An attentive ear

How important is music to life?

Historians tell us that we humans have found a way to express ourselves through music for 55,000 years, probably starting in Africa, then evolving to be a fundamental part of human life everywhere. Music in some form is found in every known culture, time and place, even among the most isolated tribal populations.

I celebrate that. Music certainly has enriched my life, and it continues to. This is so very important to me.

I suspect that many Americans feel this way. Even those among us who might not think of ourselves as musically talented agreeably sing with others in public, the National Anthem, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Happy Birthday, Auld Lang Syne, familiar hymns in worship, all of us singing the same notes, more or less, at the same time.

Good things happen when we sing with others, even others who are different from us. We tend to ignore our differences when we sing or play instruments together, when we make music together. Singing together demands that we listen to those around us so we can match our words and pitches with theirs.

Matching pitches and words is harder than some of us realize. Professional and experienced amateur musicians will confirm that achieving a perfect unison, a perfect match of pitch and vowel, is virtually impossible. Even harmony comes easier. The sound feels richer, fuller when we divide into soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts of a chord, but we can achieve a level of harmony even when one or a few of us might be singing a tad above or below the proper pitch. Close but a little bit off the mark.

Unison is harder to achieve because there’s no four-part chord in which to hide an inaccurate pitch. Our pitch and vowel sound must match the others’. This requires an attentive ear. One must listen carefully to the others and try to match what they are singing exactly. As one who has sung for many years in a variety of a cappella ensembles, I have great respect for those whose ears and voices make them capable of producing beautiful music in this way. A perfect unison can be spine-tingling to hear. So can a well-balanced chord.

If you suspect that I am using music as a metaphor for society, you’re right. We acknowledge that achieving perfect unity in these challenging times is virtually impossible, but I believe that harmony is within our reach. We might even find ourselves capable of singing the same notes, or almost the same notes, together at the same time. We can do this. We can. But to achieve it, we will need to listen.

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