In service to the song: a sociologist takes music lessons

“How does that note get to be in this song?”

It was one of the questions I asked at my last violin lesson. My teacher and I were looking at a song in the key of C minor: Besame Mucho’ (which I refer to privately as ‘that slinky Italian kissing song’.)   The sheet music in front of us had the notes and the guitar chords. He was teaching me bits and pieces of improvisation—particularly how to join in a song when others are playing by playing notes that belong in the song. And as I looked through the page finding patterns, there were two parts of it, two chords that didn’t seem to fit. So I asked: how can that chord belong in a song played in C minor?  It doesn’t seem to fit.

He said: “It’s a fifth of a fifth.”

Then I said:  “Oh, of course. How could I forget about that?!”

I actually did not say that. I said nothing. I cocked my head to the side and scrunched my lips and narrowed my eyes at him.  This means:  “You think I know what that is but I don’t and apparently it’s something that EVERYONE knows so let’s end the awkward silence with you explaining it already!”

Thankfully my teacher is good at reading body language because he sat down at the piano and started showing me what a fifth is and then where the fifth note of that note is and so on. And these are called the ‘roots’ of the chord. And haven’t I ever seen the ‘circle of fifths?’ (sure…)  And when it was all done, what I heard was:

It’s like you’re at a night club and your name isn’t on the list, but Bubba Junior is on the list and you know Stanley Joe who is friends with Bubba Junior so they let you in. You’re a friend of a friend. You get to be at the party because you know a guy who knows a guy who’s invited.

Then he showed me how eventually, when you travel far enough on the keyboard, you get all the way back to where you started—C. And on your journey there, you played every note (or at least every white key). Every single one of them belonged at the party via relationship to the note before. Every note got to be in the song.  Every one connected by their root.

“But”, he said, “you’re right—not every note sounds good in every part of the song.” He got out his guitar and played the chord I was looking at and then played one of the notes in the music with it. And some of them sounded off. He said “It’s unpleasant.  But, there are no wrong notes. There are notes that sound good and there are notes that are taking you to notes that sound good. This one that sounds kind of off because it’s just taking you somewhere else. It’s on its way. So when you play it in this sequence, you accept it because it got you exactly where it needed to get you. By itself it was unpleasant to your ear, but in relationship it works.”

What I heard:  There are no wrong moments. No wrong people visiting your life.  Only those that feel good—or those that are taking you somewhere else. There are ones that hurt, and they are allowed to be there because they are allowing movement. They are part of something bigger, not standalone moments. They are moments in relationship to your life song and so they are allowed.  The people, the moments–they are there in service to something greater, in service to the song.

See, this is what happens when a sociologist tries to learn music. She learns about music, sure. AND she remembers what she’s already learned about relationships and human connection:

Everybody gets to belong—because everyone is connected at their roots.
Every moment, every visitor—even the ones that hurt—get to be part of the story because they are taking you somewhere in service to your lifesong.
Why do those lessons matter so much to me? Because I am standing in or dangerously close to a dozen stories of pain and loss.  In many of the stories, I am in a position to lead others through the terrain.  This lesson reminded me of my opportunity to belong in my own story.  I can turn away from reality–avert my eyes and disconnect.   Or I can turn toward it, and allow it in the song, allow it to take me somewhere.  I can find root-level connection with the others in the story or I can hide.

If a slinky Italian kissing song can allow such connections in service to the song, then I suppose I can too.  Besame mucho…Amen.

besame mucho

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