Bach is still the king

Some people listen to music with their ears, others with their minds, and still others with their souls. The first people largely don’t understand music; they listen to pop music in their cars, or in the mall while they’re shopping, or they think hip-hop is great. The second group of people understand music. Chances are they had piano lessons growing up, they played in band in high school and they enjoy classical music. I would dare say that a large part of this group is made up of musicians who aren’t the one doing the performing. They sit towards the back of the recital hall, or they hide in a dark corner with their ipod, and they listen critically. If the performer is good, the listener is pleased and points out all the parts of the piece they love. If the performer is not so good, the listener has nothing but criticism for the music from beginning to end, and then typically ends with an appeal to the musician on how he could improve. Often this appeal starts with something along the lines of “Well here’s what I would have done differently…”

Then there are people who listen with their soul. There’s no really easy way to classify these people. Some of them don’t know the difference between a quarter note and a quarter rest. Some have probed the depths of music theory for decades, and can give the play-by-play of every piece as it unfolds. But regardless of head knowledge, these people connect with the music on a deeper level. They listen with their eyes closed, but would never be mistaken for a sleeper. Their head moves from side to side, and follows every crescendo in the music. They tap their fingers on the beat, conducting the orchestra of imagination as the musical imagery plays out before them. As the second movement darkens they begin to feel the tangible struggle between good and evil. The battle turns south, and the antagonist gains position. Defeat for our hero is imminent. And then, with a single chord, a single note, evil is struck down. The hero has triumphed, we are victorious! The score reverberates sounds of victory, and of the peace that lies ahead. Evil has been conquered!

I went to the National Cathedral tonight to hear an organ concert from Dr. Paul Jacobs, the division chair of organ from Julliard School of Music. It was phenomenal, sitting there in the chancel of the national cathedral, watching a man disappear behind an enormous organ and play amazing music. There are something like 10,000 pipes in the cathedral organ, and sitting there in the chancel is a full 3-dimensional musical experience. Music comes from every direction–above, behind, and beside you. About 150 of us sat there in the chancel, and not a single one of us could see the organist, so instead the northern three rows stared across at the southern rows, and they stared back. It was in this rather unusual people-watching experience that I realized how differently people listen to music.

The ear listeners were typically easy to spot because they flaked out. Some left after only a few minutes (and were rude enough to come back for their sunglasses in the middle of a song), and others were enjoying their Sunday afternoon naps, completely unaware of what was happening around them. Maybe some of them didn’t know what they were in for, and sat down thinking this would only last a few minutes. Or maybe they’ve never been to a recital before and just don’t understand the etiquette. But there they were, plain as day, sitting there bored out of their skulls.

The brain listeners constituted the majority of the crowd. Young and old alike, they sit quietly and listen carefully. They smile when the music, full of emotion, crescendos into one enormous cacophony of sound, the low end rumbling in your chest, and appreciate the moment. Of course they recognize the extreme talent as the organist seamlessly transitions into the light, airy fugue movement, and nod in appreciation of the mastery of the musician’s craft.

Then there were the soul listeners. Some lean back and close their eyes. Others lean forward, eyes wide with anticipation. The old man across from me listened with his soul, anticipating every measure as much as the one before, beaming with happiness, while the rest of his family listened with their minds. The lady behind him listened intently, eyes closed. She moved in rhythm to the music–not a lot–but just enough to be seen. Of the 150 or so people in the chancel, probably only a dozen of us listened with our souls. And at the end of the recital, as the different listeners collectively rose to offer our thunderous applause, we all looked the same. The ears and the minds looked no different than the souls, and may have even clapped louder and faster and cheered more often. But there is no comparing the experience of the three. One heard music. One heard years of practice and study, and technical proficiency. One caught an extraordinary glimpse of a composer’s soul, a piece of paper and ink, brought to life, again, for the very first time.

I’m thankful for God’s gift of music, and the ability to listen to it with my soul.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with hip-hop and pop music. I listen to it some. But it doesn’t have soul.