Saturday, 13 March 2010

Music - the universal language

I remember, aged about ten, hearing my father rail against the tuneless racket emanating from my teenage brother's bedroom. Personally I like Bob Dylan but I do have some sympathy for my father's point of view. The guitar playing is tuneful enough but the vocal style, like English ale, is an acquired taste. And Dylan's harmonica playing is worth a post of its own, if not a whole book.

People say we turn into our parents. At sixteen I would have dismissed that suggestion out of hand but as I get older I am at least reminded of my father by parallel situations. He had three sons, I have three daughters. He had Dylan, ELP and The Beatles coming out of three different rooms to create some kind of sonic porridge in the hall. He couldn't have identified any of the constituent parts of this din, partly because it was all too alien to him but mostly because he had no interest in learning our language(s).

Strangely enough, and disappointingly really, I find the music my children play highly accessible. (Maybe that's because girls use clothes, more than music, to explore and express their identities.) I followed developments in music reasonably closely into the early 90s and have maintained an interest in more esoteric sounds since then. The music my children play often sounds like an aural equivalent of a DIY pizza; the combinations occasionally surprise and delight but the ingredients are very familiar.

What reminds me of my father, however, is not recorded music from all quarters mixed with occasional acoustic piano. It's not even the bleep, bleep, bang, whizz of computer games. None of this is remotely anarchic or threatens to shake the foundations of my 20th century value system. In fact it's all rather bland in a way that Jimi Hendrix certainly wasn't back in 1969.

No, what I struggle with is the requirement to attribute non-musical meanings to the sounds I hear. For most of my life a telephone either rang like a bell or trilled like mutant cricket. Alarm clocks were much the same, although there were also those that would switch on the radio or make luke-warm tea. Now, when I hear a piece of music, I have decide between:
  • the radio has just been switched on
  • a game is being played on the wii
  • a text has been sent to an unknown recipient
  • it is time for one of my children to wake up
  • a phone is ringing

And that last one is the worst. Like many, I find it hard to ignore a telephone unless it belongs to someone else. I am not a willing convert to the mobile phone but since acquiring one my children, from time to time, decide I should change my ring-tone. I'm sure this is done to protect me from sounding un-cool and I am suitably grateful. However, my gratitude is tempered by irritation at their failure to notify me of these updates.

So have we arrived at some kind of Tower of Babel where sounds fly around whose meaning is known only to their makers? Or is it, as I suspect, that I am turning into a grumpy old man unwilling to learn these new languages? If music really is the universal language it has certainly been misappropriated, in my humble opinion, and that, along with Dylan's harmonica playing, is the subject of a future post.


  1. Interesting point. We're losing the language of sounds.

    However, a Dad with an uncool ring tone is worse than one who wears shorts to parents' day, so your daughters are definitely doing you a favour.

    Could you make a ring tone out of Dylan's harmonica playing?

  2. Oh Jonathan! Isn't that a teensy weensy bit grumpy? I'm always sniggering at mobile phone tunes, I just love it when I'm in a really serious meeting and all of a sudden someones tango or brass band starts up! It's so cheerful, and the seriousness of the meeting sort of evaporates for a moment.I'd like Eastern Straynotes on my mobile!!

  3. Oh no, I thought everyone had forgotten about the shorts incident... But I'll work on the Dylan ringtone. Technically it's no problem making one but my own phone is the one in the picture so getting the mp3 into it will be the real challenge.

    I must agree, Sandra, I love it when someone's phone goes off - the dafter the better. I just like to know when it's my phone that's ringing. A Straynotes ringtone? Now you're talking!