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Is It Music Or Noise?
Nothing divides one generation from another so definitely as its popular music. Those who grew up listening to the Beatles are either not interested in, or actively dislike, the sound of rap, hip hop or heavy metal.
Last Sunday night, I had a lot of time to think about music while I forced myself to stay up through four hours of Grammy Awards. I don’t want to be left out of what’s going on even if what’s going on doesn’t appeal to me.
The music of the youth of people my age was jazz and you’d have a hard time convincing any of us that Eminem, Bono, or even the appealing multiple-Grammy-winner Norah Jones can match the musical talent of the great jazz musicians. It seems certain to us that people like Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker have a better chance of achieving a permanent place in the history of music than The Dixie Chicks. To prove I’m fair, I wouldn’t give much chance to the other music of my youth known as "swing," played by good but forgettable orchestras like Guy Lombardo’s.
Only occasionally does a musician’s popularity span several generations. Frank Sinatra’s did and that of Tony Bennett, who performed and won a Grammy Sunday night at age 77. (In spite of his limited talent, I’m soft on Tony because more than 40 years ago I wrote a television show he did one summer substituting for Perry Como.)
The appreciation of music doesn’t come naturally to me. My hearing is perfect. My shortcoming is listening. I hear better than I listen. My brain doesn’t have whatever faculty it needs to understand carefully arranged sound. I want music to mean something that can be expressed with words and music doesn’t do that. It’s hard for me to believe there are any ideas expressed in the music of the Grammy Awards—or even in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for that matter. Maybe I’m asking something of music it isn’t meant to provide. I accept that, but I don’t accept the suggestion that there is something profound in the caterwauling of a rock group. Some of the appeal of music is the predictability and anticipation of rhythm and too much modern popular music doesn’t even have that.
If art of any kind doesn’t have an idea behind it, I’m not interested. I can do without artificially induced emotion. It accounts for my apathy toward the paintings of so many modern artists. I don’t understand their work and if there isn’t anything there to understand, I don’t want to waste my time looking at it.
I remember reading once that Beethoven said music is a higher revelation than philosophy. I don’t doubt Beethoven’s genius with music but I don’t agree about that.
The intellectual pleasure of listening to a symphony concert or an opera escapes me and, while I recognize this as my shortcoming, not the music’s, it doesn’t make it any easier for me to sit through a concert. My ability to appreciate music is limited to my recognition that consonance is soothing and dissonance is irritating. My idea of a good evening of music is a virtuoso performance by one talented singer or player of an instrument like a piano, guitar, saxophone, trombone or violin. There’s something about the solitary sound that appeals to me more than a blend of many sounds from a hundred instruments. I keep trying to isolate one sound and cannot so it’s cacophony to my ears, the audio entry to my brain.
It isn’t clear how the brain makes sense of music so there’s no way we’re ever going to explain why some of us like some music that others do not like.
I do know one thing. Next year, when the Grammys are on television, for entertainment I’ll just have a toothache and go to bed early.