My Parents’ Music

Those of you who grew up with Rock & Roll probably heard your parents say, “That music all sounds the same.” (The implication: Therefore it’s crap.)

The funny thing is: To me, their music all sounded the same (and to some extent, still does). No doubt the music of my children will all sound the same to me (assuming I had any (which I don’t (and now it’s not likely I ever will (not that I’m bitter (yeah, right))))).

Truth is, I really have no ear for rap… it, um, all sounds the same to me. That may have more to do with having really bad hearing. I frequently cannot make out the lyrics of songs. Often, for me, the vocal track is just another melodic track that sounds like a human voice.  And in any event, rap, to me, is more a form of poetry than of music.

Over the years, I’d noticed how my parents (and other lovers of classical music) could identify a symphony after hearing just a small bit. “Oh, yeah, that’s Foomhauser’s Opus #52 in P-flat Minor.” That seemed amazing and mysterious to me, but then I realized that I can do the same thing with rock. No doubt we can all identify music we’ve listened to over and over.

Often, just a few bars easily identify a song by The Who, Journey or Boston, even if I am not familiar with the song. That’s especially true in the case of groups such as those I just mentioned. Their sound is so distinctive that it instantly identifies them. (Perhaps more updated references are Kings of Leon, Coldplay or U2. All very distinctive musical styles.)

With music I know, tunes I’ve heard again and again, a few bars usually is all it takes to identify the tune. That puts into perspective the ability of my parents to identify a piece of classical music. It’s purely a matter of experience, of  having a track record with the art form involved. (And in this case, it likely also involves not being tone-deaf.)

[For that matter, I used to be able to identify any Star Trek episode after seeing just a few minutes of any portion of the episode. So really, it’s nothing more than knowing the body of work.]

Music, like most really interesting things in life, is complicated enough that it requires getting to know it to make real sense of it. As you get to know a body of work, you come to “see” it more clearly, to understand its subtleties and thematic variations. When I first began studying film and literature, I was amazed at what some people could see in them. But the more I studied, the more I began to see what they saw.

Which is not to say that all art analysis is totally accurate. I think that art has “ink blot” qualities where we sometimes see ourselves as much as we see what the artist put there. (And some forms of art are designed to allow you to see what you will.)

What is “Classical” Music?

If Beethoven or Mozart were alive today, what kind of music would they make? Would they still choose string quartets and orchestras, or would they choose rock & roll (or maybe even rap)? Would they be closer to Leonard Bernstein or to John Cage or to Peter Gabriel or to Beck?

As I understand it, Mozart and Beethoven were the rebels, the musical punks, of their day. (They used the Devil’s Chord!) I can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t be as modern as any artist today. I’m guessing they would fully embrace modern music technology!

That puts an interesting spin on the love of classical music when it is seen as somehow a “superior” form of music. What makes it superior? That it used violins and oboes? That it was made by the visionaries of the day? (What does that say about the visionary music of today?) Is it superior because it’s old?

Actually, that is a big part of why. It can be considered superior music for having stood the test of time. (Of course, then one can ask why it stood the time test. I’m thinking it’s the oboes. Definitely the oboes.) Current music hasn’t had the opportunity to pass this test.

So then an interesting question is, what current music will be considered classic in 200 years? Will any of it?

Perhaps The Beatles will still be played in 200, 300 or 400 years. Maybe even Fleetwood Mac or Eric Clapton. But it’s hard to imagine a lot of the current artists surviving the centuries. Joni Mitchell? Prince? Madonna? P!nk? Paul Simon? Bruce Springsteen? Who knows.

And it may turn out that the sheer amount of content today overwhelms memory. What group or artist can hope to stand the test of time when so many other groups and artists exist? The interweb river is wide and fast. The things of our daily lives disappear downstream very rapidly these days. My guess is that less and less of this contemporary world will survive long at all.  It may be interesting for future historians to look back at the point where there was enough individuality to stand out and be remembered.

But, in any event, now you understand a little what’s behind classic music snobbery! It has a point. It’s survived the test of hundreds of years. (And has oboes!) And even if you aren’t as familiar with classical music as you are rock or rap, classical music can still stir and sooth. It still speaks to us. What music of today will speak to people in 400 years?

Repeat and Fade Out…

I started writing this post last year and set it aside for later. About half of what you’ve just read comes from that first pass. There were also two notes that didn’t quite fit into the theme. The first tickled my funny bone, because it’s a repeat of a note I made just the other day. The recent discovery that I can’t write with music in the background wasn’t so recent after all!

That note reads: I can’t write and listen to rock—anything with lyrics. Programming I can do, but not writing. The voice in my head hearing the words needs silence.

At least I’m consistent. Forgetful, but consistent. (In some ways, that’s actually comforting.)

The second note is about a group, called The Fray. I’m extremely eclectic in my musical tastes. Rock has always been my favorite, and most of my music library is one form of rock or another.

I like (but am not terribly familiar with) classical. I have no problem going to the opera (fine with me). I’m more familiar (but not hugely conversant) with jazz. And I don’t dislike rap (I just can’t hear the words). Japanese Kabuki music, okay, now we’re getting into territory that leaves me a bit cold. But I can’t really say there’s any music I just plain don’t like.

Until The Fray. I don’t know what it is, perhaps the tendency to over-repeat hook lines, but I went through a period where I’d have the Digital Music Adult Alternative channel on, and I’d be working on something.  And suddenly I’d realize that the background music had not only intruded into my consciousness, but it was bugging the shit out of me. It would be so annoying that I had to get up and switch the channel.

And every time, it was the same group: The Fray.

I can’t explain it. I guess it was just one of those things.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “My Parents’ Music

  • It's only P!

    What you have with The Fray, I have with Mozart. Invariably when I hear something monotonous and inane in the background it’s Mozart. Also a case of over-repeat: the refrain,which drones on and on and on. This is virtually inconceivable because so many classical music admirers think highly of him!

    I only like his Requiem, but I think that Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham had something to do with that. 😉

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I wonder if everyone has that one group or artist that just about everyone else really likes, but which they can’t stand? The Fray seems to be a very popular and successful group… it’s almost weird the effect they had on me.

      Had you heard a lot of Mozart before you began to dislike his music, or was it hate at first hear?

      • It's only P!

        I’m sure I already heard him in utero. 🙂

        [thinking…] I became aware of my dislike for his compositions ten years ago, when I started listening to satellite radio, which was sometimes on classical all day, other days on jazz, then again golden oldies. So that’s where it stems from.

  • rorypond2020

    Careful – I hear that the Fray’s manager is coming after your kneecaps with a crowbar!

  • thegreenstudy

    I’m a sucker for hooks, but really, really despise auto tune and the weird electronic shit they do with untalented singers’ voices. I don’t like opera because I can’t understand it and don’t care for most rap, because I do (I mean honestly, we can’t ALL be bitches and hos). Every time I read about music, though, I am forever grateful for all the choices we actually have, despite the desperate music industry’s attempts to manufacture crap.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I get ‘hooked’ more often than seems right, but pop is often just sooooo catchy! (Do you know the Blues Traveler tune Hook? One of my favorites of theirs.) I know what you mean about rap lyrics; there are some rappers (many of the women and some of the men) who oppose that sort of thing. There is some constructive rap out there.

      The interweb is having the effect of undermining the music industry’s control and profiteering. Many artists now self-publish, which brings the price way down and provides a much larger share of the income to the artist. On the other hand, as you suggest, it also means a lot of untalented artists out there. (I’ve been saving your Mellow Labor Day post for when I can give it a good listen… always interested in hearing new music.)

      • thegreenstudy

        I do listen to some rap while working out, but it has to be uplifting and inspiring. Lyrics are important to me.
        I love all the independent labels doing their thing – a lot of these small venues and festivals are a great way to find new music.
        I did the Labor Day post with hesitation. To follow copyright laws, you have to go with what is on YouTube for samples, even if the songs aren’t the best choice for introducing a particular group.

  • dianasschwenk

    Never heard of the Fray and based on your post, I won’t bother looking them up. 😉

  • Derek

    These two strings walk upto a bar… The first string walks in and orders and the bartender throws him out and yells “I don’t serve strings in this bar… The other string ruffs himself up on the street and curls up and orders… The bartender shouts, Hey, didn’t you hear what I told your buddy?” String says “Yeah.” Bartender says, “aren’t you a string?” … String says, “No, I’m a frayed knot”

  • reocochran

    I wandered onto this post and cannot help but smile. My parents did not listen to classical music, per se. They loved musicals so I am glad that I had the opportunity to listen to them, later loving theatre, including musicals. I always wondered why a favorite of theirs never got made into a movie. It was called “No Strings” and had the beautiful Dianne Carroll as a black model in Europe falling in love with a white photographer. The songs were great. But, believe it or not, maybe due to my mother being a high school teacher and father being a scientist they were all about listening to our music. Cool, huh? Weird, in the seventies, my brother got my father to try pot and they both painted pictures. Never a dull moment!

  • Lady from Manila

    You superlatively put it with: “As you get to know a body of work, you come to ‘see’ it more clearly, to understand its subtleties and thematic variations. When I first began studying film and literature, I was amazed at what some people could see in them. But the more I studied, the more I began to see what they saw.” I guess it’s similar to the fact any mystery can be solved if we care enough to find out what it’s really all about.

    It could be that I’m getting old, but the songs these days all sound the same to me, too. My perception is: the best kind of music (apart from the classical genre) was made in the 70s and 80s. Yeah, those were the times I was totally glued to the radio, but many young people in YouTube have drawn the same inference. So perhaps I’m right. 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, in many cases mysteries give up their secrets when we dig into them deeply enough. Many scientific advances have come from those doing the digging! I do believe there are mysteries and questions with no answer. Scientifically, that’s absolutely true: Heisenberg, Turing and Godel all discovered aspects of reality that cannot — even in principle — be understood or answered. I find it comforting that the universe doesn’t surrender all her mystery! 😀

      For many years people have said, “Rock is dead,” and what they’ve meant is that it’s tapped out, there’s nothing new, nothing that hasn’t been done already (many times). Given the severe constraints for pop music, it is even easier to fully plow the field (again and again). Add to that how the interweb has made it easy for anyone with any music interest (let alone actual talent) to “publish” their work. The result is that there is a lot of material out there, and the bell curve applies: much of it will be boring, trite or a waste of time.

      What commends music in such an environment is sheer skill and/or excellent content. Language is pretty old, and yet we find new things to say. The trick, perhaps, is that when one gets bored, explore something new. I love jazz, but don’t know much about it, and I’ve found I like R&B, and I really don’t know much about that!

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