You’ve got the music in you

“I wish I could sing!” I’ve been hearing a lot of people say that in the last few years, and it still doesn’t quite make sense to me.

“I wish I could sing!” I’ve been hearing a lot of people say that in the last few years, and it still doesn’t quite make sense to me.

The ability to be musical, contrary to what a marginalizing culture often tells us, is innately human. As ancient humans painted in caves, they also chanted, clapped their hands, and beat rocks together to form the first drum.

Because of the nature of prehistory, we cannot precisely trace the origins of music, but the oldest known instruments we have found designed specifically for playing music are Chinese bone flutes dating over 10,000 years ago. The amount of time it would take for music to progress from its “beginning” to the point where humans were making musical instruments suggests that musicality is a very deep, very entrenched part of our humanity.

Further proof of this is found in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. In 1983, Gardner published Frames of Mind, a book claiming that pencil-and-paper IQ tests did not fully capture the realm of human intelligences, and identified seven (later expanded to eight) core categories of intelligence.

They are: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and…good job, you guessed it, musical.

Our musical abilities are as natural as our ability to speak, do arithmetic, and swing a bat. They vary from person to person, which is why one of us can have trouble getting through a regular book in the span of a month while another can blow through Moby Dick in a week. That doesn’t mean either of them didn’t enjoy a good read.

Yet so many of us are convinced that we are not musical. Modern society seems to have done a good job of telling us this. As an American Idol-soaked media feeds us images of dewy-eyed hopeful superstars, we are increasingly being told there are two kinds of people in the world: the “talented” who “have it” and appear in our favorite bands and reality shows, and, well, the rest of us, who seem to have an obsession with saying, “Oh no, I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow.”

Deke Sharon, president and founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, ruminates: “Western culture culls out ‘acceptable artists’ before they’re old enough to know what hit them. Somewhere between finger paintings that get displayed on grandma’s refrigerator and high school, we were all told by parents, teachers and friends if we were ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ This is unfortunately true of all arts, not just music.”

Being musical is not a mythical blessing bestowed on children from age three who spend their lives locked in practice rooms. Being musical does not mean resolving to be the next Pavarotti.

Being musical means being human. It means singing along to your favorite song with gusto, and not just in the car where no one can hear you. It means tapping out a beat on your desk. It means hilarious karaoke (drunken or not), chants by a bonfire and solemn spirituals. Imagine visiting a friend in a small town and attending a church service, and when everybody gets up for the hymn, protesting, “Oh no, I’m sorry, I can’t sing!”

I liken musicality to knitting, a relaxing hobby many students have taken up. Can anybody knit after a couple of quick lessons? Yes. Can anybody learn to make cabled sweaters and multi-colored socks? Doubtful. Can anybody have fun making a pretty bitchin’ scarf they can wear proudly? Unquestionably yes. The same goes for music.

Society tells us that musicality is necessarily related to performance, but this is not true. It is true that we are not all destined for the stage or the studio. But music is not restricted to those arenas anymore than throwing a baseball is restricted to the major leagues.

We can all keep a beat, we can all strum chords, and we can all give a soothing lullaby to our children who will love whatever we have to sing to them. A certain celebrity not well known for his musicality had this to say on the subject:

“Music is exciting. It is thrilling to be sitting in a group of musicians playing (more or less) the same piece of music. You are part of a great, powerful, vibrant entity. And nothing beats the feeling you get when you’ve practiced a difficult section over and over and finally get it right (yes, even on the wood block). Music is important. It says things your heart can’t say any other way, and in a language everyone speaks. Music crosses borders, turns smiles into frowns, and vice versa.”

Any guesses as to who said that? Dan Rather, longtime anchor of CBS News. And if he can find his musician within, undoubtedly so can you.