Deep Thought: If Music Be the Food of Love

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A seer thinking deeply, with a towel on his head

Deep Thought: If Music Be the Food of Love

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die…

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Is music 'the universal language'? Well, er…

On the one hand, as Bobby McFerrin has demonstrated, the pentatonic scale is hard-wired into the brains of random groups of strangers. Bobby McFerrin is a certified genius who wowed neuroscientists with this musical insight. So yes: making music is universal. Some of the rules are even there already, in our brains.

The same thing is true of language, you know: all of us are born with the ability to learn languages. Almost all of us learn one as babies. Some of us may have learned two or more at that time, depending on who was doing the talking in our vicinity. Some of us learned other languages as kids, or even adults. The thing is: there are thousands of possible languages. They're not all mutually intelligible.

So no, music isn't 'the universal language'. Want proof? Go play your favourite music at your neighbours. Chances are, your neighbours will disagree as to how great or wonderful your favourite music is. Sasha is passionate about Queen. Freewayriding likes heavy metal. Paulh enjoys some kinds of classical music. I don't find Queen inspiring, think heavy metal is overrated (and often tedious), and like some classical composers better than others. But I strongly suspect that my all-time favourite Baroque opera air would leave most people cold, never mind the folk songs to which I am addicted.

Now, everybody is allowed to like what they like. There is absolutely nothing anybody else could do about it, anyway. Arguing with people about taste is a notorious non-starter. Or, as the Dutch say, 'Over smak valt niet te twisten.' Which translates as, 'De gustibus non disputandum est.'

The reason I mention this is to point out that tolerance is a much more complex art than people seem to think. It isn't merely a matter of saying, 'To each his own.' That statement will immediately become 'problematic' due to pronouns, and arguing about history and language, etc, will lead us down the rabbit hole. I'll talk about temporal provincialism in another column. That's a promise or a threat, depending on how you read it.

The reason music isn't 'universal' is that its forms and usages are culturally embedded. We have emotional connections with certain kinds of music based on their social function and the way we responded to them. Consider the couples who hear music and exclaim, 'They're playing our song!' When I was young, most of the grownups said that about some romantic ballad from the Big Band era, say 'Moonglow' or 'Stairway to the Stars'. Most people from my generation didn't like those songs, even though they had nice melodic development. That stuff was 'too old-fashioned'. Now, 'their song' might be 'Do You Know the Way to San Jose?' or 'Cherish'. Which also have nice melodies. But that's not why they like them.

Last night, Elektra and I were watching Warehouse 13, a 21st-century scifi series. Claudia was playing her guitar and singing. We winced: those songs didn't resonate, even though I like some of the Seattle indy compositions. Obviously, the tv show folks felt that their younger audience members would like those tunes.

Music often gains cultural meaning from the context in which the songs are performed. Play 'Dixie' these days and find out. The 'I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-to-Die Rag' cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered a polished composition. But its reception will continue to be emotive as long as those of us who lived through the Sixties are still around. I remember hearing 'Eve of Destruction' on a show called Hootenanny when I was a teenager. Because I am a music geek, my first thought was that it wasn't a very good piece of music. But the words resonated. I love 'For What It's Worth', both as a composition and for its message.

As I said, you cannot make people like 'your' music by insisting on it. You'll only bore the socks off them. In order to unite around the idea of music, you'd either have to find a new kind of music that everybody likes – lots of luck with that – or agree to disagree. All the while knowing in your heart that you're never going to stop believing that 'your' music is superior to the junk the other people are listening to.

Which gets us back to tolerance. Tolerance has to be learned. If we continue to feel that the Other is just plain wrong, and not worthy of our respect, we've still got a problem. One that is not going to go away if we keep playing our favourite anthems in their direction and saying, 'Can't you hear that?'

Do you know what helps? Taking music appreciation. A lot of people who have dismissed certain music genres because they didn't speak to them, or because they didn't experience them in their own cultural matrix, can start to hear things if somebody explains how they work. I'm not saying that these new musical genres will suddenly become favourites. I'm saying you can develop a tolerance for them. I can't abide hip-hop myself. The rhythms are too jerky for me, and my hearing impairment means I can't understand a word of the lyrics. But if I read the lyrics, I can at least get the gist. You know what? If you're near a computer, you can always read the lyrics. Just type in 'title of song+lyrics'. Works every time, or just about.

Want to try something? Here is a song I can almost guarantee you won't like at first hearing. Or maybe even second, or third, or fifteenth. It's by a favourite group of mine called the Austin Lounge Lizards, Texas bluegrass musicians with PhDs. It's called 'Paint Me on Velvet'. The song is deeply satirical, both musically and in terms of lyrics.

Now read the lyrics. You may need a gloss: velvet paintings are considered very 'low culture' in the US. They are also considered maudlinly sentimental, like the tune to this song and the way it's played. The Lounge Lizards are gently mocking something called the 'men's movement' of twenty years ago, in which men often 'shared' their emotional difficulties, often around campfires and in 'drum circles'. Whether you agree with this assessment of the movement or not, you can appreciate the piece as an art song with a very unreliable narrator. Either way, hearing the song and learning about it is a learning experience. Okay, not much of one, but you get my point.

It's not necessary for us all to learn to like everything. But we can learn to understand more.

And we can always go listen to Bobby McFerrin some more.

Deep Thought Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

25.01.21 Front Page

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