An Old Hymn, and an Old Top-40

Several days ago I was afflicted with another earworm, like those I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.  This was a fragment of an old hymn — one of the internal lines, not the first one, and it drove me batty trying to think of the name of the thing.

I looked up the one phrase that had been repeating in my ears: Teach m-e some melodious so-n-net / Sung by flaming tongues above.  Google referred me to a Wikipedia entry for the hymn named “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing“.

Of course.  It had been a staple of church services when I was a youngster.  By the time I was in high school, increasingly aware of hymn texts, the words of this one had begun to register with me as more congenial than some others.  (I detested “I Come to the Garden Alone“, for example, while I loved “Near to the Heart of God“.)

How do these little distinctions get started in our lives?  How do they grow?  What, if anything, do they signal, as they multiply, divide, and deepen throughout a lifetime?  No two people on earth traverse identical musical lifetimes.

And now yesterday Rosemarie, who has been wallowing in Youtube clips of popular songs from her own childhood up to the present, stumbled onto “Seasons in the Sun“.

I have some pretty vivid memories of our daughter Kate — who was eight years old when the song became omnipresent and unavoidable for a while in 1974 — playing it over and over and over, while I bit my tongue from pronouncing curses on that bathetic, weepy, sentimental piece of crap.  I managed to grow a musical hide, a reflex pair of psychological earmuffs.  At any rate, I never screamed out my opinion of the song in Kate’s presence.

And yesterday, as Rosemarie activated the clip, the same Terry Jacks, the 1974 six-million-records track…

…I choked up and got teary-eyed.

Now there’s something worth a few moments’ reflection.  What changed, for me, between 1974 and now?  What has become of my lifelong immersion in the music and the mind of J.S.Bach?  How can I get choked up in the midst of a track that has quite often been voted one of the worst popular songs ever created?

Well now look: everybody has songs they hate, and songs they love.  What music is on whose lists — well, that’s mostly a crapshoot, isn’t it, or at least a random assortment of all the songs there are with all the people who hear them.


Not really random either though.  That’s not the right word.

Picture in your mind a left-hand column listing all the people in the world, and a right-hand column of all the music in the world; now imagine lines from each person to each piece of music that person likes, and then picture the lines from each person being numbered according to how much that person likes that piece of music.

Whatever is going on in such a jumble, it isn’t random.  Not even close.  For example:

  • in the right-hand column some songs will have more lines than others.  More lines means those songs were/are more popular; songs with fewer lines have fewer listeners
  • in the left-hand column some persons have more lines than others.  Some people may have no lines at all; those would have to be the musically insensitive — people who just don’t listen, or don’t notice what they hear, and don’t have preferences at all.  Others may have only a couple of lines — pointing to the only half-dozen songs they’ve ever really attended to and loved.  Some very broadly experienced musical types might connect to lots of popular songs, classical stuff, ethnic things, but no  Country&Western.  Another might connect to nothing but C&W.

OK, that’s the setup for a thought experiment.

The question I’m asking of this experiment is: are some kinds of music really better than others?  Is there music that everyone ought to hear and like?

Stay tuned.  I’ll continue in another posting.