Why do we make music?
As visual creatures, I can easily surmise why we draw and paint, and it’s pretty simple to understand the utility of writing. With the largest brains that we know of for at least a few trillion miles, it’s not surprising that humans have taken these functions to a level that only self-aware organisms can grasp. At a certain point, we call it art. The line between utility and art is mercurial, varying widely through time and culture, and it is never unanimously drawn. But if the art is the gloss, the beauty and the pinnacle, it is worthwhile to try and examine its genesis, for thousands of years ago, homo sapiens had little time for frivolous pursuits; the next meal was not guaranteed. Why did we spend time on music? What did it do for us? What does our music tell us about ourselves today?
In an attempt to create an umbrella under which all of our music can fit, the best of my abilities have found seven reasons (more honestly, six, with one last catch-all) for why we ache for this medium.
1. Pure artistic merit
As already alluded, the purity of the artistic drive has flourished over the past couple thousand years, and even more so in the last century. Far from us mere mortals, classical musicians can attest to this and understand it. The amount of beauty that can be coaxed from interlacing differing waves of pressure (that’s what sound is) is remarkable, and some people, through innate gifts and unrelenting, almost obsessive practice have found ways to control and move this natural phenomenon into shapes that cause our hair to stand on end, cause us to cry, cause us to feel. Robert Johnson, Johann Sebastian Bach, Fela Kuti, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Hendrix, Dylan, Annie Lennox…their music is its own reason. There are many others.
2. Expression of emotion
Adele is a wonderful expresser of sadness. Take away all of the lyrics; there is a palpable ache in many of her songs. The key strokes on the piano have a little more colour when she’s the player. At his pinnacle, Michael Jackson was a beacon of joy. Bob Marley told people that they have value, that they are great, even if being Black wasn’t en vogue at the time of his writings. There is a part of music that lets us scream to the ether. Emotion is a mammalian trait and music is its voice.
Music can give rise to dance. If you’re looking to cut away three or four dates, it might be the ultimate go-to move. I’d like to keep this monologue in the PG realm, so I will just leave it at that. Some of us are way better at it than others, but no matter who you are, you can dance, and music helps a lot.
4. To remember something/storytelling
Memorization was a part of my education, and I’m certain that I’m not alone in this experience. For all of the new-age educational theories that say memorization is a waste of time, I say phooey. Holding something in one’s mind is not a waste of time. It never was, and believe it or not, it never will be-computers be damned. In this pursuit of remembrance there is a little trick that is wildly effective. Music. Try and write out your favorite song without drifting into singing. I’m guessing that you won’t be able to do it without an immense amount of mental energy and copious use of the eraserhead. Yet somehow, on any given night, or even at this very moment, there are thousands of people at concerts who are “magically” remembering every word without even trying. When we need to remember something, we put a melody to it. The better the melody, the better the chance of the message persisting and enduring.
Look no further than religion. In The Church, The Synagogue, The Mosque you will find people singing together, reinforcing their deepest, most important beliefs, through song. Those in The Church have gone to great lengths to stay relevant in our culture, so it’s not surprising to see an electric guitar and a drum kit if you show up on Sunday morning. In the strictest of Islamic cultures it is not permitted to use music for any other purpose than to spread the Word Of God. In the haze of hubris, many of us in “The West” consider this to be an affront to Western culture. Perhaps reconsidered, it might be better explained that there exists a belief that God, and only God, should be allowed to wield this weapon. It is far too persuasive to be used by average people to promote their agenda. Heaven forbid someone to use this asset in an attempt to dismember sick and corrosive ideas like Jim Crow. A half hour of viewing archival footage of Dr. King’s speeches will show that when he gets to the apex of his messages, he is actually singing. His message will not be forgotten, and all it cost him was his life.
There exists a belief that artists should never “sell-out.” “Selling-out” has become a confusing point as I’ve aged. In brief, I just don’t get it. I like playing guitar. I also like eating. Why these two things can’t co-exist is beyond me. They certainly don’t appear to be mutually exclusive. So, if an artist is craven enough to sell their art for means of sustenance, it doesn’t make them less of an artist. Looking back through history, most artistic pursuits were commissioned by religion, or a King, or a Queen, or an Emperor. It is only recently that “selling-out” was a thing. For most of our history, trying to live off your profession was seen as par for the course. No one derides accountants, or doctors, or financiers for getting paid for their work. Why is an artist less of an artist for trying to make a couple of dollars?
Jack White did something really cool years ago for Coca-Cola. To the best of my knowledge, he was approached by the corporation and was asked if they could use one of his massively popular songs for their product. Mr. White demurred but offered to write an original. “Love is the Truth” was the result. I think it one of the best five Jack White songs. The point is, there is nothing wrong with profiting off music, provided cash is not the only reason for the effort.
6. To help a small child sleep
This one may sound strange, but please hear me out. I’m not a parent, yet like everyone else, I hear and see children screaming bloody-murder and completely unable to sleep. In 2020 it is a massive, but forever a very worthwhile inconvenience. Millenia ago, it was a safety risk. We currently have a lot of movies and TV shows that depict the science-fictional Earth of the future. It is filled with zombies that will pounce upon any sound that grabs their attention. A shrieking child is one of the most startling and attention-grabbing sounds. I give the writers credit for their zombie apocalypse stories, but a long time back, before the fictional brain-eaters, there were animals that would gladly make a meal of a human tribe.
Don’t shake a baby, but do sing to her or him. It doesn’t always work, but usually it does. Examining the concept of memory, it is a very rare occurrence that people have thoughts that they can clearly recall earlier than the age of three. I think there is a reason for this. It’s best for children to forget the absolute insanity of being pushed out of another human being into a world that is completely incomprehensible. Don’t blame them for losing their mind, just sing to them. Like reason number 3, you don’t have to be good at singing, just try-and then go and dance…wash, rinse, repeat.
To this day I remember my Grandmother singing to me when my brother and I were young. “Pony Boy,” “Jelly Roll Blues,” and especially “White Cliffs of Dover,” were the soundtrack for the few times our parents left us in the care of our Grandparents. Grandma was an incredible singer. So was my own mother. Years ago my mother asked where I learned to sing. I was dumbfounded. It was then that I learned that music, in contradiction to reason number 4, was also a way to forget. I didn’t have the heart, or the courage to tell her that the voice she hears is her voice, just stolen and projected through a Y chromosome.
7. Nothing else to do/idle hands
This is my catch-all. When there is nothing else to do, in the odd moments where time is truly free, it can be difficult to know what to do. Some people have such an excess of nervous energy that they could power a small rural town and have enough left over to clean their house, cook a meal and write The Great American Novel. A guitar, or any other instrument can be a wonderful remedy for this condition as it occupies that part of the mind that refuses to be still and quiet.
Continuing on to more noble aspirations, there are stretches when one looks around and decides that perhaps it is time for something new. Our culture implores these novelty seekers to open the computer and select from the many cheap and trite offerings from their favorite online retailer. Might I suggest that they fulfill their need for newness by creating from within, giving up immediate gratification and composing an original. It needn’t have the complexity of Mozart, or the power of Jay-Z, but just writing a brief vignette is far more rewarding than using the oh-so-cool, one click buy button on amazon.com. And when all else fails, just sharing a well-worn song with a friend can be revelatory in its own way. There’s no shortage of tunes that we all know and to which we can all sing along. Sitting around and sharing songs is among the most human experiences we have.
What does this have to do with the Grammys…? Read on in Part II.