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《Music to My Ears – A Mosaic of 100 Songs》__ Fred Yip (71)

《Music to My Ears – A Mosaic of 100 Songs》  
The man that hath no music in himself
Nor is moved with concord of sweet sounds
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus
Let no such man be trusted
     Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene I
Dear Fellow Classmates at WYK and St. John:

 Shakespeare was a playwright, not a musician.  And yet such were his strong reflections on a man without music, as music played a significant part in Elizabethan theatre. This year marks our 45th graduation anniversary from Wah Yan College, Kowloon as well as the 50th graduation anniversary from my primary school, St. John the Baptist School in Kwun Tong, Kowloon. To help celebrate both occasions, I have compiled a list of 100 songs that I have enjoyed tremendously over the years and would like to share them with you all. As shown in the tables below, these songs have been arranged chronologically, from 1956 to 2011. Save for Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki”, which was the only non-Indo-European song that ever made it to the top of the Billboard in 1963, the vast majority of these songs are so-called English pop songs. They have, every now and then, filled the airwaves of places that I have lived, studied and worked - Macau, Hong Kong and Toronto, the last of which I have stayed since 1975.  Most of these songs have been, at one time or another, chart-toppers, million-sellers, record-breakers, award-winners and one-hit wonders. To make the list more manageable, I have limited one song to each individual performer or group only, so as to make room for others.

Further, let me state at the outset that my selections here are purely arbitrary, idiosyncratic and intuitive. While there are different musical styles or genres, they are, in essence, all the hit makers of our time and thus should be familiar to you all. Indeed, more than half of these songs came out before 1971, the year that we graduated from Wah Yan. There are rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, rhythm and blues, folk and their crossovers, movie soundtracks, TV themes, and even a couple of Christmas songs. Most of these songs are ballads, i.e., tracks with stories to tell, easy to understand and follow. Though there are some odd ones that are hard to comprehend the true meanings behind the sophisticated lyrics, such as Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, these enduring all-time classics are just as allegorical, soulful and timeless as any. John Lennon was a big fan of the latter and reportedly called the song the best that he had ever heard. Nonetheless, I find that some of the songs that I like most are presented in the simplest of terms.

 My interest in western pop music started quite early, and was pretty much shaped by a childhood spent growing up in the then Portuguese colony of Macau in the late 50s and early 60s. Our favourite pastime in the summer was to go to one of those open-air cafes which were set up after dinner along the major boulevard, lined with age-old banyan trees, in the scenic Nan Wan (South Bay) waterfront area. Other than enjoying the cold drinks and sinking our teeth into whatever snacks were available, we were taking in a lot of English hit songs of the day coming through from their stereo systems – songs by Doris Day, Sam Cooke, Pat Boone, Connie Francis, Johnny Mathis, Cliff Richard, Benny E. King, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and later, the Beatles. The English song that first piqued my interest, and has left a deep and ever-lasting impression on me, was probably “Que Sera Sera” (Whatever Will Be Will Be) by Doris Day, the reigning beauty queen of the silver screen and the popular singing diva in the late 50s to early 60s. At that time, as far as I can recall, there was no Chinese song - Cantonese or Mandarin, ever played in those cafes. Canto-pop was not even in vogue in those days. When my older brother and I went to see “It’s a Hard Day’s Night” featuring the Beatles in 1964, the tiny cinema was just jammed-packed with young people about our age.

 While most of us, myself included, do not have any formal or serious training in music, you and I are all, in a way, “master” listeners, if we believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” (1). According to Gladwell, if one spends over 10,000 hours in any field, one can become an expert or virtuoso in that area. Though we have often acquired our “listening skills” rather inadvertently or fortuitously, we can tell pretty quickly what is pleasing to the ears and what is not.  In spite of all their diversities, there is a common denominator among them all, i.e., they are all pretty catchy and groovy. Catchy is something pleasing and easy to remember. Groovy is something that carries the song forward, apparently seamlessly from one beat to the next, so much so that we find it hard to put down or tune out once hooked on to it. In short, we just don’t want the song to ever end.

After compiling the list, a little tallying seems to be in order:
• Of all songs listed, 40% are in the 60s, 30% come from the 70s, but the percentage share drops precipitously for songs popping up in the 80s and 90s, and even more so in the new millennium. My nostalgia, predilections and prejudices aside, there is no denying that the bohemian 60s was the heyday of western pop music, particularly after the ‘British Invasion’ of the Americas by the Beatles in 1964, and thereafter by other British groups such as the Animals, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, etc. Around the same time, there was also a huge resurgence in folk music in the United States (2). That was the golden period, as we say, “one hundred flowers bloomed and one hundred schools competed”.
• In cross-referencing, I notice that my favourite songs are more or less in line with what the music critics are saying all along. In the Rolling Stones Top 500 Songs of All Time (3), the 60s contributes the largest number of top songs, at around 41%, followed by songs in the 70s at 26% before tapering off towards the 21st century.
• Apart from the general consensus that songs from the 60s and 70s are, by and large, better than those of recent years, most of us, at our age anyway, seem to have a particular affinity for songs that we used to hear as teenagers and thus are more attached to them. To understand why, I obviously have to resort to the experts once again. According to Levitin (4), a neuroscientist and a musician, “part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged. In general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component…”. That may well explain that people in different age groups usually have different preferences in music.
• About two-thirds of the songs come from the US, a quarter from the UK, with the remaining 10% equally split between the Canadian singers and performers from other countries. A dominating theme from the list is that the majority of these songs are love songs. This is not surprising, considering that love is the most common form of musical expression. As Levitin points out, throughout history, love songs have prevailed from Psalms in the Bible, to Tin Pan Alley in the first half of the twentieth century, to modern-day West End or Broadway musicals, and to current pop music.

 Just like Doris Day’s signature song, which practically takes us through the whole life cycle, most of us have now gone from a care-free childhood, to an inquisitive youth, to a hectic adult working life, before being now on the cusp of retirement. Through it all, we are the fortunate bunch. As baby boomers born in the early post-war 50s, we are privileged to have experienced, witnessed, heard and enjoyed the best of days in rock ‘n’ roll and folk music. I am pretty confident that many of these songs will resonate with you, as they have formed an integral part of our growing-up process. The list here, however, merely provides a small sampling of what good music has to offer. With the Internet these days, one can, with the click of a button, watch or listen to anyone of these songs on YouTube without having to rummage through a whole stack of CD or vinyl collections. And I am sure that you have your own vintage favourites too. Share them with us as we may be missing out on some of great tunes that we are not aware of.
 Until next time, keep on listening.
         Fred Yip
         Toronto, Canada
         November, 2016
(1) Gladwell, Malcolm. 2008. Outliers - The Story of Success. Little, Brown & Company.
(2) Garofalo, Reebee. 1997. Rocking Out - Popular Music in the USA. Allyn & Bacon.
(3) Rolling Stones Magazine. 2004. Issue 963, Wikipedia.
(4) Levitin, Daniel J. 2006. This is Your Brain on Music – The Science of Human Obsession. New York: Dutton.
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