I was sitting with my fellow singers in our church choir, listening to our director rehearse his TEDx talk he would be delivering soon at the University of Arizona. He is a professor of music there. He and another person do a podcast called Lifetimes of Listening. He’s a musician. Music is a huge part of his life. The subject of his talk is how music makes you a better person.
Hearing him discuss his premise was interesting, but when he reached the part about music having a transformative effect on people, my ears perked up. I hadn’t really looked at music from that perspective. It struck me as an exciting possibility. I couldn’t help but examine my own experience for clues as to the truth of this view.
A Personal Search
I recall being in the family kitchen when I was about five, and the radio was blaring out Yellow Rose of Texas. It was a huge hit in 1955. The song didn’t make much of an impression on me, but it may be the first song that lodged in my memory banks permanently. There were other songs of that time getting airplay on our local radio station in farming country of Pennsylvania or on TV’s Hit Parade. Nothing grabbed me, though.
The first one which did came in 1958. I would have been in third grade, I think. It was Donna, sung by Ritchie Valens. It so happened I had a crush on a girl named Donna and the song hit the charts at the same time. I was injected with an early dose of puppy love and teen angst well ahead of puberty.
The next song to really touch me was Old Shep by Elvis Presley. It was about a boy and his faithful dog that eventually grew old and died. I seem to remember crying when I heard that tune.
In the early ’60s, the Four Seasons came out with Sherry. The Frankie Valli falsetto and the group’s harmonies with the strong back beat captured my imagination and any girl I met named Sherry after that was in a special, idyllic category.
These three songs stand out in my memory. They resonated with me deeply, or so it seemed in my early youth. Were they transformative for me? I have to believe they just struck a chord with me that was already waiting to be plucked. It wasn’t until the Beatles hit the scene with I Want to Hold Your Hand that any music transformed me in some way.
That song and many of their later hits sounded strange to me. They didn’t appeal to some nostalgic notion or even generate excitement on a form with which I was already familiar to capture my interest. Well, they did use rock n’ roll basics and themes I knew and enjoyed. However, they made it sound different, disagreeable really. I think it was a combination of more sophisticated chords and unique melodies that did it for me. Whatever it was, it caught my offended ear. With each listening, their songs took me along an unfamiliar path into a clearing where the sun filtered down with a fresh new light and sound took on a Bohemian effect I could come to understand only by opening myself.
I stood at a crossroad, where I could reject what I was hearing or embrace it. To reject it meant maintaining the status quo of a world where Elvis and Budweiser were kings and my hair froze in a crewcut. To embrace it would lead me to freedom of expression and an influx of new ideas with new ways of seeing the world. I took the latter fork and was transformed.
So, that was me. One example. To thoroughly explore this theory, we need to see what others have experienced. We need to consult the analyses of those who are more expert than me. Thus, we’ll carry this on in my next installment, soon to come.