Thursday, December 27, 2012

Music to whose ears?

Now that my children are on their own, to a large extent, I have reclaimed my car and regained total control over the radio. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but I will admit to really enjoying listening to the all-news station for an entire hour if I like, despite the claim that it only takes 10 minutes to give me the world on a particular station. I do not have to pretend to enjoy the latest, whiny pop singers or suffer through Howard Stern. I can also turn off the darned thing and simply drive in silence for a few minutes. True bliss.

I was reminded of this recently as I was unable to drive a car for more than 8 weeks due to a foot injury and was thus subject to the driver’s radio tastes. Again, the pretending and silent misery. At one point, I was driven to desperation and leaned over to punch the small button to “off”, enveloping the car in total quiet. The voices singing along (each with different lyrics) trailed off and they looked at me questioningly. “I just can’t take it anymore,” I said, grumpily crossing my arms with finality. This lead to an interesting conversation about the definition of music and what makes good music good. Oh how these subjective, philosophical arguments make me crazy! It was enlightening, however, to discover that we all seem to have different definitions of music, so I set out to explore this idea a bit more.

Pandora, that miraculous invention of the internet that allows our idea of good music to keep on playing, has certainly saved my sanity at home. Like every other technological advance, I was hesitant and simply did not bother to learn anything about this. My husband decided that I needed to join this century, so he set about creating a Pandora channel for me on my laptop. The basic idea is that you tell this program what band you like, then it chooses other groups that are similar, so you effectively have your own, personalized radio station. When he asked me what group I would like to begin with, I chose Van Halen. He had his back to me and turned with a smile, as if I had told a good joke. “Really?” he asked. Yup. Really. After that I would add Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Pat Metheny and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, along with Maroon Five, Mary J. Blije, James Taylor, Lennie Kravitz and Gwen Stephanie. We would have lost this question on a game show. Can you predict what your own spouse would choose for Pandora channels? Try this experiment, you will likely be surprised.

Intrigued, I did an informal survey, asking how one defines music? The answers were not what I expected. My own view allows that music is a collection of sounds, usually created with instruments and voices, that come together in a pleasing way. Others feel that music is something that moves you, puts you in a good mood or helps you think. Some say music is a reflection of the times, a reflection of your personality, and a way to escape from daily worries. The best answer, however, came via Facebook from someone I have not seen in years. He warned me that I probably would not like his answer. It was three words, “Olivia Newton John” which he underlined with a triumphant, “there, I said it!”

I think about my childhood where I learned torch songs with my grandfather as he played his beloved piano, my father loved jazz and Pink Floyd (making him the coolest dad when I was in high school). With my mom I sang all of the great songs of the 1950s and thanks to other friends with diverse tastes, I know most of the lyrics to the Beatles incredible oeuvre and much of the poetry of Jim Morrison and his Doors. I can name a Nat King Cole tune in less than 10 notes and enjoy all manner of Broadway musical scores. American history is often defined by wars, but it can also be very clearly delineated by changing musical styles. I mock the current pop music as vacuous, monotonous and whiny. I adored the pop music of the 80s when we were in them, but I wonder if I would like it so much now, listening with a mother’s ears? My own mother, was known for her ability to belt out anything produced by the Knack or the Cars, while driving a car full of teenagers here and there. She also sang (and still does sing) along with anything she hears in elevators, grocery stores and shopping malls. This is no longer embarrassing to me, it is simply endearing. Sometimes I find myself doing it too.

I used to be able to count on my oldest to join me in recognizing Led Zepplin, the Allman Brothers and AC/DC on the radio. The youngest had no ear for this classic rock. She enjoyed pop music. They both adore classical music and can even sing very nicely and play instruments. They did not receive these genetic gifts from either of their parents.

I have been surprised recently that their tastes have changed. He is now adding techno and contemporary rap to his playlist. She is reducing the number of whiny songs coming from her earbuds and enjoying what I would call “better” music. When I think of parents who would not allow their kids to listen to Elvis Presley because he was too suggestive, I wonder what they would make of our popular music today. Thanks to singers like Michael Buble and the successful “Jersey Boys” on Broadway, the old-time music is as popular as Flo-Rida and Justin Beiber.  I’m not sure if our aging ears alter our ability to withstand newer forms of music driving us to say to our own offspring, the exasperated words that have been heard by teenagers through the ages: “would you please turn off that noise?”

A few dictionary definitions of the word music include: “Collections of sounds either occurring naturally or deliberately structured in order to invoke some kind of feeling in the listener (who may or may not be the creator of said structure); and a combination of instruments and vocals that creates a melodic rhythm that is generally catchy and fun to sing or dance along with.” This seems like a perfectly reasonable way to define music. However, these descriptions beg us to further define “catchy”, “fun”, and the “feeling” that is invoked. I am certain that Rihanna does not intend to set my teeth on edge and make me desperate to get out of the car, though I’m sure there are some “artists” who desire to do just that.

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