather controversial form of jazz music in relation to the tradition.

Ralph Ellison focuses on the inspiration as the main principle for creating and playing good music. If you have the inspiration and want to implement it in the form of melody, it does not matter what kind of music you choose. Thus, our feelings can be successfully expressed as classical sonatas and jazz scratches presented as wonderful melodies.

Why can people be afraid of unfamiliar things even when they are expressed with the help of jazz music? Any kind of melody in which we can observe and feel the soul and harmony can influence our psychological and moral state. In his essay Ellison depicts the peculiarities of his perception of the melodies which were produced by his neighbors. They were with him when he was writing and thinking, they were the part of his life. Moreover, Ellison did not stop his musical exercises. It was that we can call as living with music.

One learns by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and while it might sound incongruous at first, the step from the spirituality of the spirituals to that of the Beethoven of the symphonies or the Bach of the chorales is not as vast as it seems (Ellison, 2011, p. 124).

It is significant not to be afraid of looking for something new. Ellison succeeded in his understanding and accepting of the classical pieces and jazz improvisations which he heard being at home. These melodies reflected his idea about the impossibility of dividing music into wrong and right. “Those who know their native culture and love it unchauvinistically are never lost when encountering the unfamiliar” (Ellison, 2011, p.124). The peculiarities of music perception depend only on the inner boundaries of the person.

In his essay Ralph Ellison develops the opinion that it is not necessary to choose between definite types of music, if their principles are close to you. It is important to feel the music without references to the style. The effect of music is in its closeness to people. When people do not perceive and feel it they cannot consider it as close to them. The passion for jazz improvisations cannot decrease your interest in classical masterpieces.


Ellison, R. (2011). Living with music. In R. J. DiYanni (Ed.), Fifty great essays. (pp. 116-125). USA: Longman.

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