With 1,200 CDs in my collection, it’s probably an understatement to say I have a broad taste in music. Yes, I do have concentrations of genres and time periods, but I can wander pretty far away from center. And because of that, I feel sorry for people who are stuck on the same band or the same type of music, or who only know things that are on the radio.
Some music is challenging to me, that which I call avant-garde. The Residents fall into this group, because I typically hear their music as a bunch of noise, or as music constructed so simplistically I can’t take it seriously. And because of that difficultly to connect with the music, I consider that music to be heavy – even if they’re playing three notes over and over on a toy piano. I say it’s heavy because it takes effort to listen to it.
I also have a liking for death metal. but not all death metal. Death is one of my favorites because I find the whole thing hilarious. Like there’s no way you can take the idea of someone vomiting up their own internal organs seriously. It’s the audio equivalent of watching a horror movie. But then there’s Sepultura, which is a Brazilian death metal band. English isn’t their primary language, but they try. And when I hear the broken English about the topics they write about, I just get the feeling they mean it a little more, because after all, they did try and translate it. And that bugs me.
But then on the other end of the scale, I do like Indigo Girls. But Indigo Girls, to me, is heavy, too. I suppose you’re probably thinking: your evaluation of music is so fucked up. But hear me out. Indigo Girls isn’t heavy music, it’s heavy lyrics. And I don’t mean heavy as in they make you go, “Whoa, man, that’s deep.” (Yes will do that well enough, thank you.) I mean that their lyrics are SO weighted with metaphor it becomes unbearable to listen to for a long time. I mean, I can handle a few metaphors in a song, but when you have to squeeze one in every verse, or god forbid, every stanza, well, it’s gonna wear me down.
Indigo Girls is nothing like Sammy Hagar, who I don’t think would ever get kudos for being a deep lyricist. That’s not entirely fair, because there’s some of Hagar’s stuff that actually has some potential emotion in it. But I consider his lyrics to be light and breezy. Don’t think about them too much and just go with the vibe – usually partying and sex. It doesn’t take a large vocabulary to express that stuff.
I was once talking with a woman about music and she told me that words were everything to her. Well, that was kind of a problem because I really like instrumental music. She was really, really into 38 Special, which isn’t bad, but it’s pretty light on both music and lyrics. And there’s definitely a place for it. I like 38 Special when driving because I don’t have to think much about it.
But my point was going to be that words themselves aren’t “everything” to me. A lot of times, I can listen to a song for years and never know the lyrics. I’ll know the important ones, but I may miss out on whole concepts in the verses. I recall one time, I looked up the lyrics for a song I loved and the story wasn’t anything like I thought it was. It ruined the song for me.
Because of my non-reliance on the lyrics, I shouldn’t really have a problem with foreign music, and in many cases I don’t. I have some German punk rock and you can probably guess, you don’t need to know what they’re saying. It’s just aggression from start to end. And that works for the song.
I suspect for some people, the thresholds of light and heavy, whether musically or lyrically are much lower, so their breadth of music consumption is more limited. On rare occasions, I daydream about being a teacher in school teaching Music Appreciation. My experience in high school for Music Appreciation class was kind of a joke. It was people bringing in tapes of songs they like, we all listen to it, then the teacher makes some commentary on it. One time, we were listening to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer”. We all knew the song well enough since it was playing everywhere at the time, and just when the chorus changed key, the teacher jumped up and stopped the tape. “You hear that! That’s a key modulation and it’s used to generate more excitement in the song.” Yeah thanks, you just killed the excitement we all just got from the key modulation. Me, being one of the few musicians in the class, did the outrageous. I brought in Rush’s La Villa Strangiato and drew out all the themes on the blackboard and pointed out how the themes entered and reprised throughout the nine minute song.
My approach to music appreciation would literally be a class on how to listen to music. Start with rhythm – learn how to count a beat, learn odd time signatures. Learn how songs are structured, so you can say things like, intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and coda with confidence. Learn about instrumentation, so you understand the application of sparse arrangement and dense arrangement. Probably some other stuff as well (like minor/major keys), but after the foundations are laid, then start with genres, and break the songs down based on past lessons. That’s how music appreciation should be, teaching you how to appreciate a wide variety of music.