Spending time in a school of music you become quite cynical. At Western Michigan University, it was no different. You start to look down upon the lowly “musicians” who don’t read notation or understand basic chordal theory. You begin to judge things in terms of “serious” music and “non-serious” music. Then comes the condescension towards the “top 40” and the church music and the folk music and pretty much any music not created in some sort of academic setting. Being a part of the jazz department, I remember feeling stupid if I did not spend my free time listening to Kurt Rosenwinkel or Chick Corea… and in my non-jazz studies, it was as if music that wasn’t atonal or using some sort of jarring sound or other expressionistic technique was inferior.
On the other side of this spectrum, you have the completely untrained ear. To the untrained ear, the music of Berg sounds like random notes that any 5-year old could play on the piano. To the untrained ear, jazz sounds like you can just play any note you want and then – you have made jazz! However, play them John Legends “All of Me” and they will be moved to tears. Hit those first 5 chords from Pharrell’s “Happy” and they are already on the dance floor.
I once got to sit in on a Q and A time with the great Lyle Mays when he visited Kalamazoo. Mr. Mays is the pianist and co-songwriter for The Pat Metheny Group. In this Q and A, our professors were leading the charge of fawning over Lyle’s creativity and schmoozing him up. At one point, one of the professors asked, “How does it make you feel that a 3-chord-band from Seattle can get all this attention, while serious artists like you are ignored?” Mr. Mays responded in what seemed like a sort of rebuke.
He said, “It’s not fair to look down on that band from Seattle. They are probably just as serious about their music as I am. I may have a different vocabulary, but they could be saying what they have to say with their music in the most serious way they can.”
Lyle changed my life that day.
There are so many people creating music out there… and just because you don’t understand it or don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not music. It also doesn’t mean you are “wrong” for liking the music you like. Our society currently is living in a constant state of polarization. You either agree or disagree. You are either right or wrong. You are either liberal or conservative. And amidst all this disagreement, we have social media giving everyone an outlet for their opinion. In theory, this is a great thing (Freedom of Speech! America!). However, we now have a pseudo-anonymous way to publish our opinions as fact, to bash, ridicule, and humiliate all those who disagree, and to both tell and believe lies without a productive way to sift to the truth.
Don’t let music into this polarized system. Celebrate music. Music can be used to express the inexpressible. To bring poetry to sonic life. It can make you jump and dance, and it can make you sit and listen. It can be an expression of anger or frustration. It can bring light to a social issue. It can bring people together, and it can tear people apart. Music might cause you to close your eyes or perhaps open them for the first time. It can stimulate you into action or it can make you rest. It can be a spiritual experience or it can encourage sensuality.
Don’t ostracize someone for their taste in music. If you don’t like the music, then don’t listen. Lady Gaga and Slipknot are making extremely different music. Is one bad? Benny Goodman’s writing is very different from Flo Rida… is one better than the other? You may think so, but again, that is your tastes! That is you reacting to them based on your own experiences, biases, and purposes. My very first song-writing forays and recording projects were just awful by my standards now. I had maybe a 2 to 3 chord vocabulary and no sense of rhythm on my instrument. But without the encouragement of my fellow musicians, I would have probably given up. We are all trying to use a variety of artistic techniques to create and express something. Encourage each other. Challenge your tastes. And be content with liking what you like and disliking what you don’t.
Gordon Van Gent // Creative Director of Sounds