You’re Thinking About Music All Wrong

When I was young I spent hours arguing about music. Which band was best live, who wrote the sharpest hooks, who was the best drummer? I remember once shouting at a friend who insisted that Perry Farrell’s vocal didn’t have any echo effects in the song Stop, but that “he just sounds like that.” 

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Over the years as I established myself in music, these conversations shifted. My friends – now teachers, lawyers, and real estate agents – made self-conscious noises about their lack of musical expertise. They asked what kind of guitar they should buy their children, and what I thought about Taylor Swift. I was less certain now, too, and would say that I didn’t think my opinions were any more valid than theirs. There is just what you like, and what you don’t. A sommelier may know the minutiae of terroir and vintage, but the fundamental question remains, do you like the wine? So, too, with music: I can tell you why I think Taylor is one of the great artists of the century, but at heart, you either like her music or you don’t.

Now, I think even this misses the point.

Increasingly I understand music – and all art – as a spiritual practice. Music is a means of expression, a way to offer others the comfort of our experience and suffering. Music is an act of communion, connecting artists and listeners with people that are open to their perspectives and identities. 

A natural corollary arises from this, one that has profound implications for appreciating other people’s work. If music is a spiritual practice, and if we understand music’s rightful and righteous purpose as simply offering comfort, then the burden of casting judgment on it is lifted from our shoulders. If a song doesn’t touch me, that only means it wasn’t for me. 

I can’t pretend I always think this way; the world pulls at me the way it pulls at everyone. But I consider this perspective an aspirational goal, like a chant or a prayer.

I was thinking about the role of art in our lives because the new episode of SongWriter includes a piece about backpacks. In the story, author and middle school teacher Mike Veve talks about the immense, intense-yet-absurd significance backpacks play in the lives of his students. Backpacks are constant and inconstant companions and the burden and bane of children and teachers everywhere.

But when I asked Mike what inspired the piece he told me he wrote it after seeing a photo of a backpack online. One of his former students had jumped in front of a subway train, and the report had included a picture of the child’s backpack abandoned on the platform. Mike told me that it was too painful to talk about his student’s death directly, but that he found comfort by reformulating his grief as an ecstatic, oblique tribute.

You can hear this piece, as well as a brand new song by Johnny Leitera of the band Tuff Sunshine in the new episode of SongWriter. Ben’s current single is Halfway Home,” and the next live SongWriter show will feature Odie Lindsey + Mary Gauthier.

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