Why we make music, The Grammys, and what it tells us about modern music in society. Part I
Why do we make music?
As visual creatures, I can easily surmise why we draw and paint, and it’s pretty simple to
understand the utility of writing. With the largest brains that we know of for at least a few
trillion miles, it’s not surprising that humans have taken these functions to a level
that only self-aware organisms can grasp. At a certain point, we call it art. The line between
utility and art is mercurial, varying widely through time and culture, and it is never
unanimously drawn. But if the art is the gloss, the beauty and the pinnacle, it is worthwhile to
try and examine its genesis, for thousands of years ago, homo sapiens had little time for
frivolous pursuits; the next meal was not guaranteed. Why did we spend time on music? What did
it do for us? What does our music tell us about ourselves today?
In an attempt to create an umbrella under which all of our music can fit, the best of my
abilities have found seven reasons (more honestly, six, with one last catch-all) for why we ache
for this medium.
1. Pure artistic merit
As already alluded, the purity of the artistic drive has flourished over the past couple
thousand years, and even more so in the last century. Far from us mere mortals, classical
musicians can attest to this and understand it. The amount of beauty that can be coaxed from
interlacing differing waves of pressure (that’s what sound is) is remarkable, and some people,
through innate gifts and unrelenting, almost obsessive practice have found ways to control and
move this natural phenomenon into shapes that cause our hair to stand on end, cause us to cry,
cause us to feel. Robert Johnson, Johann Sebastian Bach, Fela Kuti, Aretha Franklin, The
Beatles, Hendrix, Dylan, Annie Lennox...their music is its own reason. There are many others.
2. Expression of emotion
Adele is a wonderful expresser of sadness. Take away all of the lyrics; there is a palpable ache
in many of her songs. The key strokes on the piano have a little more colour when she’s the
player. At his pinnacle, Michael Jackson was a beacon of joy. Bob Marley told people that they
have value, that they are great, even if being Black wasn’t en vogue at the time of his
writings. There is a part of music that lets us scream to the ether. Emotion is a mammilian
trait and music is its voice.
Music can give rise to dance. If you’re looking to cut away three or four dates, it might be the
ultimate go-to move. I’d like to keep this monologue in the PG realm, so I will just leave it at
that. Some of us are way better at it than others, but no matter who you are, you can dance, and
music helps a lot.
4. To remember something/storytelling
Memorization was a part of my education, and I’m certain that I’m not alone in this experience.
For all of the new-age educational theories that say memorization is a waste of time, I say
phooey. Holding something in one’s mind is not a waste of time. It never was, and believe it or
not, it never will be—computers be damned. In this pursuit of remembrance there is a little
trick that is wildly effective. Music. Try and write out your favorite song without drifting
into singing. I’m guessing that you won’t be able to do it without an immense amount of mental
energy and copious use of the eraserhead. Yet somehow, on any given night, or even at this very
moment, there are thousands of people at concerts who are “magically” remembering every word
without even trying. When we need to remember something, we put a melody to it. The better the
melody, the better the chance of the message persisting and enduring.
Look no further than religion. In The Church, The Synagogue, The Mosque you will find people
singing together, reinforcing their deepest, most important beliefs, through song. Those in The
Church have gone to great lengths to stay relevant in our culture, so it’s not surprising to see
an electric guitar and a drum kit if you show up on Sunday morning. In the strictest of Islamic
cultures it is not permitted to use music for any other purpose than to spread the Word Of God.
In the haze of hubris, many of us in “The West” consider this to be an affront to Western
culture. Perhaps reconsidered, it might be better explained that there exists a belief that God,
and only God, should be allowed to wield this weapon. It is far too persuasive to be used by
average people to promote their agenda. Heaven forbid someone to use this asset in an attempt to
dismember sick and corrosive ideas like Jim Crow. A half hour of viewing archival footage of Dr.
King’s speeches will show that when he gets to the apex of his messages, he is actually singing.
His message will not be forgotten, and all it cost him was his life.
There exists a belief that artists should never “sell-out.” “Selling-out” has become a confusing
point as I’ve aged. In brief, I just don’t get it. I like playing guitar. I also like eating.
Why these two things can’t co-exist is beyond me. They certainly don’t appear to be mutually
exclusive. So, if an artist is craven enough to sell their art for means of sustenance, it
doesn’t make them less of an artist. Looking back through history, most artistic pursuits were
commissioned by religion, or a King, or a Queen, or an Emperor. It is only recently that
“selling-out” was a thing. For most of our history, trying to live off your profession was seen
as par for the course. No one derides accountants, or doctors, or financiers for getting paid
for their work. Why is an artist less of an artist for trying to make a couple of dollars?
Jack White did something really cool years ago for Coca-Cola. To the best of my knowledge, he
was approached by the corporation and was asked if they could use one of his massively popular
songs for their product. Mr. White demurred but offered to write an original. “Love is the
Truth” was the result. I think it one of the best five Jack White songs. The point is, there is
nothing wrong with profiting off music, provided cash is not the only reason for the effort.
6. To help a small child sleep
This one may sound strange, but please hear me out. I’m not a parent, yet like everyone else, I
hear and see children screaming bloody-murder and completely unable to sleep. In 2020 it is a
massive, but forever a very worthwhile inconvenience. Millenia ago, it was a safety risk. We
currently have a lot of movies and TV shows that depict the science-fictional Earth of the
future. It is filled with zombies that will pounce upon any sound that grabs their attention. A
shrieking child is one of the most startling and attention-grabbing sounds. I give the writers
credit for their zombie apocalypse stories, but a long time back, before the fictional
brain-eaters, there were animals that would gladly make a meal of a human tribe.
Don’t shake a baby, but do sing to her or him. It doesn’t always work, but usually it does.
Examining the concept of memory, it is a very rare occurrence that people have thoughts that
they can clearly recall earlier than the age of three. I think there is a reason for this. It’s
best for children to forget the absolute insanity of being pushed out of another human being
into a world that is completely incomprehensible. Don’t blame them for losing their mind, just
sing to them. Like reason number 3, you don’t have to be good at singing, just try—and then go
and dance...wash, rinse, repeat.
To this day I remember my Grandmother singing to me when my brother and I were young. “Pony
Boy,” “Jelly Roll Blues,” and especially “White Cliffs of Dover,” were the soundtrack for the
very few times our parents left us in the care of our Grandparents. Grandma was an incredible
singer. So was my own mother. Years ago my mother asked where I learned to sing. I was
dumbfounded. It was then that I learned that music, in contradiction to reason number 4, was
also a way to forget. I didn’t have the heart, or the courage to tell her that the voice she
hears is her voice, just stolen and projected through a Y chromosome.
7. Nothing else to do/idle hands
This is my catch-all. When there is nothing else to do, in the odd moments where time is truly
free, it can be difficult to know what to do. Some people have such an excess of nervous energy
that they could power a small rural town and have enough left over to clean their house, cook a
meal and write The Great American Novel. A guitar, or any other instrument can be a wonderful
remedy for this condition as it occupies that part of the mind that refuses to be still and
Continuing on to more noble aspirations, there are stretches when one looks around and decides
that perhaps it is time for something new. Our culture implores these novelty seekers to open
the computer and select from the many cheap and trite offerings from their favorite online
retailer. Might I suggest that they fulfill their need for newness by creating from within,
giving up immediate gratification and composing an original. It needn’t have the complexity of
Mozart, or the power of Jay-Z, but just writing a brief vignette is far more rewarding than
using the oh-so-cool, one click buy button on amazon.com. And when all else fails, just sharing
a well-worn song with a friend can be revelatory in its own way. There’s no shortage of tunes
that we all know and to which we can all sing along. Sitting around and sharing songs is among
the most human experiences we have.