Paynesville Press - March 30, 2005

Community Perspective

Things I Wonder About Music

By Linda Liestman

(Editor's Note: March is Music In Our Schools Month, and the Press - with help from the music faculty - featured perspectives on the importance of music this month.)

I have a curious mind. When not channeled into projects and problems, it becomes occupied with wondering about things I might want to research. As a modestly trained but active musician since age five, it is natural that some of my "wonderings" are about music.

I have wondered if the definition of music includes the terms "rhythm," "lyric," "melody," "tune," "pitch" and "harmony." And is the beat of a drum considered music if not accompanied by melody?

I had never looked the word up before, so I did, and Webster's says, "Music is an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and dynamics." Hmmm...I'll allow you to consider the answers.

I wonder if primitive man could sing before he could speak and use language. Did he learn to drum by listening to the woodpecker chipping at a tree? Did he try to imitate the songs of birds or the melodic howl of the wolf? I wonder if listening to this type of "music" finally helped man learn how to laugh and experience joy. And at what point did he pucker his lips to trill a whistle? We'll never know the answers, of course, but it's fun to speculate.

I wonder if people who are deaf from birth can hear music in their minds or feel its vibration in their bodies; or if someone who became deaf later in life can still hear music. I truly hope they can.

This sounds simplistic, but I have wondered at how such a diversity of music could be created from the variations of just seven notes. I am amazed that - by coordinating and combining these notes, varying their pitches and tones into flats and sharps, and by varying the speeds and abruptness at which the notes are played and held - such a colossal magnitude of music could be created.

I have wondered what phenomena is taking place when singing songs causes such marked mood elevations in people. A few minutes of singing can often turn a tired, depressed person into a happier, more optimistic one.

I have wondered if people who "cannot" sing or play a musical instrument could gain the same benefit from music as those who are gifted with good pitch appreciation and rhythm. I think everyone should be encouraged to make music without fear of how they sound, so they too can reap the benefits of musical performance. And might it be possible today, with aid of computers and audio, to reprogram a non-musical person to have skills of pitch, rhythm, and vocalization? Or is this just not possible?

Not being a pianist, I wonder at how splendid it would be to be accomplished at this instrument and to memorize many complex compositions. The purpose of this would be mostly for the ritual of placing my fingers on the ivory keys after a difficult day to play and become lost in each piece, a form of meditation and medication, moving seamlessly from one piece to the next. So that when I am finished I am satisfied, relieved of my stress, and refreshed.

I wonder what we as human beings would be like without music. Would we be as kind and civilized as we are? Would our complex thinking be as advanced? Frankly, I can't imagine a world without music, for it is a subtle and constant dynamic in our environment. We flip on a radio or TV, and there it is practically free for us to hear. In stores it subtly slows our shopping, and in restaurants music may complete an Italian, Greek, Chinese or other theme or mood.

Music is frequently in the background, but sometimes we experience a live performance that holds us spell-bound, making two hours seem like ten minutes. And then the performance is over, the music is gone, and we are left with a lovely "afterglow" memory. Music with a powerful beat makes us want to move in rhythm, to tap our foot, sway side to side, drum our fingers, and even making some want to rise up and dance on a table. It has the power to make us grin or move us to tears; to energize us and make us have courage to take action; but also to lull us asleep. Most often, music is about love given and love lost, love of the Creator, and love of one another, so they weren't kidding when someone sang, "Music is love, and love is music, if you know what I mean."

Movie soundtracks are especially fascinating, and I wonder if movies could be so impactful without it. Because of the music I may find myself gripping my chair anticipating grave danger or a suspenseful ending or preparing to laugh at something outrageously funny that has not yet been seen. How can simple musical notes so clearly underscore the swift side-to-side gliding movements of a sleek shark seeking its prey; transport us through the cool, misty blackness of outer space; impress us with the bursting of sunrise over a mountaintop; or make us feel like we too are riding a horse?

I wonder about the purposes and power of music, noting that anything I point out is but a scratch on the surface of a magnificent, complex institution. Rhythmic drum beats were used by primitive people to send important messages to other communities. Ancient tribal music was created from spiritual visions and carefully sung to implore a deity for simple needs of life like rain to grow crops or a good hunt to feed the people. Ballads and folk music have been a way to remember and pass down stories or to make fun of society and start a revolution.

Cowboy songs were originally sung to calm the cattle. Negro spirituals were sung by enslaved people to make their daily work and lives bearable and hopeful. Soldiers sang songs of cadence to help them march to war. Mothers sing lullabies to their babies to show their love for them and to lull them to sleep.

Music has been used for centuries to celebrate the important events of human life from cradle to grave. And today music in some forms is used as therapy for the comatose, to advance the development of a young brain, and to maintain and enhance the brains of the elderly.

Yet for all the things I wonder about music, there are some I don't wonder about. I am convinced of the following, that:

*Nearly anyone can listen to and make music. From this activity, one's life can be significantly enhanced through mood elevation and improved brain function, while playing a musical instrument can fine tune brain/hand-eye coordination.

*The true essence of a great musical performance is best captured (no, music can never truly be captured) when it is not analyzed too closely. It should be experienced, enjoyed, and absorbed with abandon, so it can perform its magical benefits on us.

*Singing in a choral group or playing in an instrumental group is one of the ultimate team participation "sports."

*While recordings are necessary and invaluable to music's continued enjoyment, nothing can compare to the electric atmosphere, sound, and action of live performance.

*In a world fraught with problems, music provides far more to society that is good than is bad. Music adds layers of extreme richness to the tapestries of our lives. As such, I believe music is one of the greatest of gifts given to us by the Creator.

*And last, but not least, the composing, directing, and performance of any type of music is almost always better when done by talented people who have musical training - THE MORE TRAINING, THE BETTER!

Liestman, among her musical interests, sings with the String O' Pearls.

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