March 2012 Print

Some Thoughts on Music

Jeffery Peek

I am a full-time professional music teacher. It’s what I’ve done my whole life in a variety of circumstances. For the purposes of this article, which is not aimed at the intellectual, I have some thoughts to share on a basic level. Music affects us whether we like it or not and is thus an emotionally charged topic.

I want to propose a general look at music. It may sound like a cliché by now, but it really comes down to melody, harmony, and rhythm. Many of you may have read material on this before. What I have discovered as a teacher is that, even when teaching very intelligent adult students, there can be difficulty grasping what these words actually mean. How do we apply them to the every-day world?

But first, for a bit of fun, I will give you two extreme examples of what music certainly is not. In 1952, an American composer named John Cage mounted the stage, sat down at the piano, and gave a sparkling rendition of his latest original work, 4’33”. It was four minutes and thirty-three seconds of...nothing but silence! Old John sat there doing absolutely nothing. No doubt, it was very restful, but it’s hardly music.

The other example comes from my personal experience as a teacher. Many years ago, a teenage student learning classical guitar and I were discussing music in general. The usual: melody, harmony, and rhythm. At the time, the local city council was busy upgrading all the side-walks and roads in the area. It was an occasion to ask my student: we agree that music involves sound, but would you call the jackhammers breaking up concrete music? The poor boy looked thoughtful for a second, then replied: “Not to me personally, but maybe to other people.” Poor boy indeed; a typical product of his time.

Music has an objective definition, something independent of opinion and personal taste. To make an analogy, let’s say the lady of the house decides to do a little baking. She takes a mixing bowl and adds five pounds of sugar, three pounds of butter, two tablespoons of flour, and a few raisins. It doesn’t matter how long you bake it; what comes out of the oven will never be fruitcake! But the important thing: the ingredients are all there, just not in their proper proportion and balance.

Music also has elements—“ingredients,” if you will—that we’ve already named: melody, harmony, and rhythm. They must be in that proper order and have a certain proportion to have real music. Of course, depending on the type or genre of music, the recipe will vary a bit. Every cake is a cake, but not every cake is a fruitcake.

Some Examples

Consider the disciplined and often brilliant drumming that rhythmically underpins and supports the melody and harmony of a well-drilled Scottish highland bagpipe band. Look at four or more snare-drummers working in perfect military unison. It is an impressive sound and sight. Contrast this with Gregorian Chant, where the rhythm is supplied by the very accents and stress of the Latin words themselves. Now, it would be a very curious sort of choirmaster who decided to use a snare-drum during the Introit. I would predict he would be looking for a new job by next Sunday.

Now, in these two examples of very good but contrasting music, there is one thing they both have in common. This is of paramount importance and without understanding it, the writing and reading of this article would be a complete waste of time. They both share the most important ingredient of music, without which the recipe is simply not complete. Their right to be called music at all is derived from music’s crowning glory: melody.

To demonstrate this, let us see what would happen if the melody were somehow taken away or blotted out. What would be left of the bagpipes? And what of chant?

From a Highland band, we would simply be left with a bunch of drone pipes providing the harmony. Harmony is loosely defined as the notes behind and supporting the melody. They are the notes you hear, usually unconsciously, although you would notice if they were gone. The nifty drumming would still be there providing the rhythm. But where’s the music? Did the band play Scotland the Brave or God Bless America? Without melody, no one can tell.

Let’s apply the same principle to Gregorian Chant. Take away the melody, and you still have prayer. You could even chant it recto tono (where every syllable is articulated on just one and exactly the same note). Without melody, though, you may have a beautiful sound, but still not music.

Using the same process, try to analyze just one of the thousands of pop or rock songs. I am not here talking about the question of lyrics. Try this experiment: imagine a rock band under the spotlight on stage. One by one, the band members quit: first the guitar, then the piano, the back-up vocals, the bass, and finally the drums. Now the singer is alone. All the appealing harmony and rhythm has vanished. There is simply nothing left. This is why rock, under its many guises, cannot be considered music since it lacks a sufficient amount of the primary ingredient: melody.

Our Lord tells us that “by their fruits you shall know them.” Let us simply ask two questions: is there anyone who will argue that, for the last 60 years, rock music has benefitted mankind in some way, whether morally, intellectually, or socially? Or has it rather helped draw all of Western culture away from God? Therein lies precisely the problem. Apart from bad lyrics, this withdrawal from God is the real argument to be made against rock.

What Does This Mean Practically?

Let me first point out how absolutely amazing it is that we can listen to recorded music at all. We have the very best conductors, orchestras, and performers literally at our fingertips. We can now all enjoy a Beethoven symphony with a mere push of a button and take it for granted. It’s only been 80 or 90 years since the radio became part of the family furniture. It was only then that music, at least as is commonly, if somewhat inaccurately called “classical” became readily available to all. Until then, so-called classical music was largely the luxury of the wealthy. There are exceptions of course, but I am speaking in generalities.

Thanks to St. Pius X, there was a gradual restoration of Gregorian Chant in the local village churches. Even the poorest of the poor could hear the best of the best. What most people did before the radio is not hard to discover. They did what people have done since time immemorial. They made their own music and sometimes even their own instruments.

Real Music

Why not roll up our sleeves and get our hands—or those of our children—dirty? Learn to play a few notes yourself. Don’t be daunted; there are almost no families who can sit down and play Vivaldi. But almost anyone can learn a sea shanty. Imagine it: music in the home, not just coming from a pair of over-priced speakers, but real, live music. The whole family can participate, not to mention the children’s friends. That is domestic Catholic culture and, as such, Satan hates it. Tough for him.

Mind you, even the simplest of music requires discipline. That is why it is such a good thing for children to learn. It trains just about everything on the natural level: the mind, the heart, and even the body. (If you don’t believe me on this last point, take just one flute lesson: next day you’ll feel like someone punched you in the jaw!) The learning of music covers so many aspects it is hard to enumerate them all: discipline, patience, perseverance, memory, controlled emotion, eye-hand coordination. The list could go on and on.

Let me say that my own personal taste in music relates to classical guitar and doesn’t really go much beyond the 16th century. But I will stick my neck out and say the learning of good hearty folk songs, actually played live, will be of more benefit for the children and keep them off modern music more readily than listening to any amount of pre-recorded Mozart. Why? To understand Mozart, you have to understand at least a little bit of music. To understand folk music, all you need is to be human.

In concrete, cold, practical terms of music, I recommend three things. First, if there is bad music already in the house, get rid of it. Just see if the recipe is in order. Don’t worry too much about labels: rock, country, punk, pop, whatever—it is all the same thing from a musical standpoint. Satan has inverted God’s laws of music by placing rhythm at the very top. The recipe is no longer good.

Second, if listening is the best you can do, by all means do it. Buy a few good CDs and fill the house with glorious music. Try Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus played very loud. It may not be specifically Catholic, but it’s got enough musical grunt to scare a few little demons out of the closet.

Third, and finally, the best thing is what I’ve recommended above. It doesn’t matter what instrument it is. Learn “Home on the Range” on the kazoo if you must. The point is that it’s fun, healthy, and real. And that’s another thing Satan hates: reality. That which Satan hates, God, in His infinite simplicity, loves.

Jeffrey Peek holds a diploma in classical guitar performance from Trinity College London and is an associate of the Institute of Registered Music Teachers of New Zealand. He has professionally taught music since 1996.