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Milo’s Musical Education

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Milo in his bedroom.   

A few days after the Carnegie Hall concert, I ask McFerrin why he thinks his music speaks to a fifth-grader with such powerful clarity. “Most people’s experience with singing is when they’re alone,” he says. “At the same time, there’s a part of them that wants to sing in front of others. It’s obvious to everybody that I’m having a really good time.” I ask him whether he thinks parents can guide their children’s taste, or can merely sprinkle the home with a sampling of the world’s variety of sounds and then let fate decide. He answers with a memory of himself as a small boy lurking under the family piano in the fifties, when his father was a well-known operatic baritone, the first black man to sing at the Met. Robert McFerrin Sr. gave lessons, pressing on his sometimes unworthy students a zeal for vocal music that the hidden boy absorbed, stored up, and deployed when he was ready. The younger McFerrin didn’t understand at the time that he was receiving a message, but the elder one knew he was imparting one. And I wonder: What is my version of that sheltering piano? What can I do to share my passions with my child? What is happening in his malleable brain as he sorts “like” from “don’t like,” and leaves openings for music to slip back and forth between them?

Science is of limited use on this topic. In his 2006 book This Is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin devotes a chapter to the evolution of one’s musical taste, skimming lightly over several unsatisfactory theories. He accepts the notion that taste starts to form in the womb, based on the muffled sounds that filter through. (Milo’s in luck: He attended Carmen at the Met the night before he was born.) Once they are sprung from their maternal casings, Levitin continues, kids start by enjoying simple consonance and then progress to greater dissonance and complexity. (Most people don’t get very far down that road.) The lightning bolts come later: Teenagers attach lifelong emotional meaning to whatever they happen to like when their souls are warm and receptive.

This strikes me as a glaringly incomplete narrative. Can taste really be such a random combination of the mechanical and the haphazard? Levitin’s exposition of the determining factors in a child’s taste boils down to a tautology: They like music that sounds like other music they like. This is the assumption behind Websites like Pandora, which analyze customers’ reactions and produce a steady stream of recommendations. But it does not go far toward explaining what is happening to Milo now—what interplay of physiology and experience is crystallizing into predilections that will probably form the basis of his life in music. In his new book, The World in Six Songs, Levitin explores the universality of certain musical archetypes, but has little to say about individual quirks: All human beings recognize a joyful song, but why do certain tunes cause an upwelling of misanthropic acid?

I trace a strain of my adult tastes to a string-quartet concert I attended at 15, featuring a late Beethoven masterpiece, a few hushed, strangled utterances by Anton Webern, and George Crumb’s Black Angels, a work of somber electric beauty from 1970. The three pieces, from three different eras, share a compressed rhetoric of morbid dissonances that landed on my ears with an explosive force. But that was no accident: I was primed for revelation. I had spent time studying the composers on the program; I tried to follow the common thread of weirdness. No doubt I was also plumbing my own inner well of darkness at the same time, an exploration that Milo started much earlier than I. He recently spent months immersed in the acrid tang of Sweeney Todd, memorizing the morbid lyrics and watching the original Broadway production, clip by YouTube clip. That’s my boy.

I can’t predict what music he will enjoy. About movies, museum exhibits, or books, his parents are rarely wrong. (Recent hits: 3:10 to Yuma, Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim, and Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.) But I slip him tracks without any confidence that they will rate a spot on his iPod. He tries new sounds, sifts through recommendations from friends, adults, and anonymous algorithms, organizes his preferences, and keeps continuously shuffling his favorites. For a while, he was conducting Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” before bed and once insisted that a recalcitrant friend join him at the podium. His iTunes library includes Amy Winehouse’s hymn of drug-bedraggled defiance “Rehab” as well as Wyclef Jean’s merger of immigration politics and hip-hop romance “Sweetest Girl.” He listens to vulgar lyrics that he doesn’t understand and I’m not about to elucidate but won’t censor, either. When he figures them out, we’ll discuss the attitudes behind them.

I know that Milo will soon strike off alone into his dale of enthusiasms—he already has. I can try fitfully to catch up, but I doubt he will want me there for long. Already I find him looking at me blankly, silently mouthing words, and I know my voice must sound to him like a low mutter in another room, familiar but incomprehensible. Down in that mysterious cerebellum, Linkin Park’s “Numb” is thudding mightily, drowning out all other sound. No doubt, my son has inserted his own slender soprano, deepened and strengthened as only the imagination can. In that moment, he is living in a recording studio of his own. Who am I to intrude? But though he may prefer I stayed out of his world of taste, I very much want him in mine. The Met has a new production of Wagner’s Ring coming in the 2011–2012 season. I hope Milo will invite me along.


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