A Day Without Music

One day. That’s all I ask. One day for us to recognize how much we’ve come to depend on and simultaneously disregard music. And to think about life without it.

One day without music in the doctor’s waiting room, the supermarket, the car repair shop. One day in silence while driving, while eating lunch at our favorite café, while having our hair cut. One day to live without a buffer against other people’s conversations, without music’s unique ability to suspend us in our own cocoon while noises of our increasingly crowded world batter us on all sides.

Think about television shows and movies without music to hype the suspense, give us auditory clues about what might happen next and what to feel about the images we see.

Like the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt, music has become so pervasive that we don’t even notice it anymore. Don’t notice, rarely appreciate, and generally don’t support in all the ways that are necessary for it to continue to be a viable art form.

Observers in the business world have warned us. Forbes published an article last year discussing how the music industry is putting itself out of business. Another commentary appears in a short documentary “that reveals the dramatic collapse of the music industry and the unintended consequences the internet revolution is having on creators of all kinds.” The warnings are out there.

Musicians don’t just pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and magically start producing music. As any parent determined for his/her children to learn piano can attest, years of hard work precede the success of most musicians—learning the names of the lines and spaces, the rhythm designated in key signatures and variously shaped notes, the harmonic requirements in melody and supporting cast of chords in certain sequence.

Aside from the basics of learning to read music, there’s the even more challenging work of learning to express music through voice or an instrument. Applying all ten fingers in opposing motion to a keyboard with 88 keys. The difficulty of reeds and mouthpieces. The fingering of certain saxophone keys to produce an “A” versus an “F”. Mastering intonation—is it sharp or is it flat? Singing for hours a day without destroying our vocal cords. Keeping a steady rhythm, something we depend on drummers to do with both hands and both feet at work.

Do we appreciate musicians? We think we do. We watch the Grammy’s. We listen to the results of their long labor. We might spend a few bucks for a CD, but more often we’re eager to download music for free. We might spend a few dollars for concert tickets, but really, how often do we attend concerts?

Not so long ago, we might have routinely paid a modest sum to enter a club offering live music. Once inside the venerable establishment, we would have kicked back, welcomed a few friends around the table, and eagerly awaited that first slam of the snare, the reverberation of a guitar. Music would flood the room, its driving rhythms and wild harmonics hitting us in the gut and transporting us to a place outside of time.

Now clubs mostly don’t pay bands to play. They say patrons don’t want to bother with a cover charge, don’t expect to hang around for long. Patrons are about their phones, texts from friends who want to meet somewhere else. They’re not invested in a band or a place. Anyway, they can get music free whenever they want.

Where do they expect that music to come from? Bands don’t form out of thin air and suddenly play a big hit. Bands need instruments and they’re not cheap. Bands need places to practice which usually involves paying rent for rehearsal space. Bands need venues where they can offer their performance, feel the audience’s response, and go back to the practice room with a better idea of how to do better. Any climb up the charts is a path of trial and error—better bass lines, a more unique guitar riff, more compelling lyrics. Even touring to build audience rarely pays for itself. Hauling a trailer full of gear and finding a place to sleep for two or three months on the road is a towering success if it breaks even.

These are musicians at work, learning how to express an intangible idea, a heartfelt emotion, how to draw audiences into a new vision. They are participating in an art form older than history, universal among all races and cultures, key to exploring the mysteries of creation.

My concern is not just about popular music. Much of what we hear in movie soundtracks and even in television commercials is ‘serious’ music. Like, violins and trombones and percussion. Symphonies are slowly disappearing from our communities. College music departments continue to shrink. If we just removed ‘serious’ musicians from our daily diet of music, big gaps would open up in our need for constant sound.

Do we need constant sound? What is so terrible about pushing a grocery cart down a store aisle without music in the background? Would it wreck our day if we jogged without earbuds? If we drove to work in silence?

Is it fear of overhearing other people talking? Is it really that we need to be constantly entertained in ways we only dimly acknowledge, if at all?

Is it the need to stamp out the ongoing dialogue with our inner self, to block our feelings, to ignore the warnings and expressions of our subconscious?

How did we migrate from worshipful attention to musical performance  to this ho-hum disregard?

Why do we need music?

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein

“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” ― Leo Tolstoy

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” ― Maya Angelou

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” ― Aldous Huxley

“Where words fail, music speaks.” ― Hans Christian Andersen

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” ― Arthur O’Shaughnessy

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” ― Confucius

If you ask someone what music does for them or why they like music, no doubt you’d hear responses like some of these cited above. Yet how does that appreciation manifest today? Audiences talk through performances. Amplified music aids and abets this disregard by blasting out sound louder than the crowd murmurs. The routine background music in elevators, stores, cars, and every other possible venue leads us to assume that we’ll always have a soundtrack for our lives.

We take music for granted. We pay little attention to the very real struggle of musicians. We expect to flip a knob or press a key and have instant, free music. We have no idea how our lives would be different if we didn’t have music.

So let’s turn it off. One day without music. Let the silence echo through.

Then let’s pay attention to what we need to do to ensure that music regains its respected and vital role in our society.  Let’s have more silence instead of constant soundtracks so that when music appears, we pay attention. Let’s make sure our children learn music in school even if we have to sacrifice part of the athletic budget. Let’s patronize clubs that host fledgling bands and welcome the opportunity to pay a modest cover charge. Let’s attend local band and symphony concerts and donate to their organizations. Let’s be willing to pay more for our Pandora or other streaming services and discourage our family and friends from free downloads.

Otherwise, we might wake up one day and find there’s no music to be heard.


Writing About Music


Writing music.

In words.

Is simply not possible.

I tried. In my first published book, Notes of a Piano Tuner, I wanted desperately to convey the thrill of hearing a certain piece of music played on a freshly tuned piano. Everything about that time and place added to the intensity of those few bars—an old wooden church house twenty miles out a dirt road in the Arkansas Ozarks, an old upright piano that had somehow survived a century of use to remain remarkably musical, and a rainy late spring afternoon. As the storm front moved on to the east, a green cast permeated the outside air. A wasp buzzed against the nearby window, one of those tall narrow windows with watery glass common in old churches where they needed the light but didn’t want congregants distracted by whatever went on outside.

Moist air carries sound waves better than dry air. The combination of moist air, the resonance of the old church, the magical ancient piano, and the harmonies of that particular music transcended anything I could say with words. The waves rolled up from the soundboard, bounced off the high church ceiling, and resonated through my chest like a physical force.

Well, it was a physical force.

My hair stood up. I got goosebumps.

There’s something about fourths and fifths that does it for me. And old hymns, which make full use of fourths and fifths. Simple, basic harmonies.

An acoustic physicist could probably explain it. The mathematics of tuning never quite penetrated my skull. My dad taught me to tune by ear. I didn’t want or need to understand that when a string produced a fundamental pitch, say the note ‘A,’ it also formed partials. Partials were, predictably, partial vibrations of the string which produce other pitches. So for the note ‘A’ vibrating along a single string, the partials also vibrated in tones of fourths, fifths, other octaves and so forth up into an entire overtone series.

For more than you ever wanted  to know about overtones, check out this article.

Complicated stuff and mostly irrelevant to a tuner who works by ear. My dad, I, and now my son understand these things internally.

To the point, the strings on the old upright in that church still created perfect overtones. As those chords rolled from my fingers, the overtones blended with the fundamental notes I played to create such a rich experience that I actually got tears in my eyes.

I wanted to share that. When I wrote that story, I tried to think of how to convey my experience. I considered writing the actual music on the page, but unless someone knew how to read music, that notation would mean nothing. I blathered on about feeling the effects of the music but that alone wouldn’t make someone’s hair stand up.

I ended up writing the words that accompany that particular sequence of music thinking that if someone heard the words, they would hear the music.

Well, maybe some did. But unfortunately, most readers evidently took the meaning of the words as the message I wanted to convey and never heard the music at all.

Wrong. Not even close. I didn’t want the message of the words to have anything to do with my story. The message of the words wasn’t my message. In fact, they were about as far from my intent as they could possibly be.

The words were “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” etc. I wrote the entire first verse, because those were the notes, the harmonies, the chords and overtones of my experience.

As a result, a lot of readers of my book assumed that I had been ‘saved.’ That my awestruck experience resulting from that loaded afternoon had to do with finding God, getting religion, and all the rest of that stuff.

I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. Not what I meant at all.

And it strikes me now that religion is a lot like that, all about the words without hearing the music.