Every single human being is musical

There. I said it. A blanket satement: “Every single human being is musical.”

It isn’t so long ago I didn’t believe that.

For instance, I remember being singled out for orchestra in primary school, over thirty years ago now (in Ye Darke Ages!).

Our whole year level was given a hearing test, where they beeped these notes at us, and we had to say which ones were the same and which were different.

I must have done well in that whacked-out test, because next thing I knew, I was selected to play the violin in the school orchestra. One of only half a dozen kids in the year level.

Then I noticed, once I’d joined the orchestra, how many family members there were: the Tickle sisters, the Beard brothers (all four of them!), and now the Veitch siblings – my older brother and me.

My brother and I with our instruments: him with his 'cello, and me with my violin

It looked like musicality ran in families, and since I first noticed it, all those years ago, I’ve never disputed that some families were “more equal than others” when it came to music.

And somehow or other, despite never having being taught or trained, my brother and I seemed to have this knack for music that was in us, right from the beginning – born inside our genetic shells, where no-one could take it away, or even really see what it was or where it came from.

Questioning the God-given, self-acknowledged superiority of The Musician

But now I’m not so sure.

I think maybe there’s a big problem with our musical culture, and how we judge music, and very much with how we train and teach music.

We musical types are so convinced we have something special, we’ve hardly stopped to question whether that’s actually true or not – or whether we’ve just rigged the playing field to suit us, and paid off the referee.

I mean, what about that kid that can’t hold a tune, but has an incredible sense of rhythm? They would never have been picked for orchestra, but that same orchestra might have just missed out on the best percussionist it would ever have got. Are they musical? I’d think so.

And what about the kid who can dance like you’ve never seen, but sings like a cat on steroids? Their whole fricking body is registering the music and responding to it – not just their fingers or their vocal chords! Yet if we heard them sing, we’d never call them a musician.

But I would.

Music doesn’t stop with the throat and hands!

And then there’s the issue of hand-eye co-ordination. I’ve lost track of the number of musicians I know who can sing well but are an embarrasement on the dance floor (hi honey!).

A choir I used to be involved with tried just a few simple steps (like – really, REALLY simple!) to some African music they sang a couple of years ago, and I swear most of the choir members couldn’t tell their left foot from their right. Just as well, really, as I think most of the men, at least, had two left feet!

This might seem irrelevant, but in a lot of cultures, singing and dancing are intertwined, inseparable. Would these “special needs” dancers have been stopped from singing because they couldn’t dance?

Maybe…I guess that means my husband’s career in music would have been doomed too! Which shows how judging according to one particular view of what it means to be musical can be so wrong – and so limiting.

What I’m saying here is that we judge people as musical or not, in our society, according to a very small set of metrics that totally ignore whole facets of what it means to be musical, and to have the music in you.

We tell a person they can’t sing if their voice is rough, despite the fact they have perfect pitch – then they go away and never sing again, convinced they’re a failure in the musical world.

Or we stop someone from joining a choir because they’re too loud, too tall, too whatever – and prevent someone from sharing the music that is in them and of them, because of our own shallow and petty perspectives about the world.

Music is transformative

Every single human being is musical. I’m convinced of it. My son, who is autistic, used to bellow out songs so badly you’d want to block your ears – tuneless and loud, and totally awful in every respect.

But recently his understanding of music (he’s only six) has transformed, and suddenly we’re finding he’s got great pitch, and sounds nice to listen to, and he’s in time with the music better than most kids his age. He clearly just needed to grow into the music – and to be given a chance to shine.

Transformation can happen, if we give it a chance. And maybe his transformation is happening because we always encouraged him and told him he could, instead of telling him to stop, and making him believe that he couldn’t.

Dreaming a musical dream…

If I could have a dream project, it would be to gather together a whole stack of people who believe they can’t sing, who have been told they can’t sing, who have been encouraged to never sing, and who have been dumped from choirs and glee clubs around the world. And I’d get them to make music that would get the world dancing.

Because I believe that every single human being is musical. It is in us, and of us, and nothing can ever take it away. And if this is a rant, so be it, but it is what I believe, and that’s the end of this post.

What to do when your lyrics SUCK!

I’ve written about copyright before, and why it is a great move to use original text if you’re a composer.

But what do you do if your lyric-writing ability sucks? Here are some ideas on how to deal with the whole issue of finding lyrics for your work if you’re a musician – not a lyricist.

Before the money-grubbers got greedy…free stuff

There are several options.

Firstly, a lot of great poetry dates back to before copyright and can be used freely.

Examples include Shakespeare’s Sonnets and texts from his plays, poems by Wordsworth and Hopkins, and other great masters of the English language.

Many religious texts are also not copyright, and available for free use. The “Requiem” texts are a common theme for composers who write for choir:

Mozart’s Lacrimosa from his Requiem uses a freely available religious text.

The changing English language – and associated issues

However, society has changed, and meanings have changed with it, so sometimes out of copyright texts are not really ideal any more.

For example, the line “Taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.” probably didn’t have dodgy connotations when Vaughan-Williams set George Herbert’s poem to music in his beautiful Five Mystical Songs. But few choristers can sing the line without a giggle these days!

The truth is a lot of traditional religious texts are pretty sucky too, when you translate them out of the Latin into English. This is probably one of the reasons why most composers choose to retain the original Latin, if they were being perfectly honest about it.

So – you can stick with Latin, or another language. But then you have issues related to meaning and communication. How well are your singers going to get intent across, if they don’t understand what they’re singing about?

Is audience enjoyment and appreciation lost or reduced when they don’t understand the content?

Is your audience honestly going to enjoy the music as much as a work written in a language they understand?

I know that Latin works are common for choirs, but maybe it is time to ask the question whether all that highbrow stuff is maybe keeping audience members away – particularly newer audience members not familiar with Latin, and unschooled in Church tradition.

Most schools no longer teach Latin, and a working knowledge of the language is becoming less common. Few musicians have a good grasp of that old, dead language – let alone regular audience members. And why should they? So why on earth is any composer still writing in Latin?

Dead, Dead, DEAD! Even in Italy they speak – you guessed it! – Italian! Not Latin!

If all else fails…make it up!

You could try adding lyrics in a made up language – Welsh Composer Karl Jenkins used this to great effect in his well-known choral work Adiemus:

La didly ya ya ya bay Ya didly ya ya ya bay! This is deep and meaningful stuff! But it is still a good piece.

Ok. But what if you’re more a modern music person? It can be really difficult, and most of the music that you’ll find on iTunes is under copyright, as is its lyrics. So you can’t borrow lyrics from other musicians – these days that’s going to get the copyright lawyers sending you nasty letters.

Finding a lyricist

One option is to find someone who writes lyrics – a lyricist.

I’ve written lyrics for a while now, sometimes for other people, because not every great musician writes terrific text. Music and and the ability to write well do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Finding a lyricist is all about finding someone with a background in language use. I’m comfortable writing my own lyrics because I have an English and professional writing background. So writing is my field. That doesn’t mean I don’t write bad stuff – but at least when I do, I can tell it’s bad!

If you are looking for a lyricist, a good place to start is finding a friend with a writing / English background. You’re probably aware of friends who write well – why not ask one of them to help you out, and collaborate on your next piece of music?

Give it a go, and see if things work out. If they do, you might develop an ongoing partnership. If not, it can be a “one off” and you can try someone different next time.

Accept the suck!

Of course, you can just accept that your lyrics suck, and figure that your music is good enough that the sucky lyrics won’t matter. Several minutes of “naa naa naas” at the end of The Beatles’ Hey Jude certainly didn’t stop an awesome song from becoming a classic.

Nor did the lines “Just like a Soldier needs a gun / Like a Hamburger needs A Bun” stop James Carr’s song ” A Man Needs A Women” from being great – although I cringe every time I hear the lines!

The lyrics suck, but frankly, James Carr could sing a “Little Donkey” and make it rock.

See – even great musicians can write suck! And suck can sound awesome. So maybe the answer is just to go with it!