I am afraid some people will see this post as boastful. It is not intended to be.
I have a good friend whom I share with my wife. He was a former teaching colleague of hers.
He reads all my posts — I am very happy to have him as a regular reader. He tends to admire my writings, which is very welcome, although if he disagrees with something (such as an opinion of mine about an author), he will tell me or my wife. He is a thoughtful person and reads with care and attention. But his criticisms are not harsh.
He has mentioned several times to both of us having enjoyed my writings and thoughts on classical music. He is an accomplished and serious pianist and a lover of music, about which he is knowledgeable.
I said I was glad that he enjoyed my posts about music. “You know,” I said, “with my limited technical knowledge of music, I am surprised to find I can write about it. But it seems I can.”
He said something in response to the effect that my writings on music read like those of a music critic.
Thinking more about this, I wrote my friend a follow up email, the text of which follows.
— Roger W. Smith
Yesterday we were talking about early influences, namely music and art.
I seem to be able to “think musically.”
Even though I can’t read music or play an instrument.
How is it that I know (or think I do) that Bartók outranks Stravinsky? How and why is it that when I was listening once to folksongs by Bartók, I was reminded of Porgy and Bess? And, then (this was in the past), I happened to read something about Gershwin somewhere and found out that he had used pentatonic scales in Porgy and Bess and realized that Bartók did the same with folksongs that used ancient modalities.
As I said, I seem to have always been able to think musically. My father graduated from Harvard when I was around four or five with a degree in music. I don’t recall it well, but he had 78 RPM records of classical music that he would play when doing assignments. I recall that I loved the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 — if one can do that at a very early age, one is inherently musical. I enjoyed listening to my mother play classical music on the piano around bedtime. I liked some other works I recall such as Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Plus kids’ songs such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away (Come Back Again Some Other Day).” I still remember the words and the basic tune. We had a scratchy old record of it which I wanted to hear over and over again.
I seem to have a photographic memory for music. I always recall what the pieces were and remember them exactly, going way back and extending through my lifetime. If I hear a different rendition at some later date, I can tell it’s not the same. (This includes popular music and rock.) How is it that I remember both the music and the actual pieces, including what they were?
For example, on the first day of school I attended in the seventh grade in my new hometown, Canton, our teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, led us from the piano in singing. The songs were “Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House We Go. The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh”; and, “Oh, Those Golden Slippers.” I can hear the songs still. I can hear Mrs. Sullivan playing — can seem to almost remember how that old piano sounded — remember what the songs were and the melodies.
Music is linear, like mathematics. I think linearly. I always did very well in math. Music and subjects like algebra are left brained.
I never had to develop an interest in music, like, say, someone who says, or thinks, they should take up tennis or golf for some reason, and begins by taking lessons.
It was similar to my love of books and reading in that it was never an interest that was part of academics or coursework. The best interests develop naturally this way.
So that when I was in high school, I began to seriously develop a taste for and knowledge of classical music. It came naturally.
But when it comes to playing and performing, I could never, should I have tried, come close to my siblings’ proficiency.
A footnote: My former therapist, Dr. Colp’s, intellectual development seemed similar, in some respects. He grew up in a very intellectually stimulating atmosphere of books and ideas. He told me that the life of the mind was like breathing for him.
I was very fortunate to have grown up in a home were music was a part of everyday life and where aesthetic enrichment and appreciation came with the territory. Music has always been an important part of my life.