October 06, 2004

Musical Imprinting

Via Mixolydian Mode, I found this essay at Outer Life relating the imposition of a parent's musical tastes upon the child. I had a very similar experience with imprinting, at least to the extent that my parents also fed me a steady diet of Neil Diamond, John Denver, and the Kingston Trio (and Chad Mitchell, Herb Alpert, the Smothers Brothers, and others) when I was a child. Says Outer Life:

"I inherited a musical legacy from my parents that I've spent most of my life trying, without success, to forget. . . .

"Along the way, my father threw in heaping helpings of Jesus Christ Superstar every year during the Lent/Easter season. That rock opera imprinted itself in my brain to such an extent that today, thirty years later, I can still sing every word of every song. Many's the time I wondered why -- why! -- we couldn't have played more wholesome fare like Bach's Mass in B Minor or Handel's Messiah, works I never heard until well into my adulthood. . . ."

Unlike Mr. Outer Life, I still honestly enjoy the music of my parents (especially Neil Diamond) as reminders of a happy childhood that included very cool road trips to Colorado and Canada. I guess I differ from him in that my parents also loved classical music, so I got the "wholesome fare" in addition to the lighter fare. (And believe me, I got lots of unwholesome fare, as my parents' broad tastes extended to - <retch> - country and western music).

As I've written before, throughout much of college I studied classical music (I was a performance major in Organ), so I think I have the "street cred" to be a music snob. But I've found life's a lot more fun if I drop the snobbery (except as to country music -- blecch).

To Mr. Outer Life, who felt embarrassed to admit that the first album he bought was Kiss Alive, I'm proud to admit mine was Moving Pictures by Rush. To be fair, though, I was pretty sheltered growing up and didn't have to buy my "first" album, which was Spirits Having Flown by the BeeGees. (Hey, nothing's wrong with learning to be an intelligent consumer of pop culture. And part of learning is making mistakes!)

But even with a "mistake" like the BeeGees or Kiss, the music can still have meaning. And one of my standards for "good" music is whether it is meaningful. Of course that's a very subjective standard. Can you develop an objective standard for whether music is "good?" You can argue objectively whether music is complex in composition (based on harmonic rhythm, counterpoint, orchestration, etc.) or difficult to perform (any Trio Sonata for Organ by Bach). Do those factors make music good? Or just difficult?

Certainly, complex music can be a sublime experience when properly performed. Yet a simple folk melody can evoke tears, too.

And I think those emotional responses are driven largely by the circumstances of the musical experience. One piece of music can become so intimately entwined with all of the other senses involved in an experience that its quality - or lack thereof - is distorted by those subjective factors.

Let's stay with the BeeGees as an example. You hear a clip of the BeeGees' "Too Much Heaven." What comes to your mind?

For me, it is a vivid memory of my friend Craig's garage in fifth grade. A dance party, with about three girls and three or four guys, lightly chaperoned by Craig's parents. The music was mostly disco (I only remember the theme from SWAT and the BeeGees). Craig had a disco ball and the garage was lit with red lights. That night, I experienced my first open-mouth kiss with a girl. The soundtrack to that kiss? "Too Much Heaven." Was it great music? I don't think it compares to anything by Bach. But it helped crystallize one memory that I'm sure will stick with me well into my senility someday. Your mileage may vary on this particular song, but I bet you can think of a similar one.

Examples? Comments? Please share.

Posted by JohnL at October 6, 2004 09:41 PM
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