We all have a special place in our hearts for the music we listened to as young people. Broadway Showtunes, Rock and Roll, Jazz, Gregorian Chant, and the occasional Classical piece were part of my DNA from the beginning. Folk music, old and new, took its place while I was in high school and college. And I’ve been pretty happy with that mix for a long time.
As a young person, my parents thought it would be good for me to learn to play the piano, more specifically my grandmother’s Steinway which had taken up residence in our living room. So, when I was old enough, I began years of piano lessons from the good Benedictine nuns. Piano seemed an especially great instrument to me because I could sing as I played. And I enjoyed that. I also enjoyed learning fast, complex pieces because, when you play like that, your fingers actually blur before your eyes and it has a sort of psychedelic effect with the music and all. In time I moved out of my parents home and pretty much let piano playing drift away. I tried a guitar for a bit, and again found a delightful
instrument that could be played while you sing. I played a steel string Goya, and I did love it, but I never considered myself a musician. And my fingers never seemed to retain the requisite calluses for a steel string guitar. (It looked a bit like the one above.) Another brief attempt at keyboards involved a
KORG 01/W which I bought in 1993 along with a super little plug-in cartridge that could change the sound from a concert grand to an upright to a honky tonk, and several other very cool alternatives. (I have always wished that Frank Zappa had stayed around long enough to play with the next generation of electronic instruments, but it was not to be.) The KORG is still in my basement. That didn’t “take” either. So today I play the radio. And my iPod.
To quote Dennis Miller: “How many times am I going to have to buy the White Album?” I have lived through several music formats and find myself switching pretty much – make that completely – to digital these days. Digital takes less storage space. It’s hard to abandon the old vinyl or cassettes or CDs. But vinyl singles and albums sit in the basement taking up space alongside cases of cassettes and CDs and the “massive” electronics that support them… including an imposing set of Advent speakers. Can’t even move those things at a yard sale these days. An MP3 player is just so much lighter and easier to manage. (Then there’s the battery operated boom boxes without which we would be completely cut off during power failures.) I think the family at one time had 3 Sony cassette based Walkmans (all Sport models). Nobody’s touched them in years. They were great for skiing in their day. Huey Lewis is the best ski music, IMHO. You do your turns with the beat. Yeah. (Toto’s AFRICA will also get you moving to the beat. Heck, R&R just does that.)
That reminds me, housekeeping note, while vinyl and CDs are fairly long lived media, cassettes need to be played or wound and unwound every now and then or they get muddy. The IRS learned years ago that the magnetic media they stored tax information on would bleed ones and zeros into each other after maybe 10 to 25 years. If you have something you love on tape, either convert it to digital or do the wind and unwind thing to keep the tape alive. Or, of course, you can keep buying the White Album. But often things we all have on tape or even vinyl aren’t available digitally, so keep your own counsel on that matter. Once a tape is gone, it’s gone for good. (The same is true for old family videos on 8mm film.)
Now then, hubby claims that guitars are going out of favor these days because rap music doesn’t use guitars. That would be sad. Music keeps evolving, so I hope something musically interesting will develop to replace rap.
Which brings me to the point of this post: something I read once left more of an impact on me than I anticipated at the time or I would have made a note of who wrote it and where I found it. (Sorry.) The underlying message was that music has evolved around the increasing dominance of rhythm. I liked the Roman High Mass, Gregorian Chant, and all manner of simple, ancient music with minimal melodies and gentle rhythmic chanting. Secular folk music evolved melodies more complex than that of Church music, still a gentle rhythm. Then there’s so called classical music with the exploration of more complex melody and rhythm by folks like Vivaldi, Mozart, Hayden and so on. This traditional music has strict underlying rhythms to coordinate musicians and choirs. Jazz is a melodic riff on traditional melodies but uses similar disciplined rhythms I think. (I have a serious fondness for the orchestral version of Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending.) Showtunes have strong melodies and simple rhythms. The goal was to have folks leave the theater singing, after all.
Eventually we come to Rock and Roll, the heart of which – according to both The Beatles and Huey Lewis – is the beat. Melody and a strong back beat. If music truly evolves to stronger rhythms, is it only natural then that the next step would be rap…. mostly beat and modest if any melody? Maybe it had to progress that way. What’s interesting to me is that African drums, and music derived from them, are wildly physical and wonderful. Drums are all beat, and
the beat makes you move. African drums (and Mickey Hart) make the very bones in your body vibrate. You have to move to drum music. It’s not optional. But loud rap music is boring and flat. Why is that?
PS: I wrote the above on May 23, 2011. Very shortly thereafter my 2001 Prius blew its big battery, prompting me to evaluate spending as much as the car was worth to repair it and knowing this would have been the beginning of several expensive repairs to come. Long story short, I now have a Nissan Cube. It is a great deal of fun. And it came with a 3 month free subscription to XM Satellite Radio. Although this is not something I normally would have considered, I chanced upon a series of radio stations, one of which plays music from the 1950’s, followed by one playing 60’s, then 70’s, then 80’s. There may be more in that vein, but it’s been very interesting switching between them and listening to samples from the playlists. I can hear jazzy swing influences in the 50’s and am surprised to discover it’s my favorite station. I’ll partly explain that by admitting to a secret love for doo wop music. 60’s are a real grab bag of different influences, the 70’s often have a hard heavy metal sound, and the 80’s get very whiny at times. Well those are observations from flipping through XM’s playlists, so take it for the simplistic statement it is. I listen to see where melody begins to fail and the beat takes over. It is there. I don’t know if I would have stated it that way had I not read that article some time back. Interesting. I’d love to hear the opinion of somebody who knows more about music and music history than I do.