The magnificent blues guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. performed regularly not far from my childhood home. But the divides of race and radio kept me from hearing him play until I was an adult. Even when I started spending my babysitting money on music I was limited to what was available in stores within walking distance. Just like everyone else born before the internet, my musical ear was limited to narrow channels of exposure.
As I got older and discovered what to me was new music, I felt my smaller world crack open. Music pours in past filters. Music, perhaps more than any other form of art, evokes a personal response. Unique as it may be to each musician, it’s also an expression of our shared humanity.
Turns out we’re born to be more receptive to music than to speech. According to a study babies respond to music, even regular drumbeats, with increased smiling. Even more surprising, this research shows that babies correlate their movements with the tempo and rhythm. They dance!
And music gets a much greater response from babies than spoken words. No wonder adults all over the world naturally engage babies in a sort of singsong-like call and response. We’re translating our language into one that is more evocative.
That’s what music does. It makes us known to one another.
Music is used to lull small ones to sleep, rouse teams to competition, woo lovers, worship, commemorate solemn occasions, and celebrate. In some parts of the world music is a medium to intentionally and peacefully resolve conflicts. Through music we more fully grasp that all of us feel grief, love, fear, injustice, joy, and moments of transcendence.
My children enjoy wider access to music of all kinds. They’ve seen Chinese opera, Tibetan throat singing, Lakota flute playing, Balinese gamelan, and much more. They know more than I ever will as they seek out and share music across a huge range of styles. Lured by the sounds of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, I wander upstairs to my daughter’s room where I listen, entranced. I pay attention as my son enthuses about Inon Zur, composer of the orchestral music for inCrysis and Dragon Age 2.
Theirs is the first generation to have the full advantage of the net and other music sharing technology. Across all divides, music can be a peacemaker. It can let us slide past cultural differences and language barriers to a place of mutual understanding. It can let our children keep on dancing and smiling as they were born to do.