Sunday, February 24, 2013

What is Music? Part 1: The Joy of Listening

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
          – Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I love all types of music. I am deeply affected by both the power of Beethoven’s symphonies and the elegance of Chopin’s piano etudes. I find great energy and fun in the Beatles’ early songs, as well as anything recorded by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I am even thrilled by the stagnation and repetitiveness of music composed by Phillip Glass.

I also find joy in the sounds of everyday life. Listening to the rain fall outside my bedroom window at night calms me down, as does the sound of a train in the distance. Some of the most enjoyable sounds I have heard came when I was with my father on the banks of the Kiamichi River in Oklahoma. It was late at night, and we were listening for the cowbell to ring on the trotline we had spread across the river. The campfire was crackling. In the distance some dogs had treed a possum and were howling to save the world.

I call all of that, “music.”

For me, music is the moments defined by what I am listening to. It doesn't matter whether I am spending three minutes listening to Bruce Springsteen moaning about love's desire in “I’m on Fire” or ninety minutes listening to Gustav Mahler passing judgment on Judgment Day in his Resurrection Symphony. It’s all music. When I spend an evening listening to children next door splashing in a swimming pool, I might even refer to that as “music” to my ears.

Music does not come just from the sounds I hear. It comes from the sounds I pay attention to, sounds I experience for the pure joy of listening.

Sometimes the joy comes with no need for musical knowledge. Knowing about major and minor tonalities, after all, is unnecessary to understand the beauty — and possibly terror — in the sounds of a thunderstorm. A knowledge of musical meter contributes nothing to the euphoria of hearing fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, however, I need a little musical knowledge or I might not understand what is happening in a piece of music. Without a little musical knowledge I might not fully appreciate the music I am hearing.

In most cases, the need for knowledge comes when I am listening to classical music. Classical music can be so full of musical content that the “story” told in a piece might escape me unless I understand music's terminology, its structural form and history.

I might not need lessons on how to listen to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs. However, I need someone to explain Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or I might never really understand the power of Beethoven's message.

When I spend time listening to a symphony by Haydn, for example, simply knowing that it will be divided into four movements helps me enjoy it more. Knowing that the first movement is in sonata form and the third movement is in triple time makes the music even more meaningful. And I can't stop there. I have learned that Haydn's symphonies are endlessly entertaining — if I am willing to learn about them.

None of this means that classical music is better than other types of music. It only means that classical music is different. In most cases, classical music requires knowledgeable audiences. Many other types of music, on the other hand, require little more than paying attention and having a good time.

I'll say it again, I love it all. Music of all types enhances my life, feeds my soul, and elevates my spirit. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to Johann Bach, Johnny Cash, or the cowbell ringing on the trotline in the middle of the night.

Flatt and Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”

How to Play the Cowbell

In this blog I described music as "moments defined by what we are listening to." Next Sunday (March 3), I will expand on that definition in Part 2 of "What is Music?"

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