The dull-edged maul was heavy in my hands, my swing clumsy and ill-aimed, but an increasing number of logs — sections of a standing dead ash my wife, dad and I took down a few weeks prior — were relenting to my unpracticed attacks with a satisfying crack, halved pieces of hardwood jettisoning from the dense plug in opposite directions.
It was my first attempt at splitting logs, and though you’d hardly call me an expert lumberjack, I was finding my groove as a distinct rhythm of work began driving the chore: Set, swing, crack. Set, swing, crack.
And then, as if in response to my percussive pattern of firewood preparation, a song emerged from the trees to my left. Not an imagined song, like the destructive drumbeat emanating from my chopping block, but an actual, verse-verse-chorus song. I could hear a woman’s voice singing atop lightly blues-inflected folk instrumentation, the kind of song mildly successful local bands bring to live performances at the neighborhood NPR station.
I like music. It seems silly to waste words on a statement like this because everybody likes music, right? When I was a teenager, like so many pubescent souls muddling through the difficult years between childhood and independence, I really liked music. The 16-year-old me wouldn’t have missed an opportunity to tell you that music saved his life, even though my life in no way needed saving, and I’m positive I’d have been fine without all those hair metal ballads I feverishly crammed onto 90-minute cassettes.
But this iteration of myself also encountered something I’d never before, nor have I since, run across when, upon turning to a classmate and asking him what genre of music he preferred, I received a baffling response: “I don’t like music.”
“You,” I stammered, flummoxed by the notion of a life lived without melodic accompaniment. “You don’t like music?”
The classmate shrugged and nodded. “It doesn’t do anything for me.”
My heart broke for this young man. (Though I can assure you he became embroiled in a torrid love affair with classic rock during our senior year.) I’ve never NOT been surrounded by music. My mother was a church organist, playing hymns twice on Sunday, every Wednesday and for occasional weddings and funerals. One of my aunts plays the musical saw, while another once hand-built a hammered dulcimer. My sister’s an accomplished pianist, the vast majority of my cousins play at least one musical equipment, and I, myself, survived a painful stint as fourth-chair (out of five) trumpeter in my elementary school band to gain a modest level of comfort with a few stringed instruments.
So I like music — more than some, less than others, and nowhere near as much as my 16-year-old self liked cheesy hair bands. It’s rare that I don’t have a song running though my head, even if it’s that Taylor Swift jam I just heard at Walmart (The same Taylor Swift song, mind you, I blasted from my truck speakers as I drove to Walmart. I like Taylor Swift.)
In his book, “Musicophilia,” neurologist Oliver Sacks explored the effects music has on the human mind, suggesting that our species’ response to melody is both a biological action, fully explainable by medical science, and a complete and total mystery residing in the emotional realm. In another text, “How Music Works” by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, the musician suggests that melody, along with speech, was part of an evolutionary mistake, both unintended carpetbaggers that stole a ride into our genetic makeup on the back of a crucial survival skill like outrunning hungry predators or climbing a mango tree.
Maybe you spend sleepless nights wrestling with why you can’t listen to Springsteen’s “Nebraska” without suffering a full emotional seizure, or perhaps you’re just content to tap your foot when you hear “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” while shopping for tube socks. Or it could be an AC/DC song that found you one day during senior year and woke your inner music fan.
Neurological affliction, evolutionary tangent or something altogether more ethereal and mysterious, music has found our species and intertwined itself with our daily existence, lurking in the background of the majority of our life experiences, encountered all too often behind throaty voiceovers detailing the benefits of one cell phone provider over another.
So to be surprised by a song while chopping wood on a clear and quiet autumn day … that’s, I think, something special. I wasn’t in a position to passively hear music, like the swell of a movie soundtrack, nor had I pressed buttons to invite melody into this moment. Instead, the notes, strung together by someone completely unaware of my listening ears, drifted across the landscape on windswept sound waves to where I stood, maul in hand, logs scattered at my feet.
And I, in response, adjusted the rhythm of my set, swing, crack cadence to match the song’s beat. There are too few genuine surprises in this life, and I’m learning to join in when an unexpected experience, like a melody floating through the trees, interrupts the day to find me.
/ Rodney Wilson is a freelance writer who can still be found slumped over a laptop, writing a young adult novel and listening to Taylor Swift.