This world is a very mysterious place, even if we often don’t notice it. I expect to be writing about some of the more mysterious aspects of it from time to time, to give my perspective, such as it is. One of the more mysterious aspects of it is music, in my opinion. Music can make you laugh or cry. How does it do it? Sometimes maybe the words to a song will grab you, but I think more often, it’s the music itself, and just why music should have such a powerful effect on the human nervous system is beyond me. Sometimes just one chord will grab you, sometimes an intro, or a solo. Sometimes it takes a whole song, and you don’t really know why this one, and not that one.
To talk about the powerful effects of music, I have to go back quite a few years, because I don’t listen to current music much, and when I happen to hear some, I don’t often find anything that really reaches into me.
I grew up in the 1960’s, a time that ought to still be famous for the music being made. A lot of different streams came together, and a number of musicians were influenced by a lot of different stuff. I had been hearing music all my life. My mother played us children’s music, we sang hymns, and she also played classical music. My sister was retarded, ans music seemed to soothe her, so maybe that was part of the reason she played it, but I think she would have anyway. Her mother had been musical, so she’d been exposed to music herself, and I think she wanted to pass it on to us.
So there was music playing at all hours in our house. We inherited my grandmother’s piano, and I had piano lessons for three years, but they didn’t take. What did take was the records I heard. Specifically, to begin with, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which I began listening to consciously one night. I found it moving, so I started consciously listening to other classical music. We didn’t have anything like an exhaustive catelogue of it, but we had a fair variety, and there isn’t a lot of classical music I’ve enjoyed since that I didn’t hear at home first. And I didn’t like all of that.
Another mystery, as far as music goes, is why one person likes one kind of music, and another doesn’t. Some people think Bach was the greatest ever, some Mozart, others Beethoven. I never cared a lot for Bach (with occasional exceptions), or Mozart, but I loved Beethoven then, and love him still. I can’t hear everything that others hear in him, but his appeal is universal enough that a lot of people can agree about which are his best pieces. I had been familiar with his Fifth Symphony, and his Sixth, when I first heard his Ninth. I think I must still have been in elementary school then, or not far past it, but it was obvious to me that the Ninth was miles beyond the other two symphonies, as good as they were. Nowadays I don’t care that much for the Fifth, still love the Sixth, and still find the Ninth to be one of the most profound pieces of music I’ve heard. I think others agree with that estimation, though a good number find his late String Quartets to be beyond even the Ninth. I spent some time this winter listening to them, and wasn’t able to hear that in them, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
Anyone who knows anything about popular music in particular knows that musicians affect people powerfully. I remember seeing part of a movie about Abba, the Swedish group, who were competent enough, and some of whose songs I liked. But the movie showed crowds of people showing up at airports when they were about to arrive. That’s something I never did, and Abba would never have inspired me to do it.
The first popular song that ever made me sit up and listen was The Wayward Wind, by Gogi Grant. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and couldn’t find out much about her. Just another musician who had at least one hit, who nobody knew much about. Jimmy Dean was the next one that struck me, with Honeycomb, and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. The latter is more lyrically profound than the former, but I liked them both. Otherwise, as far as popular music went, I was clueless in the 1950’s. I saw Elvis in a movie preview, and wasn’t very excited (I wasn’t a teenager yet, which may have had something to do with it). I might have heard a little of Buddy Holly, and I did know who the Everly Brothers were, and liked what I heard of their music. But I didn’t know about Chuck Berry or Little Richard (I think I had heard Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill), Jerry Lee Lewis, or any of the others who were making music exciting in the 50’s. I got exposed to them through the Beatles.
The Beatles were the ones who got me listening seriously to popular music. I saw the cover photo of their American album that made them a hit here, and was blown away by it. It doesn’t look like that much from my present perspective, but then it was powerful and mysterious, and I went out and bought the first two Beatles albums, and decided to love all of that music. Next was Bob Dylan. I joined a record club sometime in that period, and I may have bought a couple of albums through that, but I think Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was the third album I ever bought. And it was a pretty amazing one. Dylan, of course, had started his recording career as a folkie, and had only recently, at that time, gone electric. I didn’t really care about the controversy over whether it was bad for him to play electric guitar or not, or have a band. The music wasn’t all that sophisticated by standards then even, but it was enough to turn me on, and while I didn’t have much idea what the lyrics meant, they were powerfully mysterious too.
Next were the Rolling Stones, whom I hadn’t liked when I first heard them, until a string of hits that I DID like, and finally Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown, which persuaded me to be a fulltime fan. And after that, it seemed like new people were coming from everywhere for awhile. I loved the San Francisco bands, particularly the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, but also the Steve Miller Band, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Moby Grape. But my tastes weren’t everyone’s tastes, and 10 years or so after the Beatles hit America, I began to lose interest.
Part of it were the changing styles. I didn’t care much for metal, much less disco or punk. But the other thing seemed to be that music had started losing its effect on me. After all this time, I’m not entirely sure why that was, though using it as a way to run away from things I should have been facing may have had something to do with it. I still occasionally found things I liked, but it got more and more rare. I discovered, or rediscovered, at least a couple of songs while I was courting my wife, and for awhile during that period I found myself often crying when I heard something. Things seemed to touch me more deeply then. But that period ended. I had to go to work to support my family, and music receded for me.
There was one exception, and that was What Comes Around Goes Around, by Justin Timberlake, of all people. My stepdaugher had been a fan of N-Sync, the band he’d been part of, and I’d watched part of a video of one of their concerts when she was watching it, dismissing the band as being show-biz and little else. So I was surprised when I heard the song, immediately liked it, and then found out who had done it. I like music to move me deeply, but sometimes I’m surprised myself at what I like.
So why do we like music? There seems to be something in the human nervous system that responds to it, but I don’t know if I could say what. Some of it seems to be rhythm. Rhythm is a basic part of our lives, starting with the beating of our hearts, and it’s as important to athletes as it is to musicians. If you’re an athlete, and can find the correct rhythm to whatever game you’re playing, you find yourself doing more than you ever thought you could. The same is true of other forms of work. Sometimes you fall into a rhythm, and do everything on time, and just as it ought to be done. Other times you can’t seem to do anything right. Nobody can find the correct rhythm all the time. Sports teams have their off nights, as do musicians. And while sometimes a recording will move you more than the band performing live, other times the recording will pale in comparison.
I went to a classical concert by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra some 35 years ago, because they were playing a couple of my favorite pieces. Those two came first, and I certainly enjoyed them. But last came Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony. I’d heard of Shostakovitch, but hadn’t heard any of his music, and I had already decided to go home early, because I had to work the next day. The memory of what I heard of the music still haunts me, though. It was powerful, and seemed to be conjuring up twisted people, or something. That’s about the closest I can come to describing the effect, and I wonder what it would have sounded like if I’d stayed for the whole thing. But when I listened to a recording of it, there was no comparison. Maybe it was the quality of the recording, because it sounded tinny or something. Whatever it was, the power that I’d experienced at the concert was totally missing.
I could go on a lot further about music, but this piece is already getting too long. I’m planning to revisit the subject, and hope anyone reading this will forgive me for leaving it so incomplete.