When I was younger, my parents exposed me to different styles of music. Like most kids, this meant listening to what they put on. I’m part of what might as well be called the “Mixtape Generation.” My childhood happened back before CDs were a more common thing unless you were fairly well-off. As you can probably figure out, we were not. Smartphones were decades away from really existing, and even farther removes from these days, when they’re pretty inexpensive.
As a result, making a mixtape (similar to the playlists you and your friends might make) became a common pastime. You would load them to their maximum capacity – which, for most cassette tapes, was between 43 and 87 minutes, depending on whether you used a 45 or 90-minute tape. It was an art form, really.
Depending on whether you wanted to follow a genre and load it up with a bunch of jangly rock songs or dance tracks – or follow a theme and use songs about cities, or food, or colours – your mixtape was your musical calling card. It was the thing you made that defined who you were at that time.
My parents, when they made mixtapes, stuffed them with rock music from the 80s. I should really just say my dad, my mother never made mixes, and I don’t know why. She had impeccable taste. But every so often, between the sounds of somebody singing about letting loose on a Friday night or coming home to a significant other, there might be a rap song about living in the inner-city.
Hearing this difference in tone from the same-old-same-old was critical in my musical development, and it’s been said, time and time again, how important it is to be able to appreciate something you aren’t used to. People who are willing to step outside of their artistic comfort zone tend to happier and more satisfied.
Think of it like food. If you’re only used to eating fried food or steak, isn’t it gratifying to eat squash spaghetti or vegan pizza? Maybe not necessarily those two things, but at least something you’re not used to eating. It’s always good to try something different. I think music and art is kind of that way.
But my musical diet was still pretty limited to anything you’d hear on the radio. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to school that I began to open my eyes to all the different sounds that could be created when you combine different genres and tones.
This is where it’s important for a musician to keep an open ear. Using the food analogy again, you’re gonna have a pretty poor diet if you stick to one basic food item. If you only get one or two vitamins, you won’t be as healthy as you could be getting a wider range of nutrients.
Such is the same with a musician’s tonal arsenal. If you’re already a musician, you probably know all this anyway. But if you’re not yet, and are considering this artistic route, understand that it’s this wide variation in the musical buffet that makes for something more unique and appealing.
One positive thing I can say about most musical acts in modern pop music: there isn’t really that closed-off mindset anymore. It used to be, when I was growing up, that you had your mainstream pop here, you had rock there, and over in the corner, you had your country. None of them overlapped. Nowadays, country and rock mingle with R’n’B and pop. There isn’t that separation; everything bleeds over.
But it’s harder still to get into the quirkier sounds. Sure, pop has brought electronic music more into the spotlight. It’s impossible to escape the effect that has had on the musical landscape. Indeed, growing up, electronic music wasn’t something you heard every other song. DJs weren’t the main artist – if you heard something that was their handiwork, it was generally a bonus track on an artist’s deluxe edition. Nowadays, they can often be seen as the primary artist.
It’s because people have been able to keep an open mind when it comes to music, that progress is made. They’ve been able to look at sounds and trends, and see where it’s all heading. Indeed, a lot of the songs of today use scales other than the typical Western scales so ubiquitous in rock and country music. Indian modes see the light of day.
It’s this understanding of different sounds and how to pick them out that is beneficial to critical thinking skills. Being able to listen critically and go from there, this can help in a variety of contexts. An appreciation of what you’re enjoying – and this applies to other forms of expression, such as movies and visual art – can enrich your life outside of whatever the genre may be.
So open your eyes and your ears to new sights and sounds. It will benefit you and your current project(s) more than you could ever imagine.
Stephanie Knarr recently moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Harrisburg, PA area. Her writing appears in Harrisburg’s local magazine, The Burg, and her work will soon appear in Unwinnable and Five:2: One. Her favourite drink is RC Cola, and her favourite band is probably Animal Collective.