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That’s Not Music to My Ears!

My in-laws have lived in the middle east for well over 10 years and have grown accustomed to the middle eastern musical scales and sounds – or so I had thought.  While they were back visiting us over the summer we attended the local folk music festival together. As with most festivals I have attended the music is as diverse as the people who attend.  After a morning full of such diversity I wanted to expose my children to an example of the music my in-laws (their pappa and momma) would regularly hear in their second homeland.  I don’t remember if anyone said anything so I must have assumed that this would be okay.

Later that afternoon we found a place on the right side of the stage, laid out our  blankets and lawn chairs and waited for the performance.  It was at this time I noticed that my mother in law had become quiet – perhaps in excited anticipation of hearing the music.  Four men came on stage carrying instruments specific to their region.  We commented on the different shapes and the materials the instruments were made of. The men formed themselves in a small semi circle on stage – all sitting on the floor.  They began to play.

Unlike much western music,  Arabic music includes quarter tones. These small changes, in what is to the Westerner’s ear a single note,  is often uncommon to our ear and may even seem out of tune. The rhythmic structures are generally very complex and carry a tension uncommon to western music culture.  More traditional Middle Eastern music can last from one to three hours in length. Luckily this wasn’t a traditional context because when I looked over at my sweet mother in law after only 3 minutes into the performance, she was trying hard to not noticeably cringe.  After the first piece she turned to us and said, “so that is similar to what I hear anytime I want to back in Abu Dhabi – how about we go try another stage and listen to some music I don’t get to hear as often any more.”  It was subtle but we all got the point…this music was not resonating positively with her.

As we walked away I asked her what she thought of the music and she said something very interesting to me, “I have not learned to understand it.”  Then with a serious note to her voice she asked me if that was common. She said to her it didn’t sound like music.  She asked me if I thought it sounded like music.  I told her that although it was not my preferred style of music listening I definitely would call it music.   This lead into a wonderful discussion around “what is music?”

To her, middle eastern music, even after several exposure attempts, did not sound like music. She would always gravitate back to the music that made the most sense to her, that made her feel comfortable, that held some meaning to her.  I am sure she is not the only one.  I know that many parents out there feel the same way when their teenagers are playing music in the basement…music that they don’t understand.  And if not your teenager’s music, there is probably some style of music that does not make a lot of sense to you.

So what is music to each of us?  Does our brain need to understand it?  Do we need to like it?  Does the performer have to have skill?  Do the notes need to be in all the right places?  What is music?  I suggest that MUSIC THAT IS INTENDED TO BE MUSIC IS MUSIC. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.  I would love your thoughts…