I turned on the radio this morning in the middle of the program On Being, and heard Krista Tippett ask her guest (who I soon realized was Yoyo Ma) “So if you could replace the words “classical music” with another phrase, or some other words, what would they be?”
Her question immediately brought back to me a conversation I remember from my childhood, when I believe it was my mother who made the remark that the phrase “classical music” are not the appropriate words to use to describe the music we would go to to hear performed from a stage, either by an orchestra, or, in our family, more likely a group of chamber music players. Instead, in her view, that music is called “good music”! And Mr. Ma said simply “I would say that, most people who’ve tried, they just say ‘music.'” He followed that up with “good music” (actually, it was Ms. Tippett who said it before he did).
And I had to smile when the words “good music” came from Mr Ma’s mouth. He actually qualified it by saying, instead “good musicians” – he is a performer, and for him, the key to music is the skill and Soul of the performer. I would certainly agree.
For me, the language of music is an entry point to transformation, and possibly to connection with the Infinite or the Divine. One thing I’ve learned about myself, after more than fifty years of self – observation, is that I can gauge my own mental health by how comfortable I am listening to music, or how easy it is for me to sing or make music. If I’m depressed, I cannot listen to music – those are the times when I have to listen to someone talking on the radio, and somehow listening to music is almost unbearable. And, as soon as I find myself putting on music to listen to, I know my mood has improved. I know for my mother, the key symptom that would tell me that she was sinking into depression was when she stopped being able to read. For my grandfather, the signal that he was depressed was that he stopped telling stories.
But for me, it’s definitely music, and I now define “good music” much more broadly than I was taught to do so early by my rather stuffy and snobby family. Yes, the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Telemann, etc is Good Music, but so is the music of Charlie Parker, David Bowie, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Johnny Cash, as well as Angelique Kidjo, Bob Marley, and Anoushka Shankar. I think you recognize good music by the effect it has on your spirit, and there is no genre that owns the title “Good”, at least, not to the exclusion of others. But, there is bad music!! Think Muzak, for example.
(originally written on my phone with the WordPress app, and edited to include links and the photo from the On Being site – JK)