Heart, Brain, Butt

In the immortal words of Q-Tip, “Question: what is it that everybody has, and some pirates and thieves try to take? … Da Booty.” The booty is a natural place to start if we want to talk about music, because one basic function of music is to make you move your ass. It’s liberating to shake your ass after all. Go ahead and try. No one is watching (and if they are, even better). Stand up and shake your butt right now.

Few of you did. I understand, it’s a little embarrassing if people are watching, and if there’s no music playing then you’d probably feel a little bit crazy. It’s much more natural to shake your groove thing if you have a funky beat on hand— for me it even feels unnatural to stay stationary if there is an infectious groove within earshot. This is indeed one great power of music. It compels us to do something incredibly enjoyable that in silence feels awkward and forced. If you haven’t yet let music move your backside, I implore you, the next time you’re alone, put on some James Brown and shake that thing. You’ll be a better person afterwards.

I love music that makes me want to physically move, and a lot of music is written solely for that purpose. Most dance songs (whether disco, funk, electronic, or anything else) are basically telling us to turn off our brains and turn on our butts (the body’s natural center of dance). Yet in studying Jazz here at NYU, I’ve basically had to park my butt in a chair and turn on my brain. For at this point, the only way I can fathom something like playing an altered dominant scale in a 5/4 time signature is to think about it. I’ve got to use my brain for something like that because if I asked my butt how to do it she would just say “man, why not just play in 4/4? That way you can clap on beats two and four! And a what scale? Just play a C chord for a while and then maybe go to that A minor chord… come on it’ll be fun!”

Jazz, more than most other genres, has offered a haven for people who wish to take a cerebral approach to music. I’m not ready to say that this is the only way to approach Jazz, but the very fact that you can get a PhD in jazz studies indicates that there is great intellectual depth to the music, and that using your brain to wrestle with that depth is a worthwhile endeavor for the student of jazz. “Wrestling” is indeed a good way to describe my interaction with the music at the moment. For the past month I’ve been consistently exposed to some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard, making me realize more than ever how little I know. It is a challenge, but I know that the only way that I can begin to climb the ever growing mountain of musical knowledge that I see before me is to use my head. My butt is not going to get me up that mountain— instead I have to use my brain to do the hard work of analyzing tunes, memorizing melodies, experimenting with new harmonies, perfecting difficult rhythms, and much more.

Yet between the brain and the butt, there is another part of the body that has something important to say about music: the heart. The philosopher Herbert Spencer once said that “music is the language of emotion,” and lately I’ve been directly interacting with this idea in my film scoring class. Certainly there are many functions of music in film— in class we came up with a list of about 25— but one of the most basic functions is to convey the emotional tone of the moment in order to make the story being told much more vivid. What, for instance, is the movie The Graduate (one of my all time favorite films) without the brooding sense of aimlessness evoked by Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence?— probably still a good movie, but not the memorable masterpiece we know it to be.Great film music tells the story alongside the action onscreen, pinpointing the mood of the scene and communicating it directly to the heart of the viewer. Thus, learning (or struggling might be more accurate)to write film music has been for me a lesson in understanding music’s emotional power.

Last Saturday I went to Smalls Jazz Club (it is indeed, very small) to see the group Jean Michel Pilc and Total Madness (Pilc on piano, Ari Hoenig on drums, Joel Frahm on Tenor Sax, Chet Doxas also on Tenor, and Francois Moutin on bass), and I don’t think I have ever seen a group so expertly capable of expressing music in the three ways that I’ve mentioned above. Throughout the night they were intellectually stimulating, combining advanced harmonies with rare time signatures at blistering speeds. They were also incredibly emotive in their playing— you could feel the emotional weight of their notes instead of abstractly admiring the fact that they were playing them. And perhaps most remarkably, they sometimes made you want to dance— despite the fact that they were often playing in time signatures that my brain could not immediately follow, they played with such rhythmic accuracy and a sense of the groove that if I were a braver and slightly more obnoxious man, I would have busted a move in that tiny jazz club.

Not every musician will reach the height of Jean Michel Pilc and total madness. It is a fine achievement to just write really good dance music, or intellectually challenging music, or emotionally expressive music. But know that music does not serve a single master. Music is a multiplicity that can speak to your brain, your heart, or your butt, and I aspire to let it speak to all of me.

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  1. I’m on the other side of that equation in helping with high school choir. I am remembering how hard it is to do stuff. And I now spend a lot of time trying to explain what comes easily to me after 40 years. And once every couple of weeks I get completely stumped. I always figure it out. But I sometimes get stumped.

    So remember this experience 30 years from now when it is your turn to be the teacher.

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