Thursday, April 14, 2022

HEAR, HEAR! – Music As If For the First Time

Those of you familiar with my As If For the First Time (AIFFT) series will recognize the premise: pick some common observation or activity—one so ubiquitous as to easily escape one’s full appreciation—and describe it as if I’d never seen or done it before.

I’ve written at least fifty of them, and the other day, while listening to our local public radio classical music station, I realized music just begs for a place at the
AIFFT table. Why had it taken me so long?

                                                    ~        ~        ~    

         It can curl one into the fetal position
         or lift one to prayer.


Usually these treatises practically write themselves. But the more I think about music, the more it’s proving one of the hardest themes I’ve tackled.

It’s just that music is so intangible. Unlike any of my previous AIFFT reflections, experiencing it involves no physical action. You can’t see it, pick it up, turn it over, smell it or taste it. You can only listen…and relate.

Much of our response to music is emotional. Like poetry for the ears, it can render one sad, happy, pensive, agitated…or sleepy. It can curl one into the fetal position or lift one to prayer. It can move one to dance. 

IMAGE: New York Times

It coaxes out the sweetest and sorest of memories. It can draw shut dark curtains of fear or doubt, or open them to the golden-hour light of promise.

And yet, how do I describe music as if I’d never heard it before? Doesn’t its appreciation require some cultural or personal reference point? Or could some aspects of it actually be innate to us? In other words, might even infants love a Mozart concerto the first time they lay ears on it? (Brain sciences researchers say they do, and that music plays an essential role in speech development.)

I’m reminded of a film I once watched portraying some early 20th century explorer who’s managed to penetrate a remote jungle—in Borneo I think it was—and discovers a tribe whose culture remained untouched by modern civilization. The visitor unpacks a Victrola, winds it up and plays Caruso. The natives are spellbound.

Why? Is it because the music their visitors love has touched their souls too? Or is it simply the novelty of their magically producing such sounds—any sounds—from that odd spinning disk?

It’s not that they’ve never heard—or played—music before. Of course they have their own rudimentary music. But where does the inspiration for that creation come from? And why hasn’t it produced works of comparable sophistication to those of Mozart or Steely Dan or Nas?

Nature’s sounds are influential—as they have been for composers in other cultures. From the rumble of thunder to the shrill airs of birds; from the sighs of wind through trees to the rhythm of cricket chirps or water dripping.

This might explain basic melody and rhythm, but what do those wide-eyed Borneans know of harmony? Of tonal color? Of counterpoint? Even though Nature has never shown them such niceties, might they not have simply invented them through experimentation?
     Is rhythm something we’re born with, part
     of our DNA, or is it taught us by no less
     a maestro than our own mother’s heartbeat?

The one aspect of music that just might be inherent to us human beings, even before it’s ensconced in culture, is rhythm. So is the urge to tap our fingers and move our feet a need we’re born with, part of our DNA? Or is it taught us by no less a maestra than our own mother’s heartbeat? (Brain development research has shown that it is.)

And our appreciation for harmony, is that an innate quality of sound, an invention of our hearing, or a component of our souls?

          Do infants love Mozart the first time
          they lay ears on it?

We listen to and appreciate different types of music for different reasons. While some folks love what we might call traditional harmonies and rhythms, others prefer their music dissonant, their tempo harsh, even angry. And still others…well, our tastes are all over the map.

One example: Years ago, I met and became friends with the fantastic Mexican magical-realist painter Fernando Garrido. I was absolutely sure Fernando would love a new album I’d discovered, a CD by Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen, whose sublime style “melds brooding Nordic lyricism and modern jazz.” *

So, next time I visited him at his home in Querétaro, I brought the CD and gave it to him.

Now I find Gustavsen thoughtful, soothing, at times etherial—creating the perfect “head space” for my own creative writing and crafting. What better music, I reasoned, to stir the creative juices of a famous, prolific, Caravaggio-inspired Mexican painter? Right?

Wrong. After months of my trying tactfully to pry an honest opinion of the CD from my tactful friend, he finally came clean. He said, “It’s so slow; it has no life.” So much for becoming soul mates with Fernando Garrido—at least music-wise.

So I guess music’s effect on us, like that of art, or design, or any other type of expression, is colored not just by taste, but by culture and by our own experience. I know I’ve heard music most people would find nice, but not especially moving, which, because it recalled for me a particular moment of love or loss, caused my heart to swell or brought me to tears.

         It's like trying to assess emotion as if
         we'd never been able to feel.

So, experiencing music as if for the first time. Is that even possible?  

For something so ingrained in the development of our brains, so influenced by our natural surroundings, so colored by both experience and culture, I’m inclined to say it is not. It’s like trying to assess emotion as if we’d never been able to feel. Or discussing language without words.


At least for me there are far fewer answers than more questions. If you have some answers based on your own experiences with music, we’d all love to hear them!

“If I can learn to understand this language without words, I can learn to understand the world.”

“Remember, all music was once new.”
* Apple Music ( )


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