January 04, 2005

My musical ear

My mother has what you might call a tin ear.

Nevertheless, when my sister and I were very young, our mom sang to us, and always encouraged us to sing along. This seems to have worked, as both of us have grown up to be fairly musical people. I can only assume that effectively instilling the desire to sing was the important thing; the actual tunes can be picked up elsewhere.

My formal musical training, I guess you could say, began along several different fronts around junior high. After a brief flirtation with drums in the school band (in which the group didn't move fast enough, so I got bored and left) I moved on to piano lessons and the school choir. Piano remains the only instrument I'm really trained on, though not very well; I dropped it after about two years, and although I picked it up again for two summers in college, I was never really able to give it the time I would need to get beyond the simple-chords-and-melody stage.

Vocal training was a different story. I've been in and out of various choirs ever since then. In high school, the choir teacher did a lot of solf\`ege drills, and I still chalk up my decent grasp of intervals to my time at IMSA. (The voice lessons at the same time didn't hurt, either.) My college choir professor was similarly good at training us to be good singers and musicians, rather than just working on the song of the moment.

My musical tastes have gotten progressively broader over time. Growing up and even in high school, the radio was dominated by the oldies (which at the time didn't yet include the 70s) that my parents enjoyed, and we were also fans of the musical theatre, with my sister and I both appearing in several community productions. Listening to all the cast albums and playing singing games with that crowd undoubtedly played a big influence on my early musical tastes.

It wasn't really until I got to college in 1993 that I listened much to the radio, but over the next several years I built my knowledge and enjoyment of not only then-contemporary alternative and pop music, but also of older stuff from the 80s and 70s. The 80s I found to be an enjoyably upbeat era; the 70s the home of a lot of bands with multiple singers that actually sang harmony with each other. Queen and ABBA remain two of my favourite bands, though I didn't really discover either one until the late 90s.

Grad school brought me a new set of musical challenges. After the initial class load lightened and I was mostly doing research, I joined two different amateur choirs. The Brown Renaissance Singers was a group of ten or so people, mostly grad students, that sang music primarily from the Renaissance, though we occasionally ventured into some J.S.~Bach pieces. Depending on the semester, I was one of just two or three basses, and usually the strongest and most confident of them, so for the first time I was singing without a safety net. And the music tended to be highly polyphonic, so I had to get really good at listening to the other parts, and finding a C from the altos or a G from the tenors, as well as more complicated tricks like ``if the sopranos' melodic line were to continue upward, the next note would be the F that I need''. Except when it would hang out for pages at my break point, I found polyphonic music really fun to sing, with each part going off and doing its own thing, occasionally returning to sync up with everyone else at the cadence.

At the same time, I got involved in the choir of Brown's Catholic community, singing every week at Mass. Serendipitously, during my tenure there we had enough good singers in the group that we could usually sing in three or four part harmony. The pieces were certainly a lot simpler than what I was singing in the Renaissance group, but the big difference was that here, the music changed every week! We had just one practice for most of the songs, many of which I knew only the melody of and quite a few of which I didn't know at all. Three years of this improved my sight singing considerably, to the point that I can now frequently sight read an unfamiliar bass part while everyone else is singing the melody. Sometimes, that even makes it easier.

The most recent developments in my musical repertoire have been the addition of country and an assortment of Latin styles. Disenchanted with the amusicality of a lot of the junk that has been playing on the alterna-pop stations lately, I discovered that music and harmony are alive and well in these other genres. Both have rather different harmonic profiles than the music I previously listened to---country seems particularly taken with the tight duet harmonies, for instance---and that has been a fun process of discovery. I'm also a fan of fusion music, where traditional instruments and styles are merged with a rock beat, though that sort of thing is bloody hard to find in this country.

So what kind of music do I like now? It might be easier to enumerate the kinds I don't. Most rap is too atonal for me, although there are some individual ones that people have played for me that I liked. Heavy metal is both usually played too loud and much too distorted to actually sound good; which is too bad, because the electric guitar has a really nice sound when you don't abuse it, and a lot of the metal guitarists are quite competent. Most of the weirdly-tonal experimental music from the early and mid-20th century is too hard to listen to. Outside of those exceptions, though, I like and listen to music that was popular in the West from about the 15th century onwards, and a fair amount from elsewhere too.

"Even the kindest of souls occasionally harbor unkind thoughts, but if they can plausibly deny them, no harm is done." --Miss Manners

Posted by blahedo at 5:16am on 4 Jan 2005
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