My most powerful musical memory is not from a concert, an album, or a song on the radio. It’s sitting next to my grandfather on the piano bench in his office, watching and listening in wonder at the music he was making. I was preschool age and had little context for the sounds I was hearing. So as I sat and watched my grandfather play his ragtime compositions my brain filled with rushing, colorful abstractions. I had certainly heard plenty of music by this age, but I’d never experienced music like this. It was a style I’d never heard, a performance I’d yet to see, by a person I’d already known, all rushing into my soul in this quick moment.
There’s a difference to music that is small and personal in a modern world where we have long taken access to music for granted. Where parents once sang songs to their children, we instead queue up recordings. Where we once drank together and sang, we put on background music. We now have the ability to conjure up any song we can name on demand in nearly any place. Of course these things still happen in certain contexts, but not with the same frequency or ease. Recorded music, becoming increasingly more convenient in its medium and accessibility has also lost some of its intimacy.
We should not take the value of communal and experiential music for granted, especially with young children. These musical experiences are important for adults too but we tend to intellectualize our experiences as adults, especially when they are profound. Children take in these novel musical experiences in ways that are physical (moving around to music) and visual in a way that is almost synesthetic. Without literacy or an extensive vocabulary to interpret or explain what we are taking in, we experience music and other art forms in ways that are very pure as children. One can only attempt to describe raw, primitive, and effective art in an intellectual and formulaic manner, because the art is self-defining by its nature. The explanation has already occurred more effectively through the art itself. This is why we often settle for metaphor in our descriptions of art, because it's one of the simplest poetic devices we can resign ourselves to. The best explanations are usually intended for someone that didn't understand the art. This is why our first instinct is "you've got to see/hear this."
There is a joy in understanding the mechanism behind the creation, because it can help us hone our skills of expression. There's such frustration in a child that can’t describe what he wants to, but he can often come up with some of the purest attempts or recreations of it.
Art without clear, literal descriptions can sometimes be a more effective communicator of complex experiences. There is sometimes a ridiculous notion that music by itself carries no meaning. In fact it can be more effective or even offensive than words on their own. We just forget how much more efficiently music conveys some complex things. Set the same words to different music or change a song to its relative minor key and see how the impact changes.
I sometimes think that everything I do in music is an attempt to chase down that first high I felt that day sitting on the piano bench next to my grandfather. I have no recording or written reference of this music to listen back to. I can’t even remember a piece of even one of the songs he played, but what has stuck with me is the completely indescribable and incomparable feeling that I had in my head and my chest when I first heard that music beat out on that untuned, worn-out upright in my grandfather’s office.
Nostalgia can be a very intoxicating and dangerous thing when we want to just go back and have those same experiences that created that nostalgia, but it can also be an inspiration for what we do with the time in front of us. During a training I had to do through my work a few months ago, I was tasked with drawing a cherished memory. I drew a picture of my grandfather and I sitting at that piano. I ended up sharing the picture on social media and more than a few people assumed it was a drawing of my son and I. I’m not bothered by that misinterpretation at all, and I hope that I can create a memory like what I had at that piano with my grandfather for my children.
Derek McCauley is a musician, playing guitar, bass, drums, and piano and composing music. He currently plays with the band The Hounded, which you can follow on instagram here. Derek is married to Beccah and they have two sons: James and Theo.