Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Our Musical Soul

"Soul" has been referred to as a certain quality in music for years. "He's got soul," someone will say. People even sometimes categorize soul (though more rarely these days) as a form of music -- now I guess it is R&B.

(Here's where some twit comments that I don't know anything about pop music history and sets me straight on the differences between R&B and "soul". Watch me respond by making a fart noise with my armpit. Ever see the things filed in R&B in a music store? Yeah -- there is no definition. Classifying music is -- and should be -- like trying to file different types of steam in manilla folders.)

But one thing I see as consistent is that people associate a soulful performance with an R&B sound or with that sort of vocal earthiness associated with what was once callad "black American music."

A good friend and an excellent musician/singer, Mark Yushchak, recently wrestled with the issue in a Facebook conversation:

What exactly is "soul"? It's not an obvious answer, I don't think. Many singers are credited with having it. Many singers think they have it. It's not simply believing in what you're singing. It's also not just "acting" the part of the character in the song. I think both of those factors are important to an extent.
So, to Mark, it is the performance -- one that you can label as "soulful" based on a mix of sincerity and delivery. Could be, certainly.

But I don't think it is just about singing, either.

Maurice Ravel
My father, a composer, orchestrator and trumpet player, has a different take on "soul". When we would listen to music together, he would  point out a section in a Ravel or a Puccini piece and say: "Hear that? [here, he'd point to his heart] Soul."

To me, and I think to my dad, soul is quite literal. It is that moment when a writer or performer shows the world his or her soul through the music. Mark is right: soul is honesty and delivery. But it is also that opening up of the window in the human chest; that moment when a composer or performer shows us a glimpse of the life-force within him. Can anything be more beautiful than the human soul? Soul is truth, truth beauty. And communication of beauty is the highest art. In this case, it is an intimate, spiritual connection between the artist and the listener.

What is soul to me? Well, as a kid, hearing this bit of music, below, sort of defined the rest of my life. To me, this is the essence of musical soul -- but not the definition. Soul comes from a lot of places. For me, somehow, all of what makes humankind great is within the sounds of Ravel's chords, melodies and orchestrations. Here you go:

A word is how you use it -- that is how words wind up in dictionaries. To many, "soul" is James Brown and those singers of his style, only. To me, soul can be James Brown, Maurice Ravel, Ottorino Respighi, Billy Joel, Sting, Brian Wilson, Beethoven or Seal -- or anyone else who figures out how to open that window.

What are your examples of soulful music -- on your own terms?

(Hat tip, Mark Yushchak and Bryan Harris)


  1. Chris, great stuff. It is a very compelling topic. What I find really interesting is how adept humans are at detecting this quality in an artist yet we struggle to articulate the precise qualities that justify our determination of... "He's got soul". It is much more than the voice but rather the whole persona in which a live performance enables an artist to communicate more of the subconscious human qualities/signals that can significantly change one's perspective of an artist. Case in point, I have from a distance always liked the work of Annie Lennox but did not have a real connection with her as an artist. Then in 2004 I saw her perform live on one of the awards shows and I was absolutely blown away by her performance. I immediately felt the honesty of her as an artist and put her in the category of musicians that matter. I don't really own a lot of her catalog but I completely believe in everything she does, she's earned my trust.

  2. Thanks a ton for the insightful (and completely unsolicited!) comment, my friend. Well put, indeed.

  3. I have never been here before so I am grateful to Frank Wilson for listing this post on his blog. Why? Because I have a question that I want to address to a musician, not just anyone.
    Why does so much music come with a video? Do I need it if I have a soul for music? Isn't the video a diversion, a distraction? Am I not being manipulated by the video?
    Please don't tanke this wrongly. I'm not being cute or wise. I really would like to hear someone explain the use of video with a piece of music. Perhaps you will have time to answer in a post in the future. I hope so.
    Thanks. Lincoln

  4. Lincoln -- that is an excellent question and quite coincidental in its timing. I just used this video in a class that I taught today and mentioned to the class that I was sorry the music came with a video. I have always felt any video(outside of musicians performing, which I do enjoy) is, at best, unecessary and, at worst, as you said, distracting. It just so happens, it is an easy way to share music on a blog. But, given the choice, I would much rather leave the music by itself. (I particularly don't like the schmaltzy nature scenes in the video for the Ravel piece above, but I am a big fan of this particular sound recording, conducted by Charles Dutoit.)Maybe someone can someday show me a way to share music that doesn't come from You Tube. But, in short, I agree with you. I have never been a fan of music videos. Music has all the power it needs, in my opinion, and doesn't need embellishment, if it is good. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and I do believe this will go into my idea book for a longer post in he future -- with a hat tip to Lincoln Hunter, of course.

  5. Wow Mr. Matt this is a great article I am glad this was the first one that I read from you. It was such a great topic. I have to say I think you're right, music does not need a video sometimes it is good to watch one alongside the music but if you are looking for soul music just purely listening to music is the way to go. Also I don't think you can just put soul into R&B music. I believe soul music is when you can feel the true emotion of the music running through your veins, when you can connect with the singer or with the musician on a higher scale. This will be an ongoing battle in the music world but I am glad that you addressed it hear I can't wait to start reading your blog regularly.

  6. Mr. Matt.
    Money again, I have always been a very lyrically and guitar driven soul person. I have believed, for a long time, that soul is often in the mistakes rather than the perfection of music. In R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming," there is a part where Michael Stipe's voice cracks. I think that's beautiful. I think that was him showing soul. Neil Young is a big believer in playing with feeling over playing perfectly. Listen to Keep on Rocking in the Free World for proof. I don't think notes need to be hit perfectly, whether by singing or with instruments to be perfect. Hitting the right note, even if it's the wrong one is what soul is all about to me. That's how blues has its beauty. Its a note that's technically out of the scale, or at least I believe it is. Apologies for any inaccuracies.

  7. To Mr. Anonymous,

    Your comments are very, very interesting. I have long felt Jimmy Page to be the most "soulful" rock guitarist I have ever heard, for reasons similar to those you have cited above. And I have felt the same way about Paul Westerberg (of the Replacements) vocal-wise. So I suppose I'm 'actively listening' for something to which I connect in an emotional way. Perhaps we as listeners our 'actively listening' for something. Something that strikes us as powerful in some way, or dare I say is Transcendent. Some of us may be 'listening' for heartbreak, some for beauty, some for joy, some for angst, some for anger. In which case, perhaps "soul" in music is as much a subjective interpretation as it is a musical/vocal/instrumental performance (or as Chris would say, "...the ability to show the world just that in notes: your soul"). "Showing the world" can be interpreted as meaing a listener/receiver is required, no? Then again, Jimmy Page has soul regardless of whether I hear him on 93.3 , or whether he is practicing all alone in his basement (even the great ones have basements, you know).

  8. Gentlmen (assuming "anonymous" is) -- great points. I agree with "anonymous" and Mark. I would rather hear an honest performance than a perfect one (my dad feels otherwise, by the way). Here's Jimmy Webb, one of my favorite songwriters, performing his song "The Moon's Harsh Mistress." He is obviously not a great singer, but I would rather hear him do this than Glenn Campbell, who originally recorded it. Listen to the vocal crack at 1:39 ("and then the darkness fell". It almost reduces me to tears every time. By the way, "anonymous" -- R.E.M once covered Webb's song "Galveston."

  9. Gents -- I thought that would be a link -- copy it into your browser or seach the song on You Tube. Really worth hearing.