Gratuitous Music


Why do we want to make music? What is is for? Who really cares?

I took a guitar with me to England in 1974. My wife never tires of reminding me. At an airport, whenever we see a guy lugging a bulky black guitar case down the concourse or cramming it into the overhead compartment (and taking up all the space), she points at me, shakes her head, and laughs.

“That was you,” she whispers.

It was a course in Shakespeare, in Stratford on Avon. We were a group of some 30 or so literature and theater students, and also a few senior citizens, one of whom had a slightly broken neck and needed to hang in traction every morning in the rooming house where we stayed. The group read Richard II and King John, saw the plays performed, and motored around the Cotswalds in a big bus. Mostly we guzzled warm, dark heavy beer in pubs and acquired English accents. “Lovely” became my favorite adjective. Lovely beer, lovely performance. Walking down to breakfast every day, I’d see Jean dangling in the doorway of her room. Good morning, Jean. Lovely day, isn’t it?

“Really,” my wife says. “What were you thinking?”

I tell her I thought I needed to practice. Writers keep journals. Artists fill sketch books. Musicians practice. The band I was in would have gigs as soon as I got back. Wouldn’t my licks to get rusty in a few weeks?


The first few nights I was there, before dinner in our house I closed the door of my room, took out my instrument, and played for a few minutes, feeling mildly ridiculous. In the airport and on the bus to Stratford, wherever I carried my luggage and my guitar case, the theater students would give me kind of an expectant look. Like, Let’s all sing! I wouldn’t have thought of playing the guitar for people, not for longer than a few minutes, anyway. I was not a campfire musician. I didn’t do sing-alongs. Also, I didn’t know any show tunes. And I’d been to too many parties where an ebullient (self-indulgent) guitarist hijacked the room. It was unbearable.

The other day at the gym I was invited to think again about the eminent strangeness of gratuitous music. A woman on the treadmill next to me, plugged into her personal listening device, was emitting rhythmic, atonal sub-vocalizations (aka humming). I didn’t want to listen. Who would want to listen? Maybe she didn’t know she was doing it or she thought no one could hear. Maybe she was happy.


Humming, that annoying scratching of a musical itch, almost always seems out of place. The most famous hummer I know, pianist Glenn Gould, hums through his virtuoso performances of Bach, among them The Goldberg Variations. Beneath that beautiful piano music, you hear this growling sound, faint but unmistakable. Sean Malone, a musician who writes on theory and music cognition, also an assistant professor of music at Carnegie Mellon, observes, “Gould may have visualized a large-scale, amodal image of the composition’s structure—an abstract conception of themes, climaxes, and form, etc.—transcending the tactile and physical requirements of performing the piece.” Malone would maintain it is the sound of music. It is to me as well, sort of. Mostly it is humming.

When I was in still in the classroom, every so often I would have a student, usually older, usually female, who was excited about learning, deliriously happy to be in school. Often she would sit in the front row, right next to my desk. Early in the semester, before the honeymoon had ended (before I started giving critiques and grades), when asked to take up pen and paper and write for 5-10 minutes, she would start writing and humming something shapeless and not quite recognizable as music. Would it have been better if you could recognize a tune? Hey, that’s Raindrops Are Falling on My Head. No. As soon as I was able to make eye contact, I would place an index finger over my lips. Please, hold that musical thought.


In Thought and Language, Lev Vygotsky describes “inner speech” as the language small children internalize from conversation and the ongoing babble they hear around them. This language, Vygotsky argues, becomes the basis for verbal thought. He points to “egocentric speech” as evidence of this phenomenon—small children talking aloud to themselves as they play, for example, trying out the words, thinking outloud. Similarly, humming is a kind of egocentric music; the individual’s “inner music” is externalized, performed for no one in particular, a performance that often accompanies another activity.

Eventually, egocentric speech gives way to “transactional” uses of language—conversation, questions, orders, complaints. We learn not to talk to ourselves when we are around others. To do so is funny. I mean, you know, funny. Egocentric music, on the other hand, seems to hang in there. There is a wacky scene in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in which Biff and Happy argue about whistling in elevators, with the implication that it is a childish and mildly anti-social behavior. In the medical literature on obsessive compulsive disorder, there are plenty of cases of hummers humming, instances that go beyond merely trying out the notes of a song, non-musical humming, exhalations, and whistling; in short, music and sound meant for no one, music and sound no one wants to hear.

Why do we make music? What on earth is it for?


Darwin provides us with an evolutionary explanation. In The Descent of Man, he writes: “When we treat of sexual selection we shall see that primeval man, or rather some early progenitor of man, probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing…this power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes,–would have expressed various emotions, such as love, jealousy, triumph,–and would have served as a challenge to rivals.” So this was primeval man on the make, making music. The drag and drop method was already becoming socially acceptable. Other theories have to do with social cohesion. Music unites us. Hymns create moments of shared spiritual communion. I know people who weep when they hear their country’s national anthem. Rock songs at concerts and parties and wedding receptions bring us to our feet and stir us to sing along, strum air guitar, and say Woot! Woot!

Girls were a secondary motive in my wanting to learn guitar. I wanted to play the iconic riff in the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” I was in the seventh grade when I bought an acoustic guitar for $12 from a kid in my class named Eddie Maurer. He brought it to school one Friday in a paper bag. The next week I started lessons with Phil Woodcock. Phil lived down the road. Thursdays after school, with my new guitar clamped under my arm, I walked down to this house, where his mother, whom I remember as a dead ringer for Eleanor Roosevelt, dressed all in brown, let me in and pointed me to the basement. Phil’s studio was an overheated, carpeted room down there. On the other side of one wall, on regular intervals, the furnace clicked on and roared.

I learned to tune the guitar. I learned about the body and neck, the bridge and frets. Phil handed me a book by Mel Bay, with pictures of chords I would need to learn. To explain what a chord progression was, he played G, C, D on his guitar. It sounded just like “Hang on, Sloopy” and a dozen other songs I heard on the radio. I took heart. Back home, I didn’t really play the guitar. I suffered it, squashing the strings against the neck of the guitar with tender fingers. No one, least of all Phil, prepared me for the pain involved in learning to play.

At my fourth lesson, he must have sensed I was discouraged. He asked how it was going.

Good, I lied. “The strings hurt,” I said.

“You’ll get callouses.” He showed me the fingertips on his left hand. He said it would take a while.

How long? Could I wait that long?

I played a few chords for him, feeling beads of perspiration form under my shirt and roll down my sides.

“Here’s a new progression,” he said. “And a new tune.” It was D, G, A. Then he started playing a song popular at the time. Maybe not popular. It was on the radio. He strummed and hummed, and I felt a knot tightening inside me somewhere.

“Is that–?”

“Yes,” he said. “You’ve heard this one.” I had. It was the Singing Nun. Phil strummed the chords sang these words:

“Dominique, nique, nique,

over the land he plods
And sings a little song
Never asking for reward
He just talks about the Lord
He just talks about the Lord

Half hour lessons cost $1.50. It was $3 for the Mel Bay book. Counting lessons, book, and the guitar, I had invested over $20 and a month of my time. I wasn’t much closer to Day Tripper than I was the day I brought the guitar home. I decided to go it alone.

It took awhile, but I eventually got good enough to play those iconic notes of Day Tripper. When I played it a few times for friends at school, I noticed in a matter of seconds they lost interest. I wasn’t creating much social cohesion. It wasn’t exactly a campfire song. But I kept going.

We play music and sing songs to make love happen and to enjoy social communion, certainly, but we also do it for ourselves. You bake bread to eat, but there’s joy in the making. I wonder if music is part of the human creature. Writing about birdsong in Lives of the Cell, Lewis Thomas says, “Behind the glossaries of warning calls, alarms, mating messages, pronouncements of territory, calls for recruitment, and demands for dispersal, there is redundant, elegant sound that is unaccountable as part of the working day. The thrush in my backyard sings down his nose in meditative, liquid runs of melody, over and over again, and I have the strongest impression that he does this for his own pleasure.” And so it may be for humans. We sing, we strum, we whistle and hum for lots of reasons, perhaps chief among them because it feels good.piano-keyboardFor some time now I’ve been trying to identify a piece of music stuck in my head. These days we would call it an earworm. It’s in someone’s classical catalog, guitar and two flutes, I’m guessing Bach or one of his contemporaries. There’s an apps for this: Mobile LaLa search, Midomi, Shazam, SoundHound, Tunatic. Supposedly all I need to do is hum a few bars. If the tune is out there, and if it’s digital, the app will identify it. Sometime soon, somewhere private, in my home or in my car, I’ll hum the tune or whistle it into my phone, cross my fingers, and hope.

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