Cream of the Crop
November 1986

“Cream of the Crop,” Tambuli, Oct.–Nov. 1986, 36

Cream of the Crop

I love ice cream. And not just any ice cream will do. My ice cream simply has to be the best! There’s a little shop near our home that has the creamiest, smoothest, melt-in-your-mouth ice cream in the world. One tiny scoop is all I need to put me in ecstasy. It costs a little bit more than any other ice cream, but then, I’m worth it!

I hope you all realize that you’re worth it, too. You are choice among the children of God and deserve the best life has to offer—even in the music you listen to. You are worth it! But then you are faced with some difficult questions. How do you know what is the best? How do you choose?

Picking the best music to listen to isn’t quite as easy as picking ice cream. It isn’t simply a matter of personal taste. You might like traditional ethnic music and think it is the best there is. A friend might like classical music and think that it is really the best. The truth is that there is both good and bad traditional ethnic music and both good and bad classical (and jazz, rock, etc.).

There are some basic rules, however, that I’ve found to be helpful when I’m choosing what music to listen to. Perhaps they will be useful to you.

1. If the performing artists know their craft, I am much more likely to listen to them. There are a lot of musical groups getting top rated hits simply because of a funny or obscene message in the song, the group has an odd name, or they use strange and unusual instruments. But that isn’t knowing music; that is deception. I’ve noticed over the years such performing groups don’t ever stay popular very long. It’s because they don’t have musical qualities that make us want to buy their latest album or tape so we can hear it again and again, even after the group has broken up. Here are some of the qualities I look for:

—Pleasant-sounding music. The group’s instruments and voices aren’t so ear-piercing or unmusical that I cringe whenever I hear them.

—Interesting chord structures and musical progressions. The group shows some creativity and freshness rather than playing the same few chords over and over again.

—A poetic quality to the words. Rather than words suggestive of sex, drugs, or violence, the groups I like choose words that show imagination and knowledgeable use of the language.

I love to hear the works of musical groups whose members have had sound musical study and training. Their music displays their knowledge of the human voice and the capabilities of electronic synthesizers and other musical instruments used in their groups. A fine musician once told me, “You have to know the basic rules of music before you can be creative and break them correctly.” Sometimes it sounds to me as though there are far too many groups who have no idea what the rules are, let alone how to break them well.

2. If the music somehow surprises me, I am delighted. I like chord structures, rhythms, and sounds that are fresh—yet pleasing. This idea follows rather closely my first rule. I enjoy listening to groups that are inventive, show me they have mastered the basics of music theory, and then can build cleverly upon that foundation.

Occasionally it seems that a song I hear from particular groups sounds just like the last one I heard from them. They are stuck in a musical mold they don’t want to break—I am not delighted or surprised; nor am I likely to want to hear that group again.

3. If there is a lot of publicity through newspapers and magazines, or radio and television to sell a record or audio tape, I am rather hesitant of accepting it.

I’ve studied the newspaper and television advertisements very carefully, and I almost never see advertisements for the finest restaurants. Good news spreads fast by word of mouth. I think the same goes for music. If the marketing manager for a group or record isn’t sure whether it is good enough to sell on its own merits, an advertising campaign must be started to convince the consumer to buy.

It seems to me that if a group is really good, we’ll hear about it somehow, from friends, radio announcers, articles in newspapers. That’s the way I’ve come upon my favorites.

4. Perhaps my most important basic rule is that if the song has words, the message needs to be good for me. I try to ask myself, “Does it lift me and make me grow? Does it motivate me to think about new ideas or old ideas in new ways? Does it paint beautiful verbal and tonal patterns? Am I soothed and relaxed from hearing it?” If it can do any one of these things, then it might be worth my while.

I have decided that there is a vast difference between music that soothes and relaxes me and music that makes me nervous. That sounds obvious, I know. But I can be comforted and calmed by upbeat music with a strong rhythm. When I’m listening or dancing to upbeat music that I know is good for me, I feel a sense of direction, resolution, and calm; I don’t feel the nervous energy pressing for release from my system.

I think modern music too frequently becomes a sort of musical sleeping bag we zip ourselves into for almost all of our waking hours. Although you may find some comfort from certain songs, you should not use music as an insulation from the world and as an escape from some hurts, anger, depression, or frustration. Music can often help you by reflecting your emotions, rather than allowing you to push them aside. Dealing with your challenges directly should help you to come to a clearer understanding of them. This is true growth.

Try evaluating the music you listen to by asking how it affects you. Does it make you feel nervous, uneasy, restless, or confused? There is no persuader like music. Nothing arouses or excites and fools the human spirit like music. What more powerful tool could we place in the hands of the adversary?

Some time ago I listened to a local “new sound” radio station as I drove the car. In one 15-minute period I heard a song encouraging homicide and one with explicit sex. Although this may not have been a typical 15-minute period, whenever the music isn’t up to our standards, we need to turn the radio off. There are so many worthwhile things for us to do with our time. I want to spend my time with things that will help me to grow into a more gracious, loving, useful human being.

All of us need to learn to recognize when we should turn off the music. With all of the really good music there is to listen to, there is absolutely no reason to clutter our minds with junk. We deserve far better than that.

American humorist Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” I think we can apply the same concept to music: “The young man or young woman who does not listen to really good music has no advantage over the person who can’t hear.”

Photography by David Quinney