Let’s Make Some Music

Lets Make Some Music

A melody by itself is boring. Well, most melodies by themselves are boring. Add the proper countermelody, a baseline that complements but does not overbear, and interesting chords, and the melody rings loud and clear; the piece becomes complete. However, even if this full cast of musical characters comes together, it only rings loud and clear if played with heart.

This is why Artificial Intelligence will fail to recreate human music. The intangible soul put into music and the emotion brought to the stage by the world’s greatest performers are the things that truly make the music come alive. One can perform a technically flawless rendition of the theme of the movie Schindler’s List on the violin, and it will sound great, because John Williams is an incredible composer. However, a performer who understands the sorrow behind the story of that piece, the plight of the victims of the Holocaust, even if he makes mistakes, will provide a rendition that can move the human soul.

So music does not make us human, but it reveals something special about us. When you think about it, we are like music in some ways. By ourselves, we are boring. You might object to that, but really, take away everything you’ve gotten from other people and everything that you’ve done/become for others, and there is not much left. Truly, we are defined by the people around us. The group of people in a friend group are like the countermelody, chords, and bass line. Each plays a role in the group, and sometimes those roles shift: you might be the “melody” in one instance, while another time you step back and play chords to let your friend shine. A functioning friend group acts like a piece of music. Humans are like the members of a band. 

Improvisation is a main part of lots of music. I am a guitarist whose main area of practice is improvisation, or making up solos as you go along, informed by the form of the song. I have come across two main philosophies of improv, and I think they can be seen as metaphors for human life as well.

After all, if we are melodies, then what is life but improv?

The first philosophy is the by-the-book, boring, purely theory-based, joyless, uninteresting one. Yes, it is an extreme, but you can come across people who teach purely in logical terms and people who judge others for not playing what makes sense from a theoretical standpoint. The correlation to this in life is completely overplanned, austere, by-the-book people. We all know them. 

You can tell where I’m going with this. The other extreme of improv is playing what you feel, purely improvised lines that don’t necessarily make sense from a theory standpoint. (Although I can say, from experience, you often stumble across something that sounds cool over a chord progression and then realize it does make sense from a theory standpoint: you just weren’t thinking about it that way from the start.) The correlation to this in life is the unorganized people who do not play by-the-book at all. They are maverick, wayward, loose cannons. 

Of course, the path of moderation is the way to take here, in cases of musical improvisation as much as in life. Your solos should be theory-informed and enhanced by feeling. You should play by the book, but be able to recognize moments where breaking the rules is just and fitting. More importantly, you must also know your place in the ensemble of the world.

Recently, I performed for the first time with a harmonica player in a blues band. My task was to do instrumental fills that complimented the chords that the other guitar player was playing and, at the same time, make sure not to overshadow the fills being done by the harmonica player. My place was not to be flashy or to show off, but to serve the song and make the other band members shine. This is the task of all of us in life as well: knowing when to take the spotlight (and following general guidelines when doing so) but also knowing when to step back and help other people shine. This is how we serve the song in the world, knowing our gifts and talents and contributing what is fitting and proper at each time. This way, with a properly mixed ensemble of people, we can make music together.

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