The World’s Hardest Question

Do you shout about the music you like?

What kind of music do you listen to? Seems like a simple enough question to answer, except it isn’t. Every time someone asks me this dreaded question I’m stuck trying to figure out my audience before I give a response. I don’t want to say Shostakovich and sound pretentious, or Robbie Williams and sound like a philistine. It’s even riskier when you study music; I was once on a night out and a song came on that I really didn’t like. I must have pulled a face because I was accused of being ‘one of those musicians who hates music’. I’m not ‘one of those musicians’, I love music.

Actually, the truth is that I like anything as long as it’s good. By this, I mean to say that I want my music to be made with craft, care and attention; I generally listen to any music as long as the composer hasn’t been lazy. This isn’t an accusation against any one area of music; it can happen in all camps. I’ve been to contemporary music events where the performers and composers have been so wrapped up in their ‘aesthetic’ that they forget that there’s an audience who need to at least be allowed some small level of understanding. The worst of these involved a performer who insisted on taking off his shoes and socks whilst playing – his feet were less than fragrant. The over-riding memory of that particular piece was static and a strong smell of cheese. In areas of jazz it’s possible to listen to several ‘standards’ with identical improvisations and in the more popular realm we’re left with identical cover versions, auto tune and copy and paste music. These examples aside, I generally like all music, so why don’t I just tell people that?

It seems that we get used to separating our music into convenient categories that help define who we are as people. As a culture we really appear to enjoy musical segregation. It’s how we find like-minded people, choose our fashions and it just brings a bit more order to the world. It does, however, leave me with one huge headache when I’m asked what music I like. My friendship groups are split into people who know me as a lover of contemporary music, a jazz fan, an indie buff and a gleek.

This leads me, in a not too smooth segue, to a book that just writes about good music. I discovered ‘Words and Music’ by Paul Morley in my school’s library. This in itself was a wonder as the school’s music section consisted mainly of children’s guides to music and a small, very old book about the clarinet. ‘Words and Music’ describes a journey linking two distinct pieces of music: Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. It is a metaphorical journey following Kylie’s drive to a futuristic city. Events occur and lists are made. If you can get past that synopsis you’ll love ‘Words and Music’ because, to be honest, it’s not an easy read. It is, however, a very rewarding book which opens up a whole world of music that you may never have considered before. So many varying pieces are mentioned throughout the book that I started a Spotify playlist dedicated to Morley’s lists. By page eight I was up to eighty tracks ranging from Ornette Coleman to Dolly Parton to Schnittke. From this I learnt two things: that I hadn’t listened to even a fraction of the music that I should have done and that any types of music can go together.

This equality of genres isn’t the only thing to recommend ‘Words and Music’. Morley has created a metaphorical world where compositions and composers live alternative lives. The metaphorical Kylie holds conversations with the other characters and the author, through these conversations Morley is able to fully convey the joy that each chosen track brings. There is no room in this book for snobbery. This attitude, however, does run the risk of upsetting a lot of potential readers. By analysing popular music in the same book as contemporary classical and jazz Morley could be accused of being an elitist and overanalysing work that is just meant to be enjoyed or a different section of readers could suggest that he is elevating popular music beyond the state it deserves and trivialising more ‘serious’ works. I think that treating all works on the same intellectual level is what makes this book great. I enjoy listening to popular music as much as I love listening to music in other styles and these songs deserve to be analysed. A classic pop song doesn’t just ‘happen’. Maybe, in a dystopian future, more people will treat different styles of music equally; then again maybe in this future there will eventually develop a newer ‘high’ form of music and we’ll be left with the same problem. But I can, at least, dream of a future where being asked what music I like won’t cause me such a feeling of panic.

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