Music is very important to me. I almost always listen to music. The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is turn on the stereo and I almost never go anywhere without my iPod. I love walking or traveling around in the city with my very own soundtrack. Sometimes I’ll even refrain from taking a call on my mobile just because I don’t want to break that very special magic of the sound mingling with my visual perceptions of what’s happening around me. At home it’s a bit different. There it’s more about filling the room. Without music there’s just this very uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, like a void that needs to be filled. But both situations share the aspect of creating a barrier between me and the outside world, a barrier that allows me to retreat into my own space, my own mind. That’s why I almost always listen to music when I write, it helps me focus, helps me enter that realm that I need to be in to be able to do it. It helps me construct my own bubble where I can create my own universe.
And I think that aspect of music has always been really important to me, the escapist element if you will. Music allows you to withdraw from the world, the same quality that books have, but in a more indirect way. A book will transport you into another world, you will be in that world and see all the details as they are described to you on the pages, but with music there’s also a very strong element of input from your own independent imagination. Even though the lyrics, and even the music itself, may be generating a certain landscape, you’re the one filling in all the details. And in that sense music can have a more direct impact, it hits you on a different level. There are records without which I probably wouldn’t have made it through certain periods in my life, records that provided me a space in which I could exist at times when the outside world wasn’t.
I’m not a musician and I actually don’t really know anything about music. I have a vague idea about chords and octaves and melodies and so on, as in I know they exist, but that’s pretty much it. So when someone says G-sharp all I really register is that fact that a name of a component in music was just named. I don’t know what G-sharp actually sounds like. My musical proficiency is limited solely to being able to distinguish the different sounds and potentially what instruments are generating them, but that’s pretty much it. I can sort of tell when someone is off-key, but I won’t really catch minor mistakes in a live performance. No, I’m not a musician but I love music.
This love for music has been with me since my childhood. I didn’t grow up in what you would call a musical family or even in an environment where music was very present. My parents didn’t own a stereo and the only music we really had in the house came from the radio. The person who introduced music in my life was my older brother and he in turn got his introduction from our older sister. If I remember correctly she gave him her old record player and in the beginning we would mostly listen to records with kids stories, but he also got his hands on hers and our mother’s old singles collections. I think this was what made him discover the concept of music, what caused him to sort of become aware this phenomena even existed. And as with all his discoveries he shared it with me. He always did this in a very unforgiving, yet at the same time very egalitarian, way. Being four years younger I was in a position of inferiority in pretty much every aspect, but I was curious by nature and a diligent student and therefore I was usually able to keep up with him in terms of sharing his discoveries. But this feeling of him knowing more than me about everything is something that, to some extent, has remained into adult life and in no area has that been truer than music.
My brother is no musician, he can’t play an instrument and I’m pretty sure that what I said about my own musical proficiency is equally true for him, but he is a music nerd. He knows all the trivia. And when I say trivia I’m not only talking about things like knowing what year an album came out and who produced it, but also the track listing, single release order, uncredited guest musicians, what countries the band toured with that particular album and if he saw one of those shows he’ll even know the exact set list. We are talking serious and total music nerd here. And since this is what knowing a lot about music meant to me growing up, that’s my point of reference, what I compare my own musical knowledge with. Needless to say I don’t really measure up. There are bands and musicians I know quite a lot about, I could probably do the whole discography of Einstürzende Neubauten with release years and get it pretty much correct, but in most cases, even with music I really love, I couldn’t even name all the people in the band if my life depended on it. One of the bands with the highest play count in my iTunes are Isis. I know how many people are in the band and what instruments they play and I know the singer’s name is Aaron, but that’s it. Needless to say my brother wouldn’t be very impressed at all.
My best friend is a music nerd too, but with the big difference that he’s actually a musician. Not only can he tell you tons of trivia about the bands and their records, not quite as nerdy as my brother though, but he can also tell you tons of trivia about the actual music. Me and my brother obviously know some stuff about the music too, for instance I know what particular objects generate a large portion of the sounds on the Neubaten records, but there’s no way in hell I can spot exactly what Stephen Carpenter is doing with his guitar in “Root”*. To me it’s just a sound generated by a guitar, that part I can obviously hear, but nothing else. I have no context in which to place it, no concepts to tie it to. In my perception it remains as “cool guitar sound”. But to my best friend there’s so much more in there. He can hear what the guy is actually doing. He has access to a context in which he can conceptualize the information given. Through his own musical practice and ensuing proficiency his perception has evolved. That’s the difference, he can hear it, I can’t.
I think this is true for most areas. Once you get involved in something your perception expands and it’s not only that you understand more the more you learn, but you are able to actually perceive more. Things that would elude you if you didn’t have this knowledge become clearly visible. I notice that when I talk to people about books. Things that will annoy the hell out of me will go by completely unnoticed by other people and when I talk to my best friend about music he’ll often make similar remarks. He’ll notice things that went by me completely and sometimes he’ll dismiss albums I like on grounds I don’t even grasp. The same way I’ll dismiss books that my friends like. I know “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is very exciting, but it’s so poorly written that it’s just painful to read. The characters are unconvincing, the dialog is forced and the language is just plain sloppy. And to me that stands in the way of the thrill of the plot. Especially the language. That’s like a massive 5 meter wall that prevents me from even getting to the plot. I suppose it’s the same type of experience my best friend would have when listening to a mediocre musician playing a good song.
My understanding of music has always been on a very emotional level, I know what it does to me and how it ties in with my mood, but I’ve never actually been able to decipher it beyond that. When I read a book, no matter how much I like it there will always be a part of my brain that’s completely engaged in analyzing the more technical aspects. I wouldn’t say this takes away from the pleasure, but it does up the requirements for what I consider to be a good book. In a way this is true for music too, because I do have a hard time liking something if the lyrics are stupid. But musically I’m not quite as picky. So I wonder how that would change if I actually knew something about music, how that would impact my musical preferences? With the books it’s been such a gradual process that I have a hard time even remembering what it was like to read before I started paying attention to the actual craftsmanship. Kind of similar to how it was when learning to read, I don’t really remember what it was like when the letters started to actually mean something. But when I was about 17 I started learning ancient Greek and I do remember what it was like when the greek letters all of a sudden became something that I could immediately recognize without having to actively think about it. Vividly so. It was literally like having a veil lifted from my eyes. I was sitting in the classroom looking at the text in front of me and all of a sudden I could read it without any effort at all. The letters made perfect sense and no interpretation was needed. A completely mind-blowing experience and I remember thinking that this is what it must have been like when I first learned how to read some ten years ago. So now I wonder if the same would be true for music. If I would have a similar experience when listening to music if actually know something about it, and I intend to find out. Expanding your perception, that’s what knowledge is really about isn’t it? And knowledge is what brings understanding, but in order to understand something you first have to be able to perceive it.
* From the album ‘Adrenaline’ by the Deftones.
More about the magic of music in this text.