Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Language

"Music is the language of the soul."

This is the phrase that drives the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona. More than mere marketing lingo, it is a statement the proprietors of the museum believe in and demonstrate with remarkable acuity.
Drums galore.

With more than 10,000 individual musical instruments of every conceivable (and inconceivable) shape, size, and fashion on display - organized geographically according to their lands of origin - the MIM is a genuinely eye-opening and overwhelming experience. It blends history along with ethnicity and community to demonstrate music's beautifully dualistic nature: music is simultaneously universal (all people groups across the world have their own) and culturally unique.

And it is this amazing amount of diversity amongst a shared passion for musical language that makes such a clear, powerful statement. The same basic elements of music are always present: percussion & rhythm, melody, harmony. But how those concepts are expressed end up as manifold & numerous as the different people expressing them. It is a rather quickening experience, to be sure, to stand in front of a display and, as a musician, recognize what is happening in front of you but find yourself so blown away by its astonishing otherness that you barely recognize it. And then, to realize a moment later that there are plenty of other people living on this planet who would find the voices & sounds of rock 'n' roll and jazz - so familiar to me - as bizarre as I find theirs.

Music is universal, but there is no universally relatable genre. No style has a monopoly on accessibility: all of the different variations of musical expression are as wildly diverse as the languages we literally speak, and the musicians themselves as diverse as those languages' individual speakers.

And so my mind took all of these wonderful concepts and ran with them. I arrived at a couple of conclusions you will learn about if you can find it within yourself to keep reading (hint, hint).

Firstly, music is - as the museum proclaims it to be - a spiritual expression. It is the language of the soul. It is the manifestation of things too deep or severe or serious or joyous to be expressed by simple, literal words. Music - and the lengths to which all peoples all across the world go to to be able to express it - is one of humanity's clearest declarations of spiritual reality. It testifies to the reality of something beyond the world of the raw material and reveals a human longing to be understood beyond atoms and molecules and brain waves. Humanity builds instruments and figures out techniques to play them - manipulating sound in as many different ways as we can manage - in order to say something that all of our spoken words and grammar and syntax simply cannot manage.

A collection of sounds, or a progression of them, can create for us pictures. A specific combination of sounds can form entire concepts in our minds. Music can lead or inspire us to think about or meditate on any number of different things without the use of a single, solitary word.

The MIM's other great accomplishment for me this week was to help me to see just how absurd the idea of competition in music is. As I've already described, music is a language to be spoken, not a sport to be won. And just as each and every one of us speaks in his or her own unique way, every single musician speaks through music individually, as well. Now, while there are certain elements of music that can be taught, and are, thus, objective (there are "right" and "wrong" ways to do music just as their are "right" and "wrong" ways to speak or write language), these objective elements should never lead us to think in comparative or competitive terms. We all speak in our own way - speed, diction, pronunciation, slang, clarity of thought - just as all musicians have their own individual musical voices. And while we all have certain spoken voices that we enjoy listening to or conversing with more than others (and still others that we distinctly don't like), it seems inane to attempt to compare the different ways people speak.

The simple truth is that some things work for some people and not for others. And no matter of objective reality - and there are objective realities - will alter people's preferences. Preferences and enjoyment are not matters of reason or realms for rational debate. The expression & appreciation of music is as varied as the expression & appreciation of any kind of language - literature, oratory, or poetry, for example. And so for a musician to think of him or herself as "better" or "worse" than another musician - or in competitive categories at all - is itself irrational. It's simply senseless.

Instead, musicians should conceive of their musical journey as learning to how to say all that they want to say, and how to say it as clearly and articulately as they can. What they say and how they say it will be different from all others. And that diversity in communication should be celebrated over-and-above any kind of competitive notion.

All of this (and more) came from just a handful of hours at the Musical Instrument Museum. The MIM really is a must-see for any musician or serious music fan. It probably can't all be taken in or digested in just one trip, but when was the last time you wanted to do something great just once?

So if you ever get the chance to go, don't hesitate. The MIM will open your eyes (and ears) to the language of music in a way very few (if any) other things can.

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