I’m in over my head. One chapter into This Is Your Brain on Music and my brain is reeling, trying to take in all the terms and ideas Daniel J. Levitin has crammed into the first chapter. There is enough metaphor and music in those fifty-odd pages to keep me writing all through the night, if not all through Lent.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was in second grade when I started taking piano lessons. We always had a piano in our house when I was a kid, though no one spent much time there. My mom would sit down every so often and play one or two hymns that she knew, but that was about it. She also knew she wanted me to take lessons, so I did. For six months. And it was the seventh teacher who came out to the car and said, “Mrs. Cunningham, your son has musical talent and it will come out one day, but do him a favor and do me a favor and let him quit taking piano.”
Thus endeth the lessons.
What was happening in my lessons was I was learning to play by ear, rather than learning to read music. I got some of the basics – F A C E and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (she was British) – and could pick notes out enough to play the piece, sort of, but when she would stop me because I would make a mistake, I would say, “You play it so I can see how it sounds.” I could memorize what she played and repeat it faster than I could learn to read the notes. She caught me because she intentionally made errors and then I duplicated her mistakes.
I was in ninth grade before I got serious about an instrument, which was the acoustic guitar – and I still play. And I still don’t read music. I know chords, enough theory to be dangerous, and I still have a pretty good ear. When I look at a piece of written music, it feels like I’m looking at something in a foreign language, which is a good analogy because written music has a linguistic quality. I read music about like I speak Spanish. Un poco.
My friend, Randy Brown, is the reason I’m reading the book. He and I go back to Baylor days and working together on our act for All University Sing at Baylor. Music has been a part of our friendship from the first. So when he called to say the book would not only help me understand more about music, but would also teach me some things about me, I decided to read it for Lent. He also told me the first couple of chapters were pretty heavy on science and music theory, but to do the work to get through them because it would pay off. And, even though I feel stretched and a little lost, I’m already glad I’m reading.
I’m struggling with how to speak about what I’m learning without having to recap all the technical and scientific stuff, as well as the musical stuff, to set up what I want to say. I think the best I can do is hit the high points and encourage you to get the book because he explains things very well.
Levitin says pitch, rhythm, and timbre are the three key elements when we begin talking about music. Pitch, he says, is a psychological construct that answers the question, “What note is that?” When the hammer on a piano hits the string and the string vibrates, the vibration only becomes a tone when we hear it, which is to say it is psychological because it happens in our heads. Pitch is also one of the main ways musical emotions are conveyed. Melodies are relationships of successive pitches across time that our brain can learn to recognize, even when the melody is in a different key – at a different pitch – that what we heard before.
One more definition: tuning refers to the relationship between the tone and a standard (as in tuning the guitar) or between two or more tones being played together (as in tuning an orchestra). There’s more, but I’m going to stop here and say, since I read the chapter this morning the line (and melody) that has stayed in my head is, “Tune my heart to sing thy praise.”
And so Lent begins, for me, as a tuning exercise, if you will: tuning my heart to God and to those around me, seeking to hear and recognize the melody of grace in whatever key it may come, high or low. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is a hymn that serves as both melody and metaphor for me. It is both one of my favorite texts and one of my favorite tunes, when it comes to hymns, and one that has had a significant place in the soundtrack of my life.
o to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be
let thy goodness like a fetter
bind my wandering heart to thee
prone to wander Lord I feel it
prone to leave the God I love
here’s my heart Lord take and seal it
seal it for thy courts above
There have been times when this was a jubilant hymn: Sunday nights singing with my youth group in Fort Worth; days when the song came soft and low in the darkness of my depression; times when it carried reassuring memories and seedlings of hope as Ginger and I made moves and changes together; and nights when it was the bonding melody of friendship, sitting around our living room with guitars and other instruments, singing songs we knew by heart. Each time, my heart was tuned both to God and those around me.
Life, in many ways, is something we have to play by ear, if you will: there’s no set score to follow or part to memorize. Still, our lives go on in endless song. To learn the melody we must listen and tune our hearts to sing together.