The eminent German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said the greatest thing ever: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” 

I don’t always agree with eminent German philosophers, but on this front, I believe that ol’ Friedrich was spot-on. Music has played a huge role in my life and I truly believe it has saved me from the darkest depths of despair. Those of us who grew up in the Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll often refer to that music as the soundtrack of our lives. Kids having to use today’s music as their life soundtrack is a bit of tragedy.

We will get to all that in a moment—music then vs. music now—but first I want to point out the powerful impact music has on the academic prowess of the developing human mind. (School board members and administrators take note of this if you are considering slashing music programs from your budgets.)

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Teachers have long observed the effect that music education can have on students, but recent research shows just how integral learning a musical instrument is to a child’s development. Using the most advanced brain analysis technology, Dr. Nina Kraus from Northwestern University was able to show precisely what happens to “the brain on music.”

Children who learned how to play a musical instrument demonstrate stronger language skills than children who simply took music appreciation courses.

When I was in middle school I wanted to learn to play guitar very badly. Some will tell you I did. But I didn’t want to do it because I thought it would make me smarter and do better in other subjects; I wanted to do it because I thought it would make me popular with the ladies. (Ha!)

I begged my parents for a guitar, preferably a vintage Gibson Les Paul with a cherry chrome burst finish and all the original inlays on the fret board. But they were loath to spend money—any amount—on something that would become a “dust collector” (Mom’s words) stuffed back in the recesses of my closet after just a couple of weeks. I was willing to swear on my Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd posters that this would not happen, but my pleas fell on deaf ears…so to speak.

Then a breakthrough: My mother told me she worked with a woman, her name was Betty, who gave guitar lessons. Was I interested?

Was I interested?? I was more excited than Ralphie was when he got his Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model air rifle for Christmas! Of course, I was interested! Visions of that ’56 Les Paul were already dancing in my tiny prepubescent head. Move over Eric Clapton; move over Jimmy Page, there was a new ax man in town! 

What I got, however, was a Conquistador classical guitar for 10 bucks. That way, if it ended up in the closet collecting dust, as Dad predicted, his lost investment wouldn’t sting all that much.

I don’t think they make Conquistador guitars anymore. I googled it and couldn’t find a trace. My Conquistador was a classical guitar, not a straight-up acoustic like they use for folk or country music. That meant it had nylon strings, not steel. It was smaller than a regular acoustic and had all the aesthetic appeal of a pot hole. But it did come with a built-in vortex that sucked right out me what little coolness I might have already had.

How was I going to rock the universe with this insipid excuse for a musical instrument? It certainly wouldn’t make me popular with the ladies; in fact, it would most likely act as a repellent and I sure didn’t need that! Oh, the shame of it all!

But Guitar Teacher Betty pointed out that the nylon strings would be kinder to my soft, fluffy, pink fingers until I could build up some calluses. And, she noted, the guitar’s diminutive size would make it easier for a young man of my stature to grip it and play. Once I became Clapton-esque on the Conquistador, Betty predicted, my parents would be willing to invest in an instrument more in line with a player of such stature.

That never happened. I became a decent player—even wrote and recorded a few songs back in the day (you’ve never heard them)—but any worthwhile guitar I ever owned was purchased by me.

I miss those days. I miss that music. It was so loud and so wonderful. There was always a competition between me and my friends over who would own the best stereo equipment. It was all vinyl back then, of course. (Something we probably should have never abandoned; we know now analog sounds better than compressed digital.) Our systems had reel-to-reels, equalizers and speakers the size of refrigerators. We did everything possible to squeeze the last drop of fidelity out of our stereos.

I would often spend hours poring over the album covers and liner notes. I knew who played on every song, who wrote it, who produced it. I even knew who did the album cover artwork.

You can’t do that anymore; not with things such as streaming and iTunes and the like. There are no more album covers with cool art work by Roger Dean or Hipgnosis. Fancy home stereos are no longer in vogue. Content to use their phones as their primary music-listening device, Millennials don’t seem to care much about the actual quality of the sound, which I supposed works out well because with most of today’s music you’re better off not hearing it all that clearly.

I saw a hack on Facebook a while back, showing a trick that would improve the sound of the music coming out of a smartphone. You take an empty toilet paper roll and cut a slit into the side of it about the same width as your phone. Slide the end of the phone with the speaker into the roll (you’ve now made a “T-like” shape). Now, the volume increases as the toilet paper tube becomes a makeshift loudspeaker.

I thought that fittingly summed up the state of today’s music. As Frank Zappa once said, “Rock isn’t dead; it just smells funny.”