The deal with music

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First of all, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a native english speaker. Sometimes, there are words crucial to a post here that I don’t know how to translate to english. In some very rare cases, Google Traduction doesn’t seem to help.

Today, there is one of those words. Google Translate seems to push me towards the verb “Skew”,  but it just doesn’t feel right. The actual definition doesn’t include my context. So for the duration of this post, I will use “skew” (and other forms) to refer to the action of singing (or playing with an instrument) a musical note that is off-tone. Singing or playing the wrong note, so that it sounds bad to anyone who knows their stuff.

I am probably what you would describe as at least slightly tone-deaf. I can usually recognize songs without the lyrics, provided that I know the song and hear the rhythm and melody, but I can’t sing those songs. At least, people usually tell me that I suck at singing pretty much any song. To me, my singing sounds pretty close to the original artist, but I guess not everyone hears that. If somebody plays two notes on a piano that are not too far apart, I probably won’t be able to tell which one is higher and which is lower. I’ll take a guess, and get it about 75% of the time, but I’ll never be sure if they are in a < 6 notes range from each other.

If I play an instrument, it’s even worse. I hear in my head the song i’m trying to play, but I usually will think I’m playing it right no matter how skewed it is. I played many songs on a terribly detuned piano for years, never noticing any problem, until my current girlfriend heard it once and couldn’t stand it. I learn the songs I want by memorising which buttons to press, so my songs usually sound decent on a good piano, but I personally won’t hear the difference.

Considering the fact that most of my experiences are with playing or singing songs that somebody else wrote, whenever anyone told me that I skewed somehow (which is very often), I instantly understood that I didn’t emit the same note as the original artist. I can understand the problem, even though it doesn’t sound bad to me if somebody else does that mistake. It just sounds slightly off. Somebody wrote a song and you failed to copy it correctly, therefore it’s bad. The logic seems very simple.

But recently, I encountered a different situation. I was listening to a song performed by the original artist (who was the one to write it), and another person near me said something along those lines “Oh god, I thought you were the one skewing when you were humming it earlier, but he’s actually the one skewing it.”.


Naturally, I answered “No no, that’s the original song, so it can’t be skewed”. Obviously, how could you fail at copying something if you are actually making the original? You’re the one setting the standard.

The other person didn’t quite get my point. “It doesn’t matter who’s singing if it’s skewed”. I proceeded to discuss it a bit more, and also recently talked about music with someone who (according to other people than me) has real talent. The same guy that did the whole “Intelligence is Marketing” thing a few months ago. He explained to me that some notes actually sound better together, and some other notes shouldn’t be together. Writing a song isn’t about just trying to find a note/rhythm configuration that isn’t copyrighted and then adding lyrics on top of it. It seems like if you choose the wrong notes, it will sound terrible. I already knew that, for example, alternating notes from both ends of the spectrum would sound terrible, but I always kind of thought that when close together, any combination could make a nice song with the right rhythm. I, personally, didn’t see at all what was wrong with the numerous “bad combinations” he played as “obvious examples”. That seemed to confuse him as much as I was confused about the whole thing.

But if some notes “sound good” together and some sound bad, isn’t that completely subjective? Isn’t thinking that note combinations are good or bad exactly the definition of taste in music? Shouldn’t we all have a different opinion about that?

So what I learned from that is that music isn’t actually a form of art for people to express themselves, but an elitist cool-kids club that decided to enforce completely arbitrary standards because they happened to be have the same tastes as the majority, and then won’t acknowledge that different tastes are as valid as theirs.

I mean, that’s obviously the message they were both trying to make me understand. It seems like I’m not welcome in the world of music because I don’t have this inherent bias toward some note combinations and against some others.

Oh well, the joke’s on them, because I have a wider range of artists I can choose from, the one who sparked this entire debate happens to be one the funniest artists I’ve ever listened to. And if they can’t enjoy his stuff because it’s low on an arbitrary scale of “sounding like what I think sounds good”, that’s their loss.

Or maybe that’s the cognitive dissonance-induced explanation that my brain created to make me accept the fact that I will never be a star.