Utility and the Muse

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What is music good for?

If that question sounds funny, it probably should. But I have a reason for asking myself this. One day in school, back when I was about nine years old, my teacher startled me by asking:

'What are sheep good for?'

I was totally unable to answer this – which was unusual for me. I usually got what adults were saying. But. . . 'what are sheep good for?'. . . I mean, they're sheep, isn't that good enough? They baa, therefore they are. Before I could reply, 'I dunno, ask God,' my friend David, much more astute than I, chimed in with, 'I know! I know!' and the correct answer:

'Sheep give us wool.'

Duh. I was back on track, and dutifully informed the teacher that cows give milk, chickens eggs, etc. That that was what they were 'good for'.

I began that day wondering what I was 'good for'. I haven't figured that one out yet. Ask God.

So what is music good for?

I grew up surrounded by music – which might surprise modern people, as my dad used the radio only to listen to ball games, and we owned a tiny monaural record player and a small collection that included kiddie stuff, something by Pat Boone called 'Hot Diggety', and a two-record set of the Reverend Robert G Lee's most famous sermon, 'Payday Someday'. It wasn't musical, this sermon, but it was highly entertaining: the Reverend told the story of Naboth's Vineyard, and he played all the parts. His Jezebel was Oscar-worthy. But I digress.

What we did have was a piano. And, once my baby sister got big enough, three pianists. The instrument was almost never silent – when one of us wandered away, another sat down. When we weren't playing, we were singing: at church, around the house, in the car. . . the only time my dad turned on his car radio was when we got around to 'cumulative' songs, such as 'The Green Grass Grew All Around'. Looking back, I chalk this up to self-defence on the part of the driver.

When I was ten, and my sister Bug was eight, she and her friends wanted to be in the talent show at school. For about a week, they rehearsed 'Clementine' at our house. They didn't get in, oddly enough (the standards weren't that high), but the rehearsals left an unfortunate legacy chez Gheorgheni: my baby sister, who was two, had memorised the song. For weeks we had to listen to 'Oh, my darlin', oh, my darlin', oh, my daaaaarlin' Clementine. . . '

This same sister is now a professional musician and music educator.

The Proms in the Park, looking at the main stage.

Obviously, I like music. Equally obviously, I have some small understanding of how music works – I know what a chord is, and Sis says I'm a good accompanist because I 'do what I'm told'. Oh, and I have a 'nice singing voice – for folk'. I'm a fairly decent tenor, and have propped up a few church choirs in my time. I've played piano for shows, in bars, and in churches (sometimes at the same time, which once led to the remark that 'my Sunday School teacher plays in a bar,' which is sort of funny in the Southern US). I have fairly eclectic tastes, from classical, folk, and old-time religion right through jazz and experimental – though I blush to say that every single hip-hop song I've ever heard sounds exactly alike to me. But to me, most music exists in people's minds for social reasons.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. 'They're playing our song, honey.' That association – a certain popular song with the moment of revelation that one is in love – is a time-honoured one. It might be a bit funny if 'our song' turns out to be 'Who Let the Dogs Out?', but different strokes for different folks, as they used to say.

Many, many people spend lots and lots of time explaining patiently to me that they love Mahler, for example, for his own sake, because he does this and that and the other thing, here, there, and yonder in his composition. I like exactly one thing Mahler ever composed. It's a vocal, it's part of a symphony, and it starts, 'Nun geniessen wir die himmlischen Freuden'. ('Now we enjoy heavenly joys.') It's kind of a nice tune, and the words are funny.

My suspicion is that people like pop music, or symphonies, or thrash bands, or ragtime, or whatever, principally because of the music's association for them with certain social groups or activities. My mother loved George M Cohan songs. She wasn't prone to jingoism, she had just enjoyed a youth filled with band concerts at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, and 1940s movies with Jimmy Cagney dancing. I once got a fit of the giggles at her obvious enjoyment of Dick Haymes, in the world's most enormous sombrero, singing something about Argentina, or Venezuela, or someplace. You had to be there.

My father, bless his heart, was almost completely tone-deaf. We suspected this for many years, as his 'singing' consisted of two notes. (Pity, he would have been a splendid bass.) Our diagnosis was confirmed when I learned a piece of music called 'Claire de Lune'. By Debussy. My dad admired this, largely because my hands went 'all over the piano'. This was Classy Stuff.

He kept asking Bug to play this piece. Which, being younger, she couldn't yet. Finally, she discovered experimentally that our dad would be equally happy with any piano composition with heavy arpeggio work. Thereafter, such a piece would be dubbed 'Claire de Lune' at our place. Other than 'Claire de Lune', my dad was able to identify, with certainty, several products of the Stamps-Baxter era in Southern gospel. These songs were dear to him for reasons of nostalgia. You don't analyse 'My Mother's Bible' for melodic development. You play it because it causes an old child of the mountains to smell his mother's biscuits in the oven.

So, as I've said, I've concluded that for most people, music is social. It's not about the sound, it's about what goes with it. State-based learning, the experts call it. There is nothing at all wrong with that. I will cheerfully bang out hymns, standards, novelty songs, whatever, if it makes people happy. (Anything but Strauss waltzes. I draw the line at Strauss waltzes. They make me seasick.)

However, I spent all of my childhood and part of my youth wondering just one thing about music: 'Is that all there is?' No, no, not the song by Peggy Lee. Go wash your mind out, immediately. Ugh. What I wanted to know was, 'Is there more?'

I finally found out.

I heard this kind of singing. And then I knew what I'd been listening for, all these years: music that wasn't state-based or social. Music that did something to your central nervous system.

There's a blaze of light in every word,

It doesn't matter which you heard,

The holy or the broken Hallelujah.. . .
  – Leonard Cohen

The Irish call it sean nós. I suspect it's ancient – and, although Irish sean nós singing has a strong social component, I suspect the music was originally meant to be sung solo. And alone.

Like the doina. That's the Romanian version. A doina is meant to be sung to express your feelings, to come from deep in the heart. From you to the universe. The doina is considered a world heritage item by UNESCO. Seriously. It influenced klezmer music. Look up 'Carul cu boi' on Youtube. Then go listen to 'Ha-Tikvah', the Israeli song. Oh, and check out Smetana's 'Moldau'. It's all the same tune.

Here's another example of what I'm talking about. Listen to 'What Wondrous Love Is This'. Forget to turn up your nose at the cheesy midi. Memorise the tune.

Now, go up on a mountain, far away from listeners. Pour that song out your throat, up into the sky. Ignore the complaints of birds who don't want the competition. Don't worry about whether the angels are music critics. Just sing it, over and over, until you can feel it at the base of your spine.

Now, that is what music is good for.

You want a short playlist of stuff that does this for me? Here goes:

Make your own list. Criterion: when you sing it, loudly, softly, ornamented, unadorned, through your nose, but above all, alone, just you and the universe, you can feel it in your solar plexus. Somewhere in there, there's a music chakra. Make it vibrate.

And that, I think, is what music's good for.

Fact and Fiction by Dmitri Gheorgheni Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

11.06.12 Front Page

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