May 2013 Archives

Many Things to Many People

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P Elephant

P Elephant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At a recent book discussion group meeting, my friend Lynn shared an interesting insight relating to a passage in the novella, A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean.  At one point in the story, the narrator expresses the opinion that avid anglers seek a state of perfection in the union of their environment and themselves when they pursue their passion.  Lynn likened this pursuit to both meditation and the way some people listen to music.  I hastened to agree.   When I listen to music at home or play music with other musicians, I occasionally experience something akin to this blissful state, where everything becomes unified in the music.  The rewards of these experiences are such that I have been endeavoring to recapture them, with varying degrees of success, for my entire life.   

However, there are many other equally valid levels of music appreciation.   Many students like to listen to music while doing assignments or cramming for exams, as it helps them focus their thoughts.  Music can establish an appropriate mood for social occasions.   It can be the means of assessing the merits of  the audio gear for which you just paid a bundle.  It can accompany your workout sessions, or, heaven forbid, lengthy oral surgery.  And it can lessen the sense of solitude.

Many, if not most, of my acquaintances profess to be music lovers, including some who by their own admission are tone deaf.  It is possible that some of these folks feel there is a stigma attached to indifference concerning music, which inhibits them from acknowledging this aspect of their emotional makeup. From the historical record, however, there seem to be many more Einsteins and Jeffersons* than Ulysses S. Grants** and Vladimir Nabokovs***.

 What I find striking is the variety of ways in which people are moved by music.   If we all experienced music the same, we would all be listening to the same music.   Yet, many people whose judgment I respect, care passionately for some music that leaves me completely unmoved.  And, of course, I have enough experience of recommending music to friends that elicits only tepid enthusiasm to confirm the idea that my tastes are not universally shared.  So, in a sense, the variety of ways in which music can appeal to the listener can be a mechanism to reinforce isolation.  If your tastes become too specialized and your appreciation comes to resemble The True Faith, you may cut yourself off from much of the experience of sharing your passion with others.  An antidote to this insularity is to try and develop what is known in jazz parlance as "big ears", by cultivating a taste for as many varieties of music as possible.  I am fortunate to work in a place which facilitates doing just that.

I have a theory that as the most abstract of the arts, at least in instrumental form, music speaks to people in the greatest variety of ways.  As an undergraduate, I had occasion to visit the Rochester School for the Deaf.   At the on campus beer cellar, I was surrounded by the deaf and hearing impaired, signing animatedly while rock n' roll played over the PA system.  I can't think of a better testimony to the universal appeal of music.

*Both Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson were accomplished violinists.

**I know only two tunes: one of them is "Yankee Doodle," and the other isn't. - Ulysses S. Grant

***According to Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography, he found most music irritating.


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