Category Archives: Musicker’s Musings

Musicker’s Musing #8: Mark Twain and the Banjo

Musicker’s Musing #8: Mark Twain and the Banjo

A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t.”
Mark Twain

So, I guess Mark Twain didn’t enjoy the sound of banjos. Perhaps, living primarily as he did during the 1800s, Mr. Twain heard too many instruments of inferior quality and/or those which weren’t tuned properly. I, myself, enjoy the sound of the banjo. It’s hard to believe he could hear one of today’s maestros picking out melodies and still hate the sound. Yet, maybe there was just something about the sonic (twangy?) quality that affected his nervous system in an unsatisfactory way.

I’ve heard other people complain of bagpipes, clarinets, and electric guitars getting on their nerves. I don’t have any problems with the sounds coming out of those either (when in the hands/mouths of someone who knows what they’re doing).

There are a couple musical “voices” that do make me squirm a bit though. One is any of a variety of “chime-y” (dreamy?) voices chosen by some electric keyboard players. If one of these appear in a song, I feel a certain repulsion that trumps any of the quality sounds/efforts of the other musicians.

Another irksome sound for me is that of the human voice – usually a female’s – producing long vibrato pitches. I’m not sure why, but it pushes me to almost howl like a tortured dog. Yet, for other listeners it obviously brings enjoyment. Lest I come across as a misogynist, I will submit that there are several arena-filling rock bands I won’t listen to solely because of the male singer’s voice (usually bearing a nasally quality). It would bring some devilish satisfaction to name the names of these, but I’ll refrain from besmirching any of these individual singers, lest I rain on a sonic parade you happen to enjoy.

I am willing though to pick on the singers, as a whole, that I’ve heard in the genre of Death Metal. How they choose to use their particular “instrument” is just one I can’t stand to listen to for very long. It has nothing to do with how they’re expressing themselves or what they’re singing about – it’s just that the actual sonic quality they’re manifesting causes a kind of nervous reaction in me akin to that of a jackhammer or siren. Yet, one of my best students, whose musical taste frequently overlaps my own, really enjoys the sound of these singers. What is it that makes his and my particular ears hear a sound so differently?

I think sometimes there is a tendency to think there is free will involved in music taste. In the case of sound enjoyment/repulsion, I really don’t feel like there is. I feel I’d honestly like to like all the above mentioned sounds, it’s just something in the physiology of my ear won’t let me.

It is possible psychological factors could be at play here: for example, my aversion to certain keyboard sounds could be related to associations I make with the organ music I heard during some of the tedious and dreary masses I attended in my youth. Yet that answer doesn’t feel like a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon I’m describing here.

The Darwinist in me wants to hypothesize that the differences in our sound appreciation are more likely rooted in evolution – that perhaps it proved better for the survival of the species if individuals in the group were able to detect and/or react differently to a wide palette of sounds. But as I try to come up with reasonable examples to support this theory, any ideas feel like a stretch.

So I guess for now, I’ll just appreciate sound enjoyment/repulsion as yet another mystery of Music.

Note: For my next musing, I intend to take a completely different take on Mr. Twain’s quote.

Musicker’s Musing #7: Processing Little Black Dots

Musicker’s Musing #7: Processing Little Black Dots

It took many years before it dawned upon me what an astounding feat it is for someone to be able to read (and thus play) music. In this case I’m thinking specifically of standard music notation: you know, the little black dots (notes) spread across a grid (staff).

This musical system’s ability to convey information about how to recreate a particular song(s) truly is genius. I’m going to risk revealing a bias toward piano by using is as the example for this musing. All those little black dots (again, notes) on the page communicate to the pianist which of the eighty-eight keys is to be pressed; for how long; in combination with which other keys; and with what sense of rhythm. Certain extra notation marks can communicate how loudly or softly the keys are to be pressed and if any other special way of pressing the key (articulation) is suggested.

Many of those who spend time learning to decode these dots can eventually do so in micro-seconds, some tackling hundreds and hundreds of dots in a continuous flurry of motion. Their brains convert those dots into the actions of their ten fingers striking the required individual keys of the eighty-eight laid before them.

I suspect that if an experiment was carried out (with a composition of some length and difficulty) in which the black dots still represented their respective keys but no sound came out of the instrument, that most players would quickly tire of trying to complete the herculean task of pressing the right keys at the exact right time in the exact right sequence. The sound of the song with its rhythm and/or melodies and harmonies is – if not essential, at least extremely helpful – for the brain to complete the conversion process. Making sound is the reason for the endeavor after-all, but my point is that the sound/music itself is the oil that makes the machine, and these lightning fast connections, function correctly.

The musical notation system isn’t perfect by any means, for example: it’s a bit confounded by swing rhythm. Seems to me someone who had never heard music that swings before would have a difficult time recreating it just by looking at the notes and/or reading explanations of how to adjust striking those notes slightly to create the desired effect. Still, kudos to humanity for coming up with an ingenious system that allows us to share musical ideas, one person to another, in the now and across spans of time.

Musicker’s Musing #6: Musical Taste (Again)

Musing #6: Musical Taste (Again)

Think of your top ten favorite musical artists (or if you’d rather: your top ten favorite albums or songs). Do you think there’s another person you know whose list would exactly match yours? My guess is, probably not. How about someone you don’t know? There are about eight billion people on the planet. Surely there would be one who would agree with you 100%. Wouldn’t there have to be?


But what if you did your top twenty? Or top 100. I’d be willing to stake my whole career that there is not another person on the planet whose top 100 would match mine (no matter what order). And I don’t think my taste is particularly eccentric.

We could discuss it and come up with a myriad of answers as to why this might be, but I prefer to leave it as one more part of the great mystery that we call Music.

With the realization that we truly are alone with our unique musical tastes (in the sense that there is no exact carbon copy of that taste), I see no reason to scoff at, look down upon, or feel superiority over another’s taste in music.

Musicker’s Musing #5: Easy Does It

Musing #5: Easy Does It

In the late 1990s, I twice traveled to India. I plead guilty to having fallen under a spell somewhat akin to that which seemingly captured the Beatles and others of that generation: I wanted to get beyond/beneath the material world in a way that seemed impossible through the means presented to me in my own country. It seemed like one could transcend to a higher plane just by setting foot in India.

One evening in India, while visiting the holy city of Varanasi, I was wandering around the ghats next to the Ganges: a sacred place where innumerable souls had been cremated through the centuries; a place beyond my petty comprehension and to be respected more for that. What a shock I experienced when I stumbled across a young Westerner, about my age, strumming the guitar and singing to (what I presumed to be) an impromptu gathering of Indians. Why the shock? Because he was singing Lionel Richie’s “Easy” (ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh, I’m easy like Sunday morning…) For me this was sacrilege. Lionel Richie!? Here!? How dare he befoul this place with such tripe.

(I mean, he could have at least sung the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” or “Within Without You”.)

I stormed away in disgust.

How to explain what happened after that?

Over the coming years I grew to love that song – cheese and all. Not only did I grow to love the song, it became one of those rare and precious songs that helps me experience some of that transcendence I’d been seeking in India.

I’m not trying to say that that young man in India was a guru-wolf in sheep’s clothing, but some kind of alchemy occurred within me: the mix of the song, the memory, and my reaction to it has turned that cheese into gold.

There’s definitely a lesson there. How to define it? The best I can come up with is: remember to stay as “easy as Sunday morning”.

Musicker’s Musing #4: The Great Unifier

Musing #4: The Great Unifier

I read that during Soviet times, for their “Moment of Silence” on Victory Day (the day when the Soviets commemorated the end of the war we call WWII), they would broadcast a choral version of Träumerei by Schumann.

What, you might ask, is interesting about that?

Well, considering the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had just traded blow after merciless blow in what has to be considered one of the most brutal wars ever fought on the planet – the fact that after all that the Soviets would chose to sing a song composed by a German (Robert Schumann) on the holiday commemorating that war, I think helps demonstrate (among other things) that music really does have a mysterious and transcendent power.

Of course some music can be quite nationalistic and some even be used as a tool for spreading propaganda. Also, there certainly seems to be much folk music for which the appeal doesn’t reach particularly far outside the boundaries from that place where it was created. But some music does seem to transcend and defy being chained to any time, place, or people. Or to put it another way, I quote Sarah Dessen: Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.

From a less lofty position, I think of my own travels across the globe – my guitar as my sidekick. So many smiles, so much warmheartedness as the guitar was passed around and we played and sang for one another. Often we couldn’t understand the words of one another, but through the music we connected in what felt like a very meaningful way.

On this, Election Day, we’re all very aware of how divisive things have become. I’d like to believe there’s a song or two that could transcend the divisiveness. I’m not naive and idealistic enough to imagine a Kumbaya moment where we’re all singing together, arm-in-arm. But I feel fairly certain that if we of opposing views were all in a room together and listened to some neutral musicians play a song or two we liked in common, at the very minimum some of that edge of anger and distrust toward one another would be lessened. Seems like a place to start. If only that concert could be arranged…

Musicker’s Musing #3: Prehistoric Mozart

Musing #3: Prehistoric Mozart

If a caveman (or cavewoman) were to somehow magically come across an orchestra playing a symphony by Mozart, how might they react?

First-or-all, let’s take away the powdered wigs and extravagant apparel – in fact, let’s remove the musicians themselves. Those visuals would instigate their own impressions. Let’s imagine these cavemen just heard the music emanating from the sky. They’d hear it but would they hear it? Would they be enthralled? Edified? Perk up like plants in a scientific study or grunt and move away from the annoying sounds as if from a swarm of flies?

Fast forward to Mozart’s time. What if they were suddenly confronted by Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin or Metallica? (Playing at their most rocking and through their amps, of course.) Again, take away the visuals. Would Mozart & Co. shudder and run? Or might some start literally flipping their wigs with the first tentative headbanging motions in history? What would Mozart himself think of such sounds? Would his genius necessitate him to appreciate such alien music on its own terms?

What about music created 100 or more years from the present day? Sci-fi movies and stories try and present us with what that futuristic music might sound like, but I can’t help but feel that they haven’t got it right yet; that it’s going to be something that’s currently inconceivable to us. What if we could hear it now? Would many of us like it? Or is it likely to be as incomprehensible to us as Mozart to cavemen or hard rock to those in Mozart’s time?

Musicker’s Musing #2: Classically Trained

Musing #2: Classically Trained

(*note: for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going with the more generalized use of the term “classical music” as opposed to the specific era in music by that name.)

I’ve noticed an inclination among some musicians: they like to casually mention that they’ve been classically trained. I’m actually referring to musicians who don’t play classical music and who generally don’t seem to want to be associated with those who do (perhaps seeing those musicians as snobby, stiff, antiquated.)

Yet paradoxically, in the minds of these renegades of classical training, it would seem that to have been trained to play classically gives them a certain legitimacy. Almost a kind of “street cred” among fellow musicians, as if having been trained that way but having the good sense to turn from it makes them a little more special – a little more “in-the-know” about making quality music.

And maybe it does.

But in the declaration of their shunned training do I also detect the presence of ego? (*note 2: I fully realize trying to detect and eliminate one’s ego is akin to a dog chasing its tail, but here I go, circling and barking anyway…)

Yes, some ego is sure to be present wherever musicians gather, but from my experience, the more a fellow musician allows their ego to get involved, the less likely we are to meet in the music.

So, if you’ve been classically trained, great. If you haven’t, great. The question is: can you get outside (or inside) yourself enough to meet me (or anyone else) in the music?

Musicker’s Musing #1: Musical Taste

Musing #1: Taste

I found this quote:

“I believe that a person’s taste in music tells you a lot about them. In some cases, it tells you everything you need to know.”


My initial reaction is to agree. There are certain artists/albums/songs that have meant a lot to me. It seems whenever I find someone who shares a love for one of those particular works, I feel closer to that person – almost as if we’re part of some secret society.

Then there is some music that – for whatever reason – repels more than attracts me. I admit I have been guilty at times of losing interest in getting to know someone whom I’ve discovered is attracted to the kind music which leaves me cold.

Certainly musical taste is a Thing to be reckoned with, but as I’ve aged, I seem to have discovered there is great nuance here. For example, how many of us share the same musical taste with the closest people in our lives? We might overlap in places but there always seems to be some (if not great) divergence in taste.

I’ve been teaching music lessons for twenty years now and over that time students have made requests for songs they want to learn that are truly all over the musical spectrum. Not uncommonly a request has taken me into a part of the spectrum I didn’t really want to go. Perhaps as a survival technique, I made the decision long ago that I would push – not past, not through – but into the music that repelled me. I would enter the music by learning to play it so that I might share the “way in” with the student who was looking for an entrance. I want to share with them what I’ve discovered: there’s something immensely satisfying about playing a favorite song – crudely or not – with one’s own hands.

And after all these years of entering music that I normally would have stayed clear from, has my musical taste changed? Become more encompassing?

Maybe a little, but truthfully, not so much…

But have I become less judgmental of people and their musical tastes? Yes, I think I actually have. Some say you should try to “see through the other person’s eyes” or “walk around in their shoes”. I think “hearing music with another person’s ears” has been a great empathetic tool for me.