A few events of the last few days have inspired my train of thought for today. First off, a new semester begins at West Georgia, so I’ve been dutifully planning courses, writing syllabi, attending meetings, and asking the age-old question: how can I make what I teach relevant to my students? Secondly, happenstance and randomness caused me to tumble on and befriend my grade school music teacher, who inspired me far more than I suspect he will ever know.
With all of these things swimming around in my brain, I find myself thinking about how one becomes inspired to love music. Is it something one is born with? Is it a result of a musically-rich childhood environment? Can an adult discover and develop a love for music?
So, as always when a question inspires me, I take to the internet to see what others have to say on the topic at hand. Not surprisingly, most material concerning one developing a love for music revolves around children, education, parenting, even prenatal care. That said, a quote from (of all sources) Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science stood out to me:
One must learn to love.— This is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity:—finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.— But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty:—that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.
If we take Nietzsche’s thoughts for a fact, than it would seem that truly developing a love of music is somewhat beyond the mental capacities of most children, and so true music appreciation does not occur until much later in life. So, what inspires this love?
I suspect there must, in fact be a combination of all of these factors in play in order to truly inspire a deep love of music. I will use my own experience as an example, but I encourage you to think on your own past and ask the same question: what created within you a love of music? (I would assume that if a reader did not have such a fondness, that they would not bother to look at a website entitled appreciatethemusic.com, so keep in mind that assumption is a factor).
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL TANGENT, I.E. AN EXAMPLE:
Some of my earliest memories involve music of many different styles: my parents loved the hard rock of the 1970s, my paternal grandmother played piano and sang old folk songs (she even yodeled, which is awesome!), my maternal grandmother was a classically-trained pianist, present and highly diverse part of my upbringing, and, like many children, it never occurred to me that anyone else’s environment would be any different. I was encouraged to sing from a very young age, and I recall being taught all kinds of songs as a young child.
When I began school, I had a wonderful music teacher (enter, Mr. Rippl), how not only taught us about singing and playing rudimentary instruments, but regularly took the time to play recordings of art music and to ask us what we thought of them (Can you imagine, as a 5-10-year old child, what a rare treat it is to have an adult actually take time to listen to your opinions on anything, let alone something as subjective as music?). I distinctly recall, sitting on the floor, listening to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz and Copland’s Rodeo and talking about the images the notes elicited.
I suspect these early childhood experiences instilled in me a longing to make music a constant companion in my life, but I cannot honestly say that I harnessed the skill, patience, and desire to engage as deeply as Nietzsche seems to think is needed until much later. I’m not sure I can honestly say that I have formed a Nietzschean love of music until my first round of graduate school. By that time, I would certainly have called myself a musician: I had sung in choirs and musicals all through junior high school and high school, had earned a Bachelor of Music degree in college, and had moved halfway across the country to pursue a Master’s degree in Vocal Performance.
But it wasn’t as a singer that this lightning bolt moment occurred. It was in a 20th century music theory class. The moment that “what [was] strange… shed its veil and turn[ed] out to be a new and indescribable beauty” involved Schoenberg, atonality, and the twelve-tone system. Due to an off-hand comment from the professor, I suddenly understood that this noisy, foreign, uncomfortable music was not simply noise for the sake of noise, but, rather, a response to the uneasy tension of a world sitting on a powder keg in the months leading up to World War I. When life is filled with indescribable tension, it only makes sense that music would be as well.
Boom! Crack! I was going to be a musicologist. Just like that.
NOW BACK TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAM:
So, it turns out that I can’t do much to inspire what kinds of musical experiences parents and families provide for their children. And I tried teaching grade school music – for one very unpleasant year – and discovered that it was not for me. So, I don’t have the opportunity to encounter my students until they reach college age. If a young adult has not had the enriching opportunities that I did growing up, is it simply too late to expect him or her to love music? How can I inspire the kind of love that my environment has given me?
I’m hoping that this is where the latest new initiative on campus will come in. My university has recently begun participating in a national campaign to help “raise the quality of college learning” called LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise). Part of this process is to draw connections among courses to encourage students to thinking more broadly about the material they learn in classes, to synthesize information for wider applications, and to think more critically about what and why they learn.
In general education classes, like Music Appreciation and music surveys, I encounter students from all over campus with a wide range of interests and values. It is my hope that showing my classes how music forms a small but vital part of the larger culture and society in which they live will create for them the same kind of lightning bolt that ignited my love of musicology and brought me to where I am today.
So, what do you think? How does one come to truly love music? Can it be taught? Discuss!
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.