Almost everyone I know says music plays a big role in their lives. Yet, just because we turn on the radio, or a streaming service, or even attend a live performance, how much of the time are we actually listening to the music?
Don’t you feel it growin’ day by day,
people gettin’ ready for the news.
Some are happy, some are sad;
You got to let the music play.
What the people need is a way to make them smile,
It ain’t so hard to do if you know how.
Gotta get a message, get it on through,
Now mama’s going to after ‘while.
I was eleven years old. I had no idea what a “doobie” might be (yet). I thought the band was actually composed of real brothers. I was totally naive and sheltered regarding pretty much everything in the world. I would muddle through the words above, but when the song hit the chorus, I and everyone I knew would belt it out:
Ohhhh, oh, listen to the music!
Ohhhh, oh, listen to the music!
Ohhhh, oh, listen to the music
All the time!
The song resonated with a popular sentiment of the time (1972) that if we would just listen to the music, if we would pay attention to what the words of the songs were saying, that peace and harmony and love would be the naturally occurring result. If people would just pay attention, there couldn’t be any other outcome.
Doobie Bros. lead singer Tom Johnston, who wrote the song, is quoted as saying:
“The chord structure of it made me think of something positive, so the lyrics that came out of that were based on this utopian idea that if the leaders of the world got together on some grassy hill somewhere and either smoked enough dope or just sat down and just listened to the music and forgot about all this other bullshit, the world would be a much better place. It was very utopian and very unrealistic (laughs). It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
[ Frank Mastropolo (November 29, 2012). “Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston Reflects on ‘Listen to the Music’ at 40”]
While the concept might have been utopian (wasn’t everyone rather utopian back then?), it carried along a popular sentiment that music was the ultimate solution to the world’s problems. The Cold War was in full effect. President Nixon was visiting China on one hand but dealing with an election followed by the Watergate scandal on the other. Airline hijackings were becoming a far-too-regular occurrence. Then, there was still that ugly Vietnam matter. With all that chaos, we desperately longed for a touch of Utopia. Certainly, if we’d just listen to the music everything would be okay.
It would be some eight years later, sitting in a painfully early 8:00 AM freshman music theory class, that I would learn what it really means to “listen to the music.” More than just melody and chords and words that rhyme, I discovered that music has structure; a structure that, much like anything else in the world, works well when followed and results in chaos when its not.
I also discovered that sometimes what sounds like chaos is actually the first step forward into something exciting.
Music inherently comes with stories, many of them not quite true. One of my favorites is that when Igor Stravinsky first premiered his Firebird Suite in 1910 an audience member was so agitated by the rhythmic pounding of the music that he started beating on the bald head of the man in front of him, ultimately starting a riot. Now, that story is totally apocryphal and unsubstantiated. But Firebird was so dramatically different from anything else of the time that it was often referred to as chaos.
More recently, I remember sitting in a high school English class listening to a classmate give a speech about this “new” thing called “rap.” Her conclusion: it’s too chaotic and lacking in substance; a fad that will pass before we’re out of college.
Even now, while my personal preferences for comfortable listening fall within that range of songs that were popular during my teenage years (and you have to admit the 70s were a fantastic time to be a teenager), I find it important to at least attempt to not merely tolerate but actually listen to music that is popular and influential at the moment. Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk?” I’m there. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy?” Sure, especially if the kids are around to dance to it.
Not that I like everything, nor should I. Neither should you. Music reflects the most intimate parts of who we are, our emotions, our deepest thoughts, our philosophies on life and our relationships with the world. When I listen to the music on someone else’s playlist, I am finding out more about who they are than if we had been talking all night.
But the kicker is, you have to listen. It’s not enough to have the music on in the background, as though it were some sort of soundtrack to your life. Stop. Actually listen, not only to the words of a song, but how the music is constructed. Find the form (it really hasn’t changed that much over the last century). Observe the structure, the lines, the recapitulation (I rather enjoy using that word). What music says to and about us runs as deep and is as accurate as any medical or scientific study ever could be.
I was extremely pleased when we were recently riding in the car, having picked up the little ones from school, and for reasons I don’t immediately recall I started in with another popular song from the early 70s.
“I’d like to teach the word to sing, in perfect harmony,”
Much to my delight, Kat immediately picked up the next line, “I’d like to hold it in my arms and keep it company.”
From there, we continued:
I’d like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow-white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
A song of peace that echoes on
And never goes away
Lovely song, once again full of all that utopian lack of realism. Here’s the thing: that song, by Bill Backer, Roger Cook, and Roger Greenaway, started as a Coca-Cola jingle Backer wrote while he and Cook were stranded at the Shannon Airport in Ireland and was only adapted for popular music later.
Why? Because we were really thirsty for the music.
Listen. Listen to the music.