Tuesday, April 17, 2012

There Is Music In My Soul Today

Music has infused my life from my earliest days. I remember singing a solo of Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam in German for a church program when I was four years old. I started singing with the church choir at age 14. I still sing with my church choir.

I was excited to start piano lessons at age seven. That excitement quickly wore off as the reality of daily practice set in. Somehow (i.e. much encouragement from Mom) I stuck with lessons for a decade and became somewhat accomplished at piano. I still play today, although, I now have two children that are much better pianists than me.

When I was 11 I started playing trumpet. I later picked up baritone. I still have and can play my big band era King Silvertone trumpet. My tone quality isn't great, but I can play. (At least until my lips tire and give out. Which is rapidly, because I don't maintain the muscle tone.)

I was given a cheap guitar for Christmas at age 13. I learned to play chords by looking at chord patterns in a John Denver book for piano. Years later I bought myself a nice 12-string guitar that I still have and occasionally play. But I've never had a guitar lesson and it shows. I'm pretty much a chord guy. I can't do fantastic finger riffs like my son.

I play a couple of other musical instruments, including a jaw harp and a harmonica. These are great for camping because they can be carried in a pocket.

Despite my music making, I'm not a great musician. I play and sing well enough for my own purposes. At some point I decided not to put in the kind of work it would require to take my talent to the next level. (Or maybe I'm just not that talented.)

My first cassette player came into my life at age 12. For a long time I had only two tapes: Fiddler on the Roof and a Partridge Family album. I also had a blank tape, which at first was used mostly for recording stupid noises. Eventually I started recording songs from the radio. I occasionally bought tapes until I had a small collection.

When I was in high school, 8-track tapes were all the rage. I used some of the earnings from my various jobs during these years to buy albums on 8-track tape. I became somewhat partial to the progressive rock genre. Although I rarely listen to this music any more, it is remarkable how deeply some of the songs I used to enjoy are embedded in my memory.

Music is a complex matter that philosophers find difficult to strictly define. It intertwines itself with emotions and thought processes to produce uniquely individual experiences. Composers have long known how to elicit specific emotions with music. Think, for example, about how intense music enhances scary scenes in movies, or how quickly you can tell that a piece is sad.

Still, music is also culturally specific—not just with respect to broad cultures, but even to small cultural niches. Some of my kids like a certain genre of music that I didn't even know existed until a few years ago. Aficionados of this genre enjoy its intricate complexities, while I find it usually less than pleasant to hear.

Music interacts with memory differently than other inputs because it stimulates portions of the brain that otherwise exhibit little activity. Music has been shown to improve memory in Alzheimer's patients, reduce depression and stress, and increase attentiveness. But it can also be used to distract. I suppose certain types of music can even negatively impact mental health.

I enjoy many types of music. But the music that I recall most easily and with which I have the greatest psychological connection is found in sacred hymns. This is probably due to continuous exposure to this genre throughout my life and due to the fact that some hymns are tied to personal spiritual experiences. I probably play hymns on the piano more than all other types of music combined.

Singing is common around our home. So is humming. What's really funny is when a family member gets upset with another for singing or humming, when they engage in this same activity all the time. It is not uncommon for family members to spontaneously join in when someone else is singing. This is particularly true of scout camp songs.

Each evening we gather as a family for prayer and scripture study. We always start our evening devotional with a hymn or children's religious song. Each week when we gather for family home evening, we not only open with a hymn, we also sing a practice hymn so we can become familiar with a broad variety of hymns.

To me, music is one of the great joys and marvels of this world. I am grateful for music and the role it plays in my life.

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