Tune In: The Importance of Music in Family Travels

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Asagiri Hypnotic Brass Ensemble_inI remember when I really cared about the music I listened to. Wait, that’s not true. The importance of music hasn’t changed — I’ve just stopped talking about it all the time. So what I mean to say is that I remember when I was an asshole about music. You know the type: snobbish, judgmental, and full of strong opinions about nearly every musician you’d ever heard of (and possibly a few that you hadn’t). I also felt compelled to tell you all about it, especially if I hated the music you liked. I took it all way too seriously. Ironically, I married a woman who grew up listening solely to classical music and knew nothing about any band I’d ever loved, but that’s another story.

Then one day — poof! — suddenly I didn’t care what anyone listened to. I went from a music obsessive to something close to a casual listener, seemingly overnight. Changes in tastes can often be traced back to life-changing events like marriage or babies, but that didn’t fit my story. I was still writing about music up until 2010 — eight years after my first born entered the world — and I was still going to concerts and music festivals a lot, and taking the kids with me when I could. But like comedian Patton Oswalt, one day the need to opine and obsess over my favorite bands simply vanished, and I no longer felt the need to keep up with the latest musical subgenres. It was literally part of my job for quite a while, but one day it suddenly felt like work. So I quit.

Room 414

A photo posted by Jason Jenkins (@an_epic_edu) on

This change may be due in part to my age or my slow slip into cultural irrelevance, but I think it’s more than that. For one, streaming services changed music snobbery forever. How great is Spotify, right? Great for me, but not great for everyone, and arguably detrimental to the future of new original music, but that’s beyond the scale of this post. Still, for the time being I continue to scan Spotify for recent releases and recommendations from people I trust, but now the urgency to discover something new is gone, and I feel a tug to return to the music I grew up with. More than that, I want to give them the opportunity to love and appreciate music.

This is more than nostalgia. Music education has some significant benefits, and playing an instrument has been shown to provide even more developmental advantages (more on that here and here). It can also be a great way to talk about history, geography and cultural identity with your kids. Both Jamie and Felicia picked up the guitar earlier this year, and it looks like they’re sticking with it. I hope it continues once we head into Europe or Latin America, as I can think of many ways for music (and that guitar) to bring more meaning to the places we’ll be experiencing. 

I have loved sharing and revisiting music that I’ve known well, and for a number of reasons. For one, there is scientific evidence that our brains crave it, but perhaps the strongest urge for me is the desire to sing with my kids, and it’s music from the 80’s and older that’s really seared into my brain. It’s funny: I’ve gone through a LOT of music over the years — crates of records, suitcases of cassettes, shoeboxes of MD’s and terabytes of MP3’s — and yet I barely remember a damn word of anything new I’ve heard in the last 20 years. I’ve listened to Massive Attack, Guided by Voices and Luna for around two decades, but do I know any lyrics? Zero. But give me some David Bowie, Police, Marvin Gaye or (early) U2 and I know nearly every verse, and when Chaka Khan or New Order comes on in a shop, I can belt out every word (to the horror of my wife and children) even if I haven’t heard the song in years.

Garlic microphone

A photo posted by Jason Jenkins (@an_epic_edu) on

My kids need to be hearing English, and music with English lyrics helps facilitate their bilingualism. So if you’ve perused my Spotify channel and wondered why there’s more Bob Marley and Fleetwood Mac in there than Death Grips and Aphex Twin, then yes, you can assume that I’m a geezer now (the Selena Gomez and One Direction are Felicia’s, I swear). But you also have to remember that my kids wouldn’t know any of the legendary music unless I played it for them. There are no classic rock radio stations in Malaysia. Or country stations. Or jazz or soul or anything else, so I’m tasked with schooling them on everything myself: the Stones, the Clash, Elvis, Ella Fitzgerald, Fela Kuti, Frank Sinatra, Desmond Dekker, Willie Nelson, Louis Prima, Velvet Underground, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Cash and countless other musicians that I want my kids to hear and sing along with me. I have to be careful, obviously, because not every lyric needs to be memorized (“Daddy, play James Brown again!…What’s a sex machine?”).

My favorite Malaysian radio station plays Tamil raaga (frequently amazing) but I frequently get outvoted for the station that plays western top 40, which seems more like “Top Seven” considering how often they replay songs. But that’s fine. Whatever they want to sing along to is fine with me. The old me would have put on some Talking Heads, but now I know it’s important for them to have music they can call their own. Sometimes they embrace what I play for them (Felicia loves the Ramones, Jamie is partial to Manu Chao) and sometimes they just want whatever the radio plays for them.

And that’s the real importance of music: discovery and identity. That feeling of “This is my song!” I want them to have that, so even when the songs they choose aren’t my favorite, I sing along. I may have been an asshole about music before, but I’m glad I changed my tune.

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