Your “Intro to Philosophy” paper is due in 24 hours—so, you open a new Word document, grab an M&M cookie from Wiseys, plug your headphones into your ears and click the first “Paper Writing” or “Midterm Jams” playlist on Spotify. The gentle notes of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune” begin to reverberate through your headphones, and suddenly, your blank screen has words on it.
“My car, my music,” Dad declares as he turns the radio to Smooth Jazz on WSJT 94.1. Why anyone listens to these aimless jives and honking horns is beyond you. There are no words, no chorus, sometimes you don’t even know when the song begins or ends. Tip te te te tip te te te tip tip. “Is that the piano’s melody, now on the trombone?,” you wonder, “and man, the drummer is pretty good”Without your permission your foot catches the upbeat and a sneaky smile crawls unto your father’s face. “Do you hear that? That is John Coltrane.”
In a world of Ke$ha and Kayne and Korn, the prospect of symphonic music or Big Band seems unappealing. I mean, if there isn’t a synthesizer, a line of auto tune, or at the very least, a music video, should we millennials even care to listen to it?
But, we should care—in fact, we should really care. Classical composers and Jazz artists coined many if not all of the rhythms, chord progressions, and stylistic tools that are used in contemporary music—and no, not just because they existed first. The reason that we love when the bass drops in the middle of a song is not because Skrillex told you to love it. Rhianna’s Umbrella was not the first time that repetition and echoing hit the stage-age-age-age. These musical effects were all developed by the masters of music and have merely been reimagined by modern artists.
There is just something truly essential about Classical and Jazz music. The lack of words is just the beginning. A ballad can move an open listener to tears; a minuet can spark a hop in a mourner’s step; a 32-Bar can find the inner musician in anyone. Music’s emotive powers are amplified when it does not tell you what to think or feel, but when you have no choice other than to feel it.
The force behind these genres stems from the connection that we make with the notes and tones given to us. This force, though particular to each song, also presents themes that transcend music. Learning to pick up on the conversation between a trumpet and a trombone can reveal the unique way that each instrument projects its own voice, in the same way that we learn to recognize nuance and perspective in literature, journalism, and real life conversations. With every key, time signature, and style, we are transported to a new space with different emotions to digest and lessons to acquire.
And thanks to the Lady Gagas and 2 Chainz’ of the world, we have a variety of music that our Classical forebearers could never have dreamed up. As it happens, the desire to break the mold and take risks predates even the exhibitionism of Madonna or Michael Jackson. But underneath all of the flashing lights and even flashier costumes, it is important to remember the music. To remember the notes and rhythms and beats that undergird the words. Before the downbeat of the next song you listen to, try to imagine what the music would say to you if the words weren’t there. You might be angry or melancholy or bored, but this is the beauty of classical and jazz music—you are allowed to experience the music before you hear it.
Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr and Pam Shu/The Georgetown Voice