Music · Writing

Humans of Music

Following the journey of Abigail McArthur and Emma Moor, two talented musicians telling their own stories of their lifelong relationship with music.

Abigail

3. Abby Edited 1

“My mom taught me my first piece on the piano, before I started going for lessons. And my dad taught me my first piece on the saxophone. That was and still is special to me. I started playing piano when I was eight, so I’ve been playing that for nearly thirteen years. And I started playing sax when I was ten, so I have been playing that for going on eleven years. I’m currently looking to do my Performance Diploma for saxophone and I’m at a Grade 7 level for piano.

I didn’t actually choose to play the saxophone. My dad played the sax but he also played the clarinet. So when my dad was learning sax, I took his clarinet. He would play his sax in the one room and I would go and pretend I knew what I was doing on his clarinet and just blow and fiddle around. I said I wanted to go for lessons so when I went to the school’s head music teacher, she said there was a shortage of saxophones in the school wind ensemble. She wanted me to play sax. So the school loaned me a sax for two years and I fell in love with it. I couldn’t imagine myself playing anything else now.

I played in the school wind band for nine years because my music teacher wanted me to. But I started young and was really excited to play in those bands. I then heard about the youth orchestra and I thought it would be cool to broaden my horizons and meet new people while learning how to play in a different, more professional group. So I played in the orchestra for four years. Playing in an orchestra is amazing. You’re hearing the music around you and you’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for the music. You’re playing to make something beautiful, something that would otherwise remain a couple of sheets of black and white paper. Playing solo is very different from playing with other people. Because when you’re playing with people you have to hear what everyone else is doing and link into that. But when you’re playing by yourself, you can express whatever feeling you want.  Music without emotion is pointless.”

4. Abby 2

“Having that emotion is very important to playing. Because you can be practically good but your music can do nothing. You need the emotion, from yourself. And you need to have the skill, through your music, to bring it out in other people. In any good performance, you have to fully immerse yourself in that moment and give yourself completely to the music. Your mind and body needs to be concentrating on your notes and on your fingers and on the sound that you’re producing rather than anything else that’s happening around you. As you get better, you’re able to keep that focus and still feel what’s going on around you and play for that audience. I played five different pieces for my last saxophone exam, ranging through all the styles. I loved the fact that I could produce, within the space of thirty minutes, different emotions in the people who were listening, just by the way I was playing and by the emotions I felt I was able to portray through my instrument.

I think, when I look back on it, the study of music came easy to me. And because it came easily, I didn’t learn. I did the bare minimum that needed to be done and I was luckily able to produce the same result as what people who worked really hard produced. Through playing music and through studying music as a subject, I learnt to listen for and appreciate the finer details of the music, the things that come together to make up the entire piece. So when I listen to music, I don’t just hear the music. I am able to dissect it when I hear it on the radio. I hear the beat and all the different instruments that are being used and whether it’s electronic or acoustic. I hear the repetition of patterns and I appreciate the musicality of each song. I learnt to see and feel the art in the music rather than to simply listen to it.

Since finishing school and my academic study of music, I didn’t play for a year. A whole year. I didn’t touch it. And I could feel it. It’s not the listening to music, it’s the playing of music, being in the music and grappling with it and then finally being able to produce something. And, in missing that process for that year, I felt like my brain was just sludge. It was switched off. I felt like I was functioning at a lower level than what I was capable of. And I realised that music is something that is part of me. It’s something that I simply have to do for myself to give myself love. In having that talent, I’ve come to realise the power I have with it. I took it for granted for so long and I’m only just starting to realise that I can actually do something worthwhile, for myself and for other people.

I don’t think I decided that music was going to be my life. I think I was blessed with a musical talent and the musicality was born in me. It wasn’t me choosing the music. It was the music choosing me.”

Emma

1. Emma 1

“I always knew that I could play piano. It’s a born talent of mine and it’s always just come naturally to me. I started playing when I was six. Before that, my mom would play music by all the greats like Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. That music was ingrained into my mind from a young age. A lot of my love of music is owed to my parents. They nurtured my talent, they fostered my experiences with it and exposed me to really beautiful music. That had quite a big impact on how I perceive music now and how I enjoy it. I have been playing for around fourteen years now and I have my Grade 8 for piano.

I didn’t do grades when I was younger. I just learnt how to play piano, how to read the music, how to find the notes, how it should sound. My mom knew that if I did exams at that age, I would grow to hate the instrument. So when I got into the grades, initially I was very nervous. I knew that there was a possibility of completely destroying my passion for it. But I’m quite a determined and competitive person with myself. So when I started climbing the ladder, I realised I could do it and that the end goal would be quite an achievement. For a long time piano was as easy as breathing. And then, when I started playing harder songs, I had to really study and put the hours into practicing it. A song would often take so long to decipher, to figure out and learn the ins and outs of it. But when I eventually overcome it and I could play that piece, I knew how long I spent looking at that music and how long I spent crying over not knowing how to do it. It became such a reward every time I played it again, like I had conquered it.  There were times when I didn’t want to carry on, because the constant practice was completely snuffing out my passion. And then I would overcome a song, ace an exam or play for others and suddenly my passion was renewed.

There are people who can just sit down and play a piece once off and not need to practice it. For a mere mortal like me though, it takes a long time to master a piece so I feel a personal pride when I finally get it. And it reminds me that this is something that not everyone can do and I love that it’s something special about me. And so I love it when I can play something and have other people enjoy it. It excites me to know that I can give someone an experience that is completely unique. I attach quite a lot of emotion to the music that I play. When I play something in a certain situation, often, if I play it again, it brings memories of what that situation was like, what happened and how it came about.”

2. Emma 2

“I have a musical talent. I can sing, I can play piano, I can hear notes and pitches. I can understand it all. You can’t really avoid falling in love with it. You can’t switch off the ability to listen to music in a critical way because you’ve got this deeper understanding of it because it’s something that is a part of you.

But after school, I hardly ever played and I realised how much I missed it. At school, I played for about ten hours a week. I put a lot of time into it and I was always thinking about it, always doing something with it, always working towards something. And when that structure fell away, I was no longer forced to play. Having been forced to play for so many hours, all the time, to suddenly not have to answer to anyone musically anymore, it completely changed my relationship with it. In the beginning I felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

But over time, it went from “I don’t have to play because someone is telling me to” to “I wish someone was telling me to.” I almost gave up on the instrument because someone wasn’t whipping me to play it. And then I ended up whipping myself because I couldn’t stop missing it and I didn’t want to lose my skill. I can tell that I have lost a great portion of my skill because it’s not something that I have been doing over and over again recently. That really upsets me that I can’t retain it. I’d love to be able to learn something and always be able to play it, remember the notes, the chords, the song itself. When I tried to play some of my old final exam pieces, it was quite a blow for me to go back to something that I could once play perfectly, only to find that I could no longer remember it fully.

I really miss playing. It was a useful stress reliever. In school, when I was stressed about something, I would go and play piano. If I was upset about something, I would go and play piano. If I had a really good day and I was on a high, I would go and play piano. It was the perfect outlet for all of my emotions. It became a best friend to me. I would give it the knowledge and skill that I had and in return, it would give me beautiful sounds and amazing melodies.

There is something born into people who can really hear music. Everyone can hear music but when a select few listen to it, we can hear things no one else can hear because we’re listening for it. Because we are tuned to it. Music can never be a passing phase for someone like that because those people are constantly trying to make up new harmonies for songs, to perfect pieces that have been neglected and always trying to improve their knowledge and relationship with music. It makes me sad that some people live their lives without that, only engaging with music in shades of grey and not experiencing the full colour that it has to offer.”

 

 

 

 

Music · Swiss Army Knife · Writing

My Music Swiss Army Knife

As a music lover, I’m always looking for new and useful places and things to draw inspiration from. And because of the eternal ebb and flow of moods, emotions and thoughts, my taste in music is often too varied to pin down media and sources to inform my musical digestion. However, though these shifts remain constant, here are a few treasured tools I return to and frequently use on my journey through music.

Shazam

A true testament to how the music industry can benefit from technology. This app uses the microphone of your device to identify virtually any song. I can attribute at least 50% of my current music playlists to songs I have overheard on the radio, or at a party or pretty much anywhere, which this little guy has picked up for me.

Youtube/Soundcloud

The two mammoths of the internet. Both a promising platform for musical talent, young and old, to showcase their skills and for musical connoisseurs to pick and choose their own brands of lyrical addiction.

Music Notes

My go to source for any music I need to learn how to play. Even when my fingers itch for the unreachable black and white ivory of my piano, I take comfort in reading through the songs I can’t play, like watching a movie on mute or reading a book review for a good novel.

Garage Band

When access to the instruments themselves is few and far between, I turn to this program to quench my creative thirst. And while I don’t see it as a replacement to the art of composing and crafting music through the instruments themselves, it’s a method of music creation which is leading music into the 21st century.

August Rush & Whiplash

Last but not least, these films serve as a reminder to me of the light and the dark side of music. While Hollywood has taken their creative liberties with both, these films both strike the heart of how music can infiltrate and change the lives of the people who simply let it in. Both must sees for any music lovers.

1996 · Music · Writing

1996 and Music: The Beginning of the End

I think we can all agree that the 90’s was not the best era for music. Not by a long shot. The 90’s style in the music industry represents a time of confusion. The decade is, in essence, a metaphorical 13 year old pre-pubescent girl, wired braces, blue eyeshadow, toilet paper filled sports bra and not really knowing who she is yet.

What may be the most notably tragic fact is that the Spice Girl’s debut single “Wannabe” was one of the more permanent chart toppers of the year. Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” won song of the year at the Grammy’s. Alanis Morissette won Grammy’s best album award (Jagged Little Pill) and her single “Ironic” was also on the charts, a statement which is much like the song’s title, seeing as most of the songs sung from the 90’s are done with the permanent scorn of ironic mockery. Another chart topper, Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”, can only blame its somewhat continued success in its resurfacing on Pitch Perfect. Celine Dion’s tear-jerking ballad “Because You Loved Me” hit the charts and, upon interrogation, was revealed to be my mother’s favourite song while she was pregnant with yours truly.

The one thing worse than the songs themselves is the music videos for the songs themselves. They represent an abysmal concoction of clichés mixed with irrelevant randomness verging on the laughably absurd. These combinations are a pretty accurate representation of the time period itself, waiting for the last four years of the century to pass, unable to quite figure out where the 90’s fit in.

The only pride I can muster up for 1996 and the decade in which my life began is through the line from Icona Pop’s “I Don’t Care”, in which they loudly proclaim ‘You’re from the 70’s but I’m a 90’s b*tch.” As much as the 90’s era of music was a bit of a dud, it did make way for the coming century and the infinite potential for good music which it still holds.

Music · Science · Writing

The Music/Science Solution

“Music and Science don’t go together.”

It’s a common misconception which traps many people, who see the stereotypical angsty musician as a polar opposite to the clinically cold scientist. And thus, like the traditional ‘oil in water’ display of non-polar molecules within a polar solvent, music and science are believed to just not mix. However, as a student of both, I have made it my mission this week to disprove this hypothesis.

In case that clip didn’t explain my theory in itself, let my argument begin.

Firstly, let me start by shattering the musician/scientist juxtaposition using the classic methodology of the ‘name drop’. Consider the specimen of Brian May.

brian may

To some, he is known for his work in astrophysics on the New Horizon’s project into Pluto exploration. To others, he is known as lead guitar for the iconic rock band, Queen. Having outstanding achievements in both fields, Brian May embodies the culmination of music and science.

But music and science do not simply overlap within one person. In actual fact, the two fields draw upon and influence each other to a great extent. I will therefore continue to disprove the aforementioned hypothesis through the illustration of the relativity between these fields.

Combinations of these fields can be experienced through both the intellectual and emotive responses within our minds. Music can help us develop science while science can be used as a tool to further our understanding of music.

I witnessed first-hand the ability to use music as a learning and studying mechanism while observing a workshop held at the 2017 SciFest Africa this week. Learners were taught the phases of chemical bonding through principles of music and dance, using rhythm, tempo and space to illustrate the stages of matter. This exercise solidified the scientific understanding they needed, through the memory and cognitive responses invoked by music. Numerous studies have suggested that listening to music or using auditory stimulation as a learning method have also greatly increased the retention of information and the consistent completion of tasks. In fact, Daniel J. Levitin explains in his book “This is your brain on music”, that through the use of music, the brain is stimulated in almost every cortex, whether it be through playing, dancing to, listening to or comprehending music.

On the other hand, in music studies, we are taught to read and compose music through mathematic principles of timing measures and the changing of pitch through alterations to the omitted radio wave frequencies. While conducting my own vocal and instrumental training, I was taught how to use the anatomic structure of my body in order to produce a better sound. This is reflected in William M. Klemm’s article in Psychology Today, which explains the benefits of the brain’s chemistry through the study and practice of music.

Finally, to quote a lyric from The Script’s “Science and Faith”, ‘You can break everything down to chemicals but you can’t explain a love like ours’. As the song suggests, there are some things that can never fully be explained by science and one of them is the effects of music on humanity. While we can appreciate music’s historical implications, analyse its effects on the brain and monitor its patterns through neuron connections, science has its limits. There are parts of music that cannot be defined, contained or explained through scientific method. And that’s the way it should be.

“Music and Science don’t go together.”

Myth Busted.

Music · Writing

Music and Lyrics

Music or Lyrics. The songwriter’s ultimate dilemma. Which one is more important? The sound of your melody or the impact of your lyrics? Opera without lyrics simply becomes an orchestra recital. Poetry without instrumental sound remains the spoken word. I myself share the same wonderment as ABBA’s plain questioning in their song, “Thank You For The Music”.” ‘Who found out that nothing can capture a heart like a melody can?’ Who was it that figured it out? Or maybe where did it originate from? “The Book of Love” by Peter Gabriel has a beautiful line stating ‘The Book of Love has music in it. In fact that’s where music comes from.’ As an aspiring writer and as a lifetime lover of music, I could eternally bounce between conclusions on this debate. I can’t pretend to know the answers. Which is why I leave this conundrum to be analysed by sound engineers, poets, musicians, philosophers and psychologists, while I simply choose to accept that both hold a potential key to unlocking the full spectrum of human emotion across cultures, continents and centuries. And more personally, it has touched my soul and shaped my life in a way I can never change or deny. Which is why I write this blog, with the intention to once more marry music and the written word into a somewhat different form.

Music is a transcendent and universal language, a tool used to share and express emotions and words throughout the ages. It tells a story. And as a Journalism and English student, I eat, sleep and breathe stories. Some of hard, cold facts. Some of epic and fantastic adventure. But lately, I’ve felt like I’ve been drowning in expectations. What to write, when to write, how to write, how long, how short…all coming down to ‘Blank stares at blank pages’. Just as Sara Bareilles portrays in her hit, “Love Song”, I am being pushed and prodded to write because I am instructed to do so. And somehow I’ve forgotten the passion I used to hold for it along the way. The Beatles “Paperback Writer” has pretty much become the backing track to the last few years of my education.

This has not been the first time these feelings of doubt have crept up on me. Having endured a Whiplash-esque love/hate relationship with producing music in my own life, my entrance to university summoned in an era of dedication to my craft of writing. Like Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, ‘Silence like a cancer grows’ until the songs I no longer played or sang echoed in my empty ears. And thus, the music trickled out of my life. But as Johnny Cash reminded me in “Tear Stained Letter”, I ‘still could reconsider, and come back to bein’ mine’. The music had stopped in the middle of the song. But starting now, I choose to pick up that guitar, sit down at that piano, tune that clarinet, open my mouth and press play on music once again.

And so, to rekindle my love for writing, matched with my heartsick longing to let music back into my life…this is why I write. Welcome to Food of Love. And as the Bard said, “Play on.”