Thursday, March 12, 2009

If music be the food of love...

It’s crazy to think that when Shakespeare wrote those words, J.S. Bach was over eighty years from being born. I mean, there’s certainly great music from the 17th century and earlier but it is hard to deny that music as we know it was in its infancy.

Most everyone has heard it said that music is the "universal language." This phrase gets thrown around so often that we often take it for granted. But it’s a fantastic and completely true concept. Is there anything else that can invoke emotions in such a wide range of people throughout history all over the world? It’s impossible to give an all-encompassing answer for why this is. One could try to psychologically explain the parts of the brain that are stimulated by certain vibrations in air molecules but that says nothing about the supernatural feeling we get after a certain note, chord, rhythm or whatever.

This surreal sensation is the absolute most important factor in studying or thinking about music. Everyone who has ever genuinely been moved by music is on the same plane. Someone who has experienced this when listening to Blink 182 or Britney Spears is no less musically enlightened than I am. On the flipside, a musical novice like myself is right up there with Beethoven, Paul Simon or Duke Ellington. Don’t get me wrong; these giants were/are infinitely more knowledgeable and gifted than I could imagine being. I’m simply saying that there is no such thing as elite musical appreciation.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who dislikes Britney and Blink as much as I do. I could follow up this post with all the ways I would rather be tortured than forced to listen to music by these “artists.” However, names are insignificant when you’re talking about an otherworldly experience between a person and the sounds that he/she is hearing. For this to occur when listening to “Toxic,” it would take a set of circumstances that may be inexplicable to me. However, once it does (and I’m sure it has), nothing else matters.

Of course, this doesn’t mean all music is equal. A recording of some kid playing the violin for the first time is not on the same level as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Like any form of art, in music, there is clearly a connection between craftsmanship and creating pleasing material (gasp!). And some musical qualities are, on average, more pleasing than others. It’s safe to say that people typically like sound of The Beatles more than Strawberry Alarm Clock, putting other factors such as fame aside. But explaining this is difficult and not the point.

Let this post serve as my lengthy disclaimer. Before I go on and tear certain artists apart limb from limb, let me just say that the ideal function of music is for people to experience what no words cannot describe. If it succeeds, then it is worthy. End of story. For every music listener, there is a different perspective based on countless factors. The general trends are meaningless when put up against the entire musical tradition. Leonard Bernstein once said that music can “name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.” As his contemporary Ira Gershwin wrote in “I Got Rhythm,” “Who could ask for anything more?”


  1. I like to think trends are manufactured, they seem to be very good at tapping into what sticks in your head. "Toxic" is a very catchy song, despite the fact that I would never intentionally play it. I think its this primal subversive catchiness(word?) that seems to make so much money.

    This is the perfect disclaimer. Really, I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of realizing music isn't just about "like" and "dislike", that it's about the effect (or affect? no wait, it's effect...) it has on you at that moment.

    Good show!

  2. I loved this essay (post), as I love many such things that express what I feel way more eloquently than I ever would. The style was approachable. I really liked the rather high intellectual tone followed by "or whatever." Nice touch. The English teacher in me points out a grammatical error. There's a double negative - a no no. "no words cannot express."

    TT (D)