By Jack Sharkey
A song is purely and simply emotion performed and saved so it can be shared with other people. It may have an agenda, but generally the songs we connect with the most are the songs we interpret for our own lives and circumstance. This is why music matters to us in ways we don’t even consider.
To research this piece I tried to read some scholarly articles about what music is and why it's so important, but no one seemed to be able to answer my two basic questions with anything other than a lot of scholarly bloviating. Big opinions about music get boring real fast.
So, I turned inside and took a look at my own personal relationship with music. I started with how I listen to music. I listen three ways, and like most of you, two of those ways are common to almost everyone – in the car or multitasking as a soothing background to make a dull task go faster, a difficult task to go easier or a fun task even more fun. I listen socially in a concert hall or around a table playing games or eating a meal with friends and family, and then there is the near-daily escape I take where I simply listen. Whatever the mood strikes in me is what I listen to, maybe for thirty minutes maybe for three hours, I simply listen and enjoy the Zen-like existence of being emotionally connected to myself and my music.
Which brought me to why I listen. I am a technologist and I love the sound of music but that’s a happy coincidence with my first love – which is the song itself. Technology without the sheer joy of a song is a boring exercise that misses the whole point. There are songs that have been with me my entire life and songs I was only introduced to last week and they all have a particular place in my world. I listen simply because I am human, and music says things that nothing else says, and it says it directly to me about me.
Music is a very selfish thing in that way. I can be in a theater with 3,000 other people and be the only person experiencing what I am experiencing. Or I can be in my listening room by myself and feel like I am connected with 3,000 other people who think and feel the same way I do. There is no other thing in our lives with that power.
I have a lot of vinyl and some of it dating to my grammar school days. I have about twice as many CDs that cover the twenty-five years from 1987 to 2012, including all of those vinyl albums I replaced for no good reason other than that’s what we all thought we were supposed to do back in the day. I also have a NAS server with maybe 15,000 songs on it, and of course I have TIDAL and Spotify. I love the variety, but I still find myself listening to a core group of artists and songs with forays into other styles and artists when I get bored, adventurous or when someone hips me to something new.
We literally live in the first time in all of recorded human history where we have access to every song ever recorded. Talk about suffering from over-choice.
For my physical collections I have alphabetized every artist and every album or CD by each of those artists is organized chronologically by original release date. My wife finds this quirky hobby amusing. In her words she would have just "put them all on a shelf." This is coming from a person who has an alphabetized spice rack and keeps the knives and forks organized by purpose. But, you know, c’est la vie.
Which illustrates that there really is no universal definition for what is important. I don’t care how the spices are organized and she doesn’t care where the Afro-Celt Sound System CDs are. Things that are personally important to us are important to us for whatever reason we have, and the opinions of others don’t (and shouldn't) matter. Maybe there isn’t one single answer as to why music is important, or even what music is – maybe there as many answers as there are people, and we should be okay with that.
I worry myself sometimes that I could have discovered a new planet or a cure for chronic obtusity if I didn’t have my head filled with such minutiae, but I pretty much remember where and when I obtained each LP and CD I own: as a gift and from whom, or from what store, who I was with, etc. The thousands of songs on my old iTunes account? Not so much. They’re just ones and zeros I have no connection to. They’re just a commodity; not a part of my life. Since I discovered the joy of high-resolution downloads played through a high-quality streaming device that has changed – somewhat, but my digital files are still no match for my physical collection.
During our last move and subsequent album resorting, I did find a few LPs of unknown origin that I asked Mrs. Organized-Spoons-And-Spices about. One in particular was a Village People EP that I was about to make fun of her until she told me where it came from: “My parents won it at the boardwalk and they were so excited to bring it home for us we didn’t have the heart to tell them how uncool it was.”
This happened when my wife was like fourteen of fifteen. Her dad is no longer with us and her mom is ill so suddenly this silly little Village People record represents something enormously important.
On a regular basis, music matters in ways we don't even consider, and all of it is important – even (or especially) that Village People EP. Or the Deep Purple Made In Japan double-set my brother bought for me from his friend who owned a record shop (the ultimate in total coolness). It’s so scratched and worn-out it’s not playable anymore but it’s a sacred remembrance. He’s gone now too, and I don’t really dig on Deep Purple as much as I did when I was fourteen, but I have something tangible and that’s worth more than anything else I can think of. And whenever I hear those missed chords at the beginning of Smoke On the Water I am transported back to a magical time in my life when music truly was the only thing that mattered.
Music is far too important to be relegated to a Personal Digital Assistant or minuscule Bluetooth speaker simply because it’s convenient!
There’s a massive information war going on within the music industry right now about what people want and what they don’t. I have read dozens of articles by really smart writer-type people in some really respectable publications who all say that while music itself does indeed matter, the way it sounds doesn’t. We live in a time of the greatest music technology ever in history and we’re supposed to believe no one cares how their music sounds? It’s just an absurd thing to say. It makes no sense at all. It's kind of like saying, sure, food matters, but how it tastes doesn't.
In the last two decades we have been witness to the greatest technological advancement tsunami in history. But the amazing thing about all periods of major advancement are the things that get left behind. Remember how important your first iPod was? When’s the last time you even saw the thing? Think back to how Napster sounded when you first started “sharing” music and now think about how good Spotify sounds in comparison. And Spotify is merely a reasonable replacement for music on an AM radio. It gets the point across but there’s so much more going on beneath the surface that we don’t hear when our gear doesn't match the importance of the song.
The same thing will happen to a majority of the tech things that are must-have’s right now. There are few things that actually latch onto our daily live and last behind a few years or so. The CD revolutionized music but the format was king of the hill for maybe twenty-five years. The recent revival notwithstanding, the vinyl LP lasted roughly fifty. But the thing that remains is the music and our desire to hear and feel it as deeply as possible.
So there you have it – my opinion that popular technology is only popular because we are told its popular, but what is human remains important long after the creators have passed on. The same can be said for the opinion that how music sounds doesn’t really matter anymore – of course it does! Music listened to on as a good a system as you can afford is a quality experience that has meaning. Meaning that will stay with you your entire life. Convenience has always been the biggest enemy of experience, and that holds true more than ever for our music.
By all means, buy what you can afford and listen to what you want to listen to but don’t be lulled into thinking the quality of the sound you put into your ears and head doesn’t matter. A Quarter Pounder with cheese is a cheeseburger just like a Kobe beef burger with a slice of Caciocavallo Podolico is a cheeseburger, it's just that there are some subtle differences between the two when it comes to experience.
Music is meaningful and matters in so many ways that are important – if not essential – to the human experience.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of KEF or its associates.