Without a cloud in sight and a temperature of 70F, it was a day to drive with the windows down and the radio turned up. The sweet smells of a budding spring mixed with a song by Schubert playing on the radio; it was a moment of vivacious joy in the few minutes I had to myself between dropping my work and picking up the kids.
That is, it was until I came to the stoplight. The car next to me held a young woman with similar plans but very different tastes in sound, rhythm and volume. My options were limited – roll up the windows and proclaim my own sonic territory or crank up Schubert really loud. Since I’m constant weary of standing out as the oddest duck in the pond, you can guess what I did. Schubert remained mine, and mine alone, as I wished everyone was willing to do.
Music is a big part of our lives in ways that were unimaginable three generations ago. Car radios didn’t exist until the 1930s, and radios themselves were novelties until the 1920s. The ride down a street was a dusty trip with only the chatter of people and horses before that time. If you did pass by a radio, the choice of music was made by distant DJs pulling off a “Top 40” list with every style there is.
Today’s music comes from the web, often through recommendations of friends. It’s what you like, not necessarily what anyone else likes. The sound system is strong enough that you can envelope yourself in nothing more nor less than what you want to be. Music is a personal statement proclaimed along your path through Saint Paul or whatever city you live in.
Before radio, music was always personal – but not in the passive “stuff I downloaded” way it is today. The early Edison cylinder phonographs never outsold sheet music 100 years ago because that’s how people brought music to their lives – they played it. In the Middle Ages, the only professional music most people heard would have been in church. Once the Reformation came, the masses at Mass would be invited to sing along. The real music in their lives came when amateurs got together for a wedding, holiday, or for the heck of it to play tunes they picked up from the people down the road.
Standardizing music came first as the way it was written down and passed among people. Tunes could race across Europe as fast as the Post, rather than be slowly taught to one person at a time. As the middle class developed and grew, more elaborate instruments like pianos became available and sales of sheet music became a handy source of income to a composer.
The tunes of your life were the tunes that you, or someone in your family, were capable of playing. It was as personal as the motion of hands across a finely crafted instrument.
I still prefer music that has a hand-crafted feel to it. I want to have a relationship with the person who is playing rather than believing I express myself through a wall of sound that I am comfortable inside of. If I can believe that I know the people who are playing, like Josh Bell or Ton Koopman, I’m back to having a kind of conversation with someone sitting in the car next to me. That’s not as personal as the ancient times, but it’s a bit different than what most people use the tunes of their lives for.
A warm day with the budding smell of life is a good time to have the windows down if you find yourself in a car moving from one part of your life to another. Music makes that moment a little something else, adding another sensory experience. What we make of that experience, and whether it connects us to some aspect of our world or separates us, is all the difference. I’d rather be a part of it all – at least until someone else intrudes their own sense of themselves on the moment. Then, I’m all alone again.
We can’t all have our own way in the middle of the street, of course, but it would be nice if people left some sonic space for the rest of the world. If we can’t share it, that is.