I Have So Many Questions About Music

What is Music? How can I make some? How can I compose Music that sounds like my own?

Michael David Crawford
Fourth Draft: January 2, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

What is Music? How can I make some?

I have music in me. I have always felt it. I can play, and to my delight I have been able to create some new music. But I know I can create more, much more than my limited ability has allowed me to achieve thus far. I want the music inside me to grow, and to come out for all to hear. I have questions, so many questions. I want answers. I have asked, and I have searched for answers, but so far I have found none.

I am told by someone I respect that I am taking the wrong approach entirely, that I should not even be asking these question as I am. She says that if I am to find my answer at all, I will have to find it within myself.

I have always loved music. I have almost always made music. But I have never felt I understood music. Music has always been a mystery to me. Even more so are the people who compose it. As a child I thought composers must possess some special magic that could not be taught but that one could only possess from birth.

I want to compose. I have already composed some music, just simple pieces, but I am proud of what I have done. I feel I can go no farther until I have answers to my questions. Maybe you cannot give me any answers, but maybe you can help me to ask better questions, or tell me where to go to find the answers I seek.

Please Help! When I finish writing this I'm going to submit this to the community website Kuro5hin, in large part as a response to Kuro5hin user Philip Dorrell's appalling answer to the question What is Music?.

I need your comments and criticisms to help me improve this article. It's not simply that I want to do the best job I can so that my article is approved by Kuro5hin's "moderation" process. More significantly, the question of What is Music? is an important question to me, one that I feel if I can answer, I will have achieved one of the most significant goals I have in my life.

Please send your comments to mdcrawford@gmail.com Thanks for your help! -- Mike


What Made K5 So Angry?


I began this essay as a comment in reply to Philip Dorrell's What is Music? I voted for his story only reluctantly, agreeing with other posters that his essay seemed to miss the point entirely. As Kasreyn said, it "reads like a critique of Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' by an astronomer." I decided to submit my own story as I did not expect his to get approved by the moderators. I was surprised when his story made section, but feel my questions here are worthy of their own discussion. I hope you agree.

On the face of it, it seems odd that Philip Dorrell's What is Music? evoked such an angry response from Kuro5hin readers.

Dorrell's article is a brief explanation of recent psychobiological research that suggests that what makes music sound musical is that it is sensed by structures in the human brain that interpret the emotional content of speech. Emotions are signaled by subtle "musicalness" in the rhythms and pitch of ordinary speech. The explicit musicalness and intense emotions we experience in response to actual music is the result of super-stimulation of senses meant to help us communicate.

Well, that seems reasonable. If so, why did Dorrell's article elicit the response it did, ranging from simple exasperation, to ridicule, to outright anger? "What is Music?" barely survived moderation:

Why did such an innocent article get such an angry response? I have read many articles on considerably more controversial topics that got much more enthusiastic receptions from the Kuro5hin community. I have some idea why, a reason that relates to my quest to make music:

Dorrell claims that musicalness is calculated by our brains to detect a subtle musical quality in ordinary speech. I assert there is no mystery to the evolutionary selection that lead to the development of our musicalness sense. Speech is meant not just to convey information, but to inflame the passions. Whether to exhort one's comrades to charge in battle, to pursue the hunt, or to woo a potential mate, the emotional content of speech is at times of primary importance, far more important than the particulars of anything one might actually say. I suspect emotional speech is more primitive than the dispassionate conveyance of information, as one can transmit emotion through simple grunts or moans, while modern speech requires much more advanced intellect.

Writing, effective writing anyway, has a musical quality to it as well. There is a rhythm and a flow to it, there is pitch. Although none of these are expressed explicitly on the printed page, they exist in the mind of the reader, and the writer who has learned to express them can manipulate the emotions of his readers, or at least captivate their interest.

Dorrell's writing is sophisticated, articulate and by the book, but their is no music to it. To write about a topic that inflames such passion as does music, but not to have passion in one's writing, is an assault on the sensibilities of the reader. It is an oxymoron. It is a punch in the gut.

I think Dorrell would have gotten a much warmer response if there has been some feeling to his writing. I invite him to try again. But to learn to write well takes a lot more than learning to spell, to punctuate, or to construct grammatically correct sentences, the topics we all studied in so many years of stupefying grammar school English lessons. One must learn to write words that flow, words that entice, words that charm or excite the reader.

I do not believe one needs to dumb down one's writing to captivate the reader. Most of my own articles are actually about very technical topics in computer programming. I do not think academic journal papers need to be hard to read. They are not so unpleasant because the material is advanced: the reader is always a specialist. I feel academic papers are hard because most of the people who write them cannot write well.



I am at a disadvantage in my study of music. I am forty years old, but at the stage in my studies that most musicians reach by the age of ten.

I spent my childhood studying to be a scientist. I was accepted at Caltech to study Astronomy, but eventually graduated from UC Santa Cruz in Physics. Physics did not work out for me as a career, so for many years now I have worked as a computer programmer.

This has a couple implications. My lifelong path as an unapologetic geek means that I take a very linear, analytic approach to solving the problems presented to me. I am afraid Dorrell's approach to answering the same questions I ponder is more similar to my own than I am quite comfortable admitting. Most musicians would regard me as a square. I cannot even speak their language. I'm forty years old and bald. I'm not in the least bit hip and cool.

The other implication is that I am very old to just be starting my formal study of music. I knew by the age of eight that I wanted to be a scientist someday. I knew that many years of hard study lay ahead of me. Somehow it did not bother me to study fractions and multiplication tables, knowing that the mysteries of these things called differential equations would one day be revealed.

At forty years old I am not so patient with my study of music. I am sophisticated enough intellectually to revel in the complexity of classical symphonies, yet I have to spend twenty minutes or so of each daily practice playing scales, struggling to play them evenly, trying to get my thumb to move just the way my teacher tells me it should. It is going to be years before I am capable of even playing the kind of music I want to compose, and I find this fact hard to bear.



Philip Glass is my inspiration. He is proof by example that an unapologetic geek can make it in music.

Solo Piano

by Philip Glass

[ Buy at Amazon]

Solo Piano cover

Anyone who has seen him perform, or heard him speak on the radio will agree that Glass is a square. I had the great privilige to hear him play Solo Piano in Santa Cruz, and at his performance he was stiff and formal.

Glass got his start in music by listening to records his father brought home from the store he owned. His father brought home the albums no one purchased, and asked Glass and his siblings to listen to them so they could explain why no one bought them. This is how the young Philip got to know the music of the great Johann Sebastian Bach.

Glass' undergraduate education was in Mathematics and Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He worked his way through school by loading cargo onto airplanes at the Chicago airport.

After Chicago, Glass went to The Julliard School, America's most distinguished conservatory, to study composition.

The Photographer

by Philip Glass

[ Buy at Amazon]

The Photographer cover

I own many of Glass' compact discs, and hope to own them all someday. Many of his pieces thrill me. When I am stuck on a problem at work, The Photographer always fills me with ambition.

Not everyone likes Glass' music. Many find it intolerable. He is popular today, but has not always been so: at an early performance, someone tried to drag Glass offstage to make him stop playing.

Not everyone likes my music either. I ran polls in several diaries, and found that most who downloaded my MP3s did not like them.

The police had to be called during a performance of music by Schoenberg and Berg. The premier of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps incited a riot. Maybe someday, if I'm really lucky, fighting will break out over my music too. One can only hope.

Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky

by Igor Stravinsky

[ Buy at Amazon]

The Photographer cover

My favorite among the classical (actually baroque) composers is J.S. Bach. Glass is my favorite among modern ones. A question I might ask is how to compose music that sounds like theirs, but that is not my question at all.

Here is my question: how can I compose music that sounds like my own?

I am far my answer. It is very frustrating to me.

My Musical Roots


My first instrument was a sort of recorder called a song flute that I learned to play in the third grade. In the fourth I studied clarinet for a year, but gave it up because my weak lungs made it hard to play the higher notes. In the fifth grade I took up drums because a friend pointed out my habit of drumming my pencil on my desk. I had rhythm!

In high school I sang in the theater, and took chorus as a senior, singing bass in the school's barbershop quartet. At Caltech I joined the glee club, but quit because I had to study so hard for my classes.

Twenty years ago I taught myself to play piano. I gave up drums as a teenager because of a bad experience with a music teacher, so I was determined to learn piano on my own. I never had an easy time reading music, so I was also determined to learn to play without learning to read. There are many cultures whose music is not written down but taught just by playing it. Why couldn't I do that with the piano?

It took a long time, but I had some success. What I did was play the keys more or less randomly at first, while trying to notice whether the sounds I made were pleasing. Eventually I got to where I could improvise. I refined some of my improvisations into the four songs I recorded with the help of my friend Pete Burnight, who lent me a portable studio recorder and a couple nice mikes back in 1994:

Not long after that I noticed all my improvisations started to sound the same. I was no longer able to make new music. After a while I tired of it and stopped playing entirely.

I missed playing though, and I missed composing. I figured I needed to learn to play music written by others. I thought that would teach me more sophisticated musical techniques than what I had been able to stumble upon by myself.

I needed to learn to read music.

I had always dreaded that. Reading music is very painful for me. It is not that I cannot name or play the notes if I look at them, but that I have to think about them for some time before I can. I never could look at a page of music and just play it. I could not sight read. But I became determined that I would learn. I would take lessons.



I took some lessons with a wonderful teacher named Velzoe Brown back in Santa Cruz, in 1997. I was introduced to her by Don Steiny, who called her a "national treasure". In the 1920's Velzoe left home at the age of 16 to tour with an all-girl band. She's still a very bold woman, and she was wonderful to me. She taught me to play some of the simpler pieces by Bach, pieces Bach write to teach his children to play, as well as some Mozart.

Eventually my work and my new relationship with the woman who was to become my wife intervened and I stopped coming to lessons. I did not get very far at reading music.



Things were very hard for my wife Bonita and myself during the economic downturn, so during the years we lived in Maine I did not play at all.



Upon moving to Canada a little over a year ago I decided to resume my lessons, and in January of last year, I commenced study with Esther Tanner of Truro, Nova Scotia. She has a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Prince Edward Island, well-known for its music school.

Esther is a wonderful teacher, mercifully patient. She has helped me to make tremendous progress at my playing, and I am finally, slowly starting to read music on my own. I can play Pachelbel's Canon! I have always wanted to play it, it has always been a favorite. Bonita and I hired a string quartet to play Pachelbel's Canon at our wedding while she walked down the aisle.

But somehow I find Esther is not able to answer the questions I have.

On her business card posted in Mingo's Music Sales, Esther offerred to teach music theory. I told her I wanted to learn it. So Esther gave me Elementary Music Rudiments by Mark Sarnecki, and had me work through its written exercises, along with my studies of playing from my piano method books.

Sarnecki's book teaches, for example, that such-and-such is a whole note, a half note, a quarter note, or an eighth note. A time signature of 4/4 indicates that there are four beats to a measure, with a quarter note getting one beat. There are whole tones, and semitones. This symbol indicates a sharp, that a flat. Once there has been a sharp or flat all the remaining notes of the same name remain sharp or flat for the rest of the measure, so there is a symbol to indicate a natural note, cancelling the previous sharp or flat.

Kasreyn said Dorrell's story read like a critique of Starry Night by an astronomer. Well, studying Elementary Music Rudiments felt like studying astronomy when my objective was to paint the heavens in oil.

I am very well aware that I need to know what is taught in Sarnecki's book. But although it is necessary, it is not sufficient. I need to study my rudiments to know how to read more complex music. I need to know this stuff if I am ever to write down my own compositions. But it is not going to help me understand how to compose music that inflames the passions of those who hear it, or of those who play it.

After working the first week's exercises, I said to Esther that the book did not teach what I wanted to know about music theory. I asked her if she knew why there were eight notes in an octave, and why the notes were chosen to have the particular frequencies they do. Esther replied that she did not really know. The best she could tell me was that this was a historical accident.

Don't get me wrong: Esther is a wonderful teacher, and her lessons are just what I need. The only present limit to my musical advancement is my own self-discipline: I do not practice as much as I should. I tell Esther it is because of my hectic work, but that is not really the case. Sometimes I just find it hard to get in my practice every single day.

My biggest obstacle, I am afraid, is my ego. I find it very difficult to tolerate learning totally new pieces, so I prefer to practice stuff I already know. At best this keeps me in shape but does not advance my skill.

I have to really work at new pieces, two or four measures at a time, over a period of a week or so for each new song. I have to play each increment over and over again many times, until I learn to play it competently and can move on to the next pair of measures. It is a very slow and painstaking process, and I hate to practice new songs because they make me feel really stupid. I have always been proud of my intelligence (my wife would say arrogant), so I find this very humbling.

In my ninth month of study, Esther started me on Grade One of the Mount Allison University examination studies. In Canada, young musicians step through a sequence of studies and examinations, progressing to more challenging music as the grades increase. I am about halfway through first grade now. In a few months I will go to New Glasgow to perform an examination, playing several pieces from my Grade One book, demonstrating technical proficiency at scales and chords, and playing a simple sight reading test. If I pass, I will receive a certificate and get to start on Grade Two.

After a few weeks of this I asked Esther what was required to be accepted into University music studies. I think she was quite surprised I asked. She said I would have to play at the Eighth Grade level. She said that would take a long time, and seemed skeptical that I would ever get that far.

She asked why I wanted to go to music school. "I want to compose," I replied. She seemed even more surprised now. "I won't be able to teach you that," she said, "but you're going to have to really learn your theory. There are rules, and you have to know them."

I knew that, but I also know that the rules of musical composition are not like the Laws of Physics. They are not immutable. They are, in fact, made to be broken.

Earlier this evening I discussed this with my wife. Bonita replied "That's true, but you'd better know what the rules are, and why you're breaking them, or else what you make won't sound like music. You'll sound like an idiot."

Esther asked why I wanted to compose. I told her I wanted to change careers. I told her I was weary of consulting. I told her I wanted to get out of programming altogether because the software business is a corrupt industry.

Every Good Boy Does Fine


Why did Philip Dorrell have such a hard time reaching his audience? Why do I have such a hard time learning to play?

Learning to write well takes a long time, and a lot of hard work. One must spend a lot of time writing, writing essays, articles or stories that are not so good, while struggling to understand their problems, and how one can write better.

To learn to write passionately, captivatingly, can take many years. Some have a natural talent for it, and so write with ease. The rest of us have to practice. Before one can even get to writing words that flow, one must learn to write at all: to spell, to punctuate, to build one's vocabulary. One has to spend many years in those stupefying grammar school English classes.

To learn to play passionately, captivatingly, can take many years. Some have a natural talent for it, and so play with ease. The rest of us have to practice. Before one can even get to making music that flows, one must learn to play at all: to play the scales, to handle one's instrument adeptly, to play without looking at one's hands, to build one's repertoire. One has to spend many years practicing, taking lessons, and feeling stupid because such simple songs are so hard to learn.



Earlier I asked the question how can I compose music that sounds like my own? At first this does not seem like such a tough question. Composing music that sounds like one's own is simply a matter of one's style.

At first I had no trouble developing my own style of piano, simple though it might be. It followed from the way I learned to improvise: banging on the keys while listening to see if I liked it. What sounded good to me, while simply arrived at, was characteristically mine, it is an expression of who I am, mentally, psychologically, biologically. My music sounded good because it sounded good to me, and to no one else. (I might add that others who overheard me experimenting this way often made it clear it did not sound good to them at all.)

When I listen to my own recordings, I can tell that I made them, and not just because I remember the tunes. I can tell that they sound like my own music.

I am very well aware that many people do not like my music, but I do. I remember vividly the experience of listening to my very first recording of my own playing, lying on the floor in the dark in my house in Santa Cruz, listening to Pete's portable four-track in my Grado headphones. I was entranced. It was not just that I liked my own playing, but that I could listen to it while totally focussed on its sound, without having to work to play it each time I wanted to hear it.

It was a magic moment.

As I said though, eventually my playing stagnated. I can always play music that sounds like mine, but I lost the ability to make anything new. That is why I am taking lessons, not just to get better at playing or reading, but to learn new musical principles, to inject new life into the music I write myself.

I enjoy the music of Philip Glass, I enjoy the music of J.S. Bach. I am learning to listen critically to music so that when I hear the radio, a CD or my own playing, I hear not just the tune, but the structure of the music, and the relationships of the different parts of a composition to each other and to the whole. While I do not yet know what to call them, I am learning to discern the musical structures used to compose the music that I listen to, and that I play.

But these techniques are not mine. I like Philip Glass, but I do not want to become him, or to write music that would be mistaken for his. How am I to absorb these techniques into my own style, to make them my own?

I wish I knew.



Why does the caged bird sing?
-- Maya Angelou

Why does Natalie Merchant's voice move me so? Is it because she sings as if she is on the verge of tears?

Why did I cry with tears of joy when Bonita gave me an MP3 player for Christmas? I wanted one just to help me work out at the gym, but I have hardly shut it off since Christmas Day.

Why do some music downloaders swear the record industry will only take their MP3s when it can pry them from their cold, dead hands?

Why would the record industry sue a twelve-year-old girl, the child of a single mother, for sharing music over the Internet?

Why did K5 get so upset at Philip Dorrell? Had he written his essay on quantum mechanins, no one would have minded. Were we angry because we felt our Music had been treated with disrespect?

Why, throughout history, have generations of musicians sufferred in abject poverty, at best working awful, low-paying day jobs, so they could devote themselves to their art?

(Excuse me a minute. I have to turn up my MP3 player. The Photographer just came on. Now I can really start to write. But first I have to wipe away my tears...)

Why does music matter to us so much?

Why does it matter so much to me?

Why did California Stars make me so homesick that I cried for hours the first time I heard it? Bonita could not console me!

I can think of nothing that seems so dull as practicing scales. Why do I delight in playing them?

My experience with my eighth grade band teacher was so traumatic I thought I would never play again. I cannot imagine a slower or more difficult way to study music than the way I learned piano. Why was I willing to go to such trouble?

There was a time, a horribly awful long time in my life that I felt such despair that I could not bear the thought of living through each day. The only way to find any peace was to play my piano. In fact, I only started teaching myself to play when my whole world fell to pieces and I did not think I would live out the year.

Why did my piano comfort me so, when no one else, nothing else, could?


I think I know the answer.

In his essay, Philip Dorrel came tantalyzingly close to the answer, but he stated it so obliquely that no one grasped it. Perhaps he did not recognize it himself. I have known the answer all my life, but was able to discern Dorrell's statement of it only after commencing my own essay.

I'll tell you now:

Music matters to us because it makes us feel connected.

It means a great deal to us to feel connected, possibly more than anything else. More than life itself: throughout history: generations of people have struggled, sufferred, fought, killed and even died so they could feel connected.

There are many other ways we can evoke this feeling, but music is at the same time the simplest, easiest to obtain, most primitive, and yet deepest, most sophisticated, and individually adaptible way to obtain a feeling that for some reason satisfies one of the deepest cravings of the human soul. Music is the distilled essence of connectivity.

And not just the human soul: music is more primitive than the human voice. Animals make music too: birds sing, whales sing, dogs howl. I can make both my dogs howl by howling myself. My dog Jacob, a beagle, howls when I play piano.

The expression on his face suggests that Jacob does not understand how my piano could be howling at him. Although he howls back, he seems disturbed by it. Bonita suggested one day that Jacob thinks my piano is howling on my behalf, that my piano is a prosthetic howling device.

I used to shut Jacob in another room so he would not disturb me while I practiced, but I felt bad about it, so now I just let him howl.

Do you think it makes him feel connected?

But You Didn't Answer My Question!


If music matters to us because it makes us feel connected, why does it matter to feel connected? What is it about music that gives us this feeling?

Dorrell knows the answer to the latter question, but I will address the former first: we need to feel connected so that we will not feel so alone.

There is an frightening truth about human existence, one so terrible that most cannot bear it. Only a few are willing to embrace it. Some understand this horrible fact, but prefer not to face it. Most avoid the question entirely and live in denial, yet it continues to wield its grim power over their lives despite their desperate attempts to shut it out.

We are, all of us, everyone, human and animal alike, ultimately all alone.

Once we leave our mother's womb, we are, as individuals, disconnected.

Sometimes, for fleeting moments, we can forget our terrible loneliness and feel that we are part of a whole, of something greater than ourselves, but in the end, we leave this world all alone. To die is an experience we must face all by ourselves. No one, despite their attempts to ease our pain, can come with us.

But we can forget our loneliness sometimes. Sometimes we can listen to, or even play music, and then we feel that we are part of something else. That is what I like to do. Sometimes, when the Spirit catches me, I might even dance.

There is another way. One can face one's fear. One can embrace the truth, and by accepting it, conquer it so that one does not feel lonely anymore.

But that is an essay for another day.

A Nation of Wireheads


This essay was born as a comment in reply to What is Music? a little over a week before Christmas. I wrote my third draft before the holidays intervened and I had to wait to complete it. I intended to finish on Boxing Day but Bonita's childhood friend Alison Coffin, a University economics instructor and seventh grade pianist, came to visit, and turned out to have a lot to say about my progress so far.

I have wandered far from my original intention, but I feel I am getting closer to some of the answers I seek.

When I started to write, I did not know that an MP3 player would be waiting for me under the tree. I did know that I wanted one, and hoped Bonita would take my hint. Her gift has had quite an impact on my essay.

I wanted an MP3 player so I could more easily face working out on the step machine at the gym. I cannot cycle now that it is Winter here in Canada, so I lift weights and step indoors. I find it hard to bear the passage of time while I exercise.

Bonita likes to play dance music on her CD player when she works out, but I found it bounced too much. I soon noticed that all the cool people at the gym worked out with tiny, lightweight MP3 players strapped securely to their arms. I thought I could step longer if I had a mix of my favorite tunes on a player of my own.


Delighted at my new toy, I loaded it up with tracks ripped from a couple of my CDs, and soon noticed that wherever I went, my music went with me. Bonita made a good choice: my player and its headphones have excellent audio fidelity, so they sound better than any of the stereos in our house.

I soon noticed that my player also transformed such tedious chores as waiting in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles into opportunities to listen to some tunes. I now look forward to the time I spend alone working at chores, time I used to dread.

It was not long before Bonita had to ask me not to listen to my player when she was trying to speak with me. She had to ask repeatedly, and I think started to regret giving it to me.

In Are You a Comfort Addict?, Kuro5hin member brain in a jar introduced us to the wirehead, someone whose head has been implanted with electrodes to directly stimulate the pleasure centers of their brain. It seems that one can experience endless pleasure this way, without the loss of effect from tolerance, or damage to one's body that comes from chemically-induced pleasure.

It was not long before I set out to rip and encode my entire collection of two hundred compact discs. I set two PCs and a Mac working in parallel, all running iTunes. I am about half done now.

I had a disturbing realization as I sat in Starbucks this afternoon, listening to Leo Kottke and Philip Glass while marking up a hardcopy of this essay:

I am a wirehead. And I am not alone.

Do you remember when Apple was best known for the computers it made? It is actually called Apple Computer Inc. How quaint! Now it is the company that makes iTunes, the iPod, and the iTunes Music Store, the leading integrated solution for the delivery of electrically stimulated pleasure to a nation of wireheads.



There are people who measure their MP3 collections, not in gigabytes, but in hundreds of gigabytes. I have met people who seek out others with such large collections over the Internet, who then swap files with them, not by sharing via the peer-to-peer networks, but by copying their entire collections to MP3 CDs or DVDs, and then exchanging the lot of them via snail mail.

Like the addict who will stop at nothing to get his crack, there seems to be no limit to the craving some people have to get more music. Nothing will stop them, not the threat of lawsuits or even prison time.

Will they ever actually listen to all their music? Will they really hear it, will they listen will enough to really appreciate it? Is all this really necessary?

I said that music satisfies one of the deepest cravings of the human soul. Clearly these people are craving something, but is it really satisfied by listening to their music collections? I think not.

Is there a better way? Yes there is: one can choose quality over quantity. There are better ways to listen to music.

I also said that Philip Dorrell knows why music makes us feel connected, and therein lies the key:

In order for the listener to perceive patterns of neural activity in the speaker's brain, there would have to be some relationship between neural activity patterns in the speaker's brain and neural activity patterns in the listener's brain, in a way which preserves the geometric nature of those patterns, at least to a sufficient extent that the patterns can be perceived. This implies some form of "neural mirroring". The mirroring does not necessarily have to be very accurate - it just has to be accurate enough that some observation can be made of the patterns of activity in the speaker's brain.

Music makes us feel connected because it transports a complex and time-varying neurological and psychological process from the brain of the performer to the brain of the listener. It enables us to think the thoughts, and to feel the feelings of another living being. It enables us to become one with them, and in this way pierce the boundaries that separate us, so that for a few fleeting minutes we no longer feel so alone.

And not just one other living being: music may be played by bands, sung by choruses, performed by orchestras, and danced to by thousands packed in a stadium.

I find it painfully ironic now to realize, after so many years spent avoiding learning how to read music, that sheet music is a compact and efficient way to transport the mental processes of the composer through both time and space to the brain of the performer, and on to the listener.

I told Bonita one day about watching a professional musician who came to play in the orchestra for one of my high school musicals. He picked up the piano score and sat down to play it all the way through, without making any mistakes that I could hear. I was astounded. Bonita replied, "Imagine reading a newspaper all the way through, the very first time you pick it up."

One can learn to sight read music just as one can learn to sight read English text. It just takes time, study, and practice. English teachers have their students write essays as well, but composing is not commonly taught when teaching music. I think it should be.

See Spot. See Spot run. Run, run, run. Every Good Boy Does Fine.

Recorded music gives us some of the pleasure that comes from feeling connected, without giving us the full benefit of actually being connected. One who does not understand how to really satisfy his inner longing might try to fill the hole in his soul by simply listening to more music. This was not such a problem in the past, when recorded music was expensive and could not be copied faithfully as can digital data files. But in the information era there is no limit to the quantity of music one can obtain, faithfully reproduced and at near zero cost. Like the junky's fix, it gives us temporary pleasure without really giving us the nourishment we need.

What is the solution? Very simple: seek out connections with real living beings. Listen to live music. It does not have to be expensive: one can listen to street performers. Don't just pitch a quarter in their guitar case as you walk by. Stand there and listen. Give the gift of an audience to a struggling musician. Give the gift of a quality connection, and receive one in return.

Maybe, if the Spirit catches you, you can even dance.

Make your own music. Learn to play an instrument, or sing. It does not have to be expensive. A good harmonica, a Marine Band or Lee Oskar, a quality musical instrument unlike the toy harmonicas of our childhood, along with a beginner's lesson book will only set you back fifty bucks, and it will fit in your shirt pocket.

I gave Bonita one for Christmas, in her stocking because it was small. Bonita has been wanting to learn to play, and has a much better ear than I do, but did not want to learn piano in part because it is my thing, and because she wanted an instrument she could carry around with her. She said she wanted to play like that guy in Blues Traveler. I also got her a copy of Harmonica for the Absolute Beginner.

The next time you meet a friendly dog, try howling with him.

Why I Write


We Love You MichaelCrawford!

Imagine that: a paranoid mood-swinging (almost) Canadian who often fails to dedicate himself to the work that's (barely) putting bread on his table, because he's too busy necking with muses and exporting mountains of data from his sparky brain because it brings a high drugs can't top.

Myself, I cannot relate. Not. One. Bit.
-- CheeseBurgerBrown

Long before I ever considered changing my career to music, I considered writing for a living. I feel that I write well, and I enjoy the time I spend at my PC writing essays like this one. I have been writing much longer, and much more than I have ever played music. I learned the alphabet when I was four, and read my first novel, a Hardy Boys mystery, when I was six. In my senior year of high school I received college credit for scoring 5, the highest possible score, on the Advanced Placement English exam.

But there is a problem, one that I have struggled to understand for quite some time, and only recently feel I have come to understand, but not yet found the solution to: I am only able to write sporadically, when a topic seizes me somehow. I cannot write when I choose, or on any topic I choose. I cannot write to deadlines. Each year I write hundreds of pages, but on widely scattered topics. I have started but failed to finish several books. I was offerred a monthly column in a computer magazine once, and did a good job at my first column, but failed to write any more. I finally published it on my own website, just so it would see the light of day.

My writing sometimes causes trouble, and has caused such grief in the past that Bonita often gets anxious when I tell her I have a new idea for an article. When I get a bug up my ass to write about something, I cannot stop writing until I am done. I write obsessively, throwing to the wind all my responsibilities, caution, and even common sense.

Bonita had to visit Truro for a week just as we were preparing to move there. I was to work on repairs our house needed before we could sell it, in particular installing linoleum tile in three rooms. Upon her return, Bonita found only two rows of tile installed, and me lying exhausted on the couch with a week's beard stubble on my face, wearing filthy clothes and smelling ripe from not having showered.

"What happened? Why didn't you lay the tile?" she demanded to know.

"Please, for the love of God, leave me be! I've been up all night!"

"What have you been doing?"

"Working on an article."

Bonita brought a friend from Canada, intending to have a nice visit. Instead the two of them laid the tile, while I slept in the dog house.


It has taken me several years to figure it out. As I said, I have not yet arrived at a solution, not one that enables me to write for a living anyway.

When I write, when I write so obsessively, I write because I have a question, a question that has been bothering me, usually for a long time, a question whose answer is unclear to me, unable to quite express, or at first even guess at.

But I am able to ask these questions more clearly, and to work out the answers by writing. Writing articles, essays, rants and manifestoes, fifty that I have been able to locate again so far, as well as countless Usenet, mailing list and community website posts.

When I have a particularly important question, and feel I am on the verge of an answer, I work at it for days or even weeks at a time, writing, rewriting and editing meticulously, obsessively and compulsively. I post it on my website, and ask for help from friends via email, and in my Kuro5hin and Advogato diaries. The last couple years, when I have been close to the answers I sought, I submit them to edit at Kuro5hin, asked for help, and finally submit them to voting.

Sometimes I just toss off a k5 article in a couple hours of work that just makes section, but when I have a really important question, nothing but +1, Front Page will do. I give it the time it needs.

These questions gestate inside me for months, years, even decades, until the questions themselves, and not I, decide their time has come and I labor painfully to bear my answer into life, and having written, I collapse, spent and exhausted.

I have so many questions about music.

Is that why I feel this essay is so important that I have worked so long and hard, and have plead for help from so many? Well, yes, I do have a lot of musical questions. I care a lot about music. I am frustrated that I am so far from my goal of composing music.

My question might be, what am I going to do when I grow up?

But that is not my question. Not at all. I have some idea of what my question might be, but its time has not yet come.

I can at least tell you why I am not able to write on any topic I choose: they are not about a question I have, at least not one that is important to me. Maybe they are, but they do not express the answer I seek. Maybe the answer is not ready to see the light of day.