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Music Across Generations

Between grandparents and grandkids the appreciation of a good beat goes both ways.

When I was eight years old, my oldest sister, Karen, who is nine years older, took me to a Grateful Dead concert. I will never forget it. It was my first rock concert, and I remember so clearly feeling the reverberations of the thumping bass in my chest. They put me up on the stage, and I danced with the Grateful Dead. I was hooked. After that, Karen took me to hear many other bands, and that is how her "hippie" generation shared experiences shaped my musical taste.

As a music therapist, I believe music is a tool of unparalleled dimensions that can be used to connect the generations. No matter your age or experience, music is a medium through which emotions are expressed.

I was reminded of that experience on a recent trip to New Orleans, when I spent a day at the 40th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It had been a few years since I'd been to "Jazz Fest," as the music lovers who frequent the festival call it, and I was captivated-as I had been during previous visits by the multigenerational experience. I felt as if I'd been dipped in the living history of 20th-century music by the end of the day thoroughly saturated with the variety jazz, rock, bluegrass, Zydeco, gospel, folk, blues, and more. I was in my element, joining together with music and people of all ages. There are more than a dozen stages there, and not a single one was age-segregated. Even the kid's tent had parents and grandparents clapping and singing and wiggling with the little ones.

Despite the huge crowds, I ran into old friends who are native New Orleanians and Jazz Fest regulars. I have fond memories of long Jazz Fest days with them, followed by longer evenings at their home. But times have changed a bit: Karen and Phil Martin, both age 61, now had their three-year-old grandson, D.J., in tow. They seemed to be having as good a time as ever dancing in the hot sun, but this time they beat out the rhythms of the live music on the tray of his stroller.

Karen and Phil (known as "Mamma K" and "Opa" to their grandson) say they like to expose their grandson to all different musical genres. D.J. is acquiring an ear from hanging around his grandparents. "I'll drive him to school in the morning, and he'll identify what kind of music I'm playing. He'll say, 'That's Mardi Gras music,' or 'That's Rock-n-Roll!'," Karen said. "Music can bring out the same emotions across the generations. I sing with him, and we dance together. It's something we can enjoy together equally."

Indeed, music can be a great equalizer. A three-year-old can sing "Happy Birthday" just as well as a 93-year-old. And I'll never forget happy times I spent dancing with my granddaddy, C.V., to old 45s on my grandparents' ancient phonograph. From "I'm an Old Cow Hand" to "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog," the songs gave us a chance to boogie down together he in his 90s and me in my 20s.

Even when tastes differ among the generations, open minds and ears can forge connections when a teen or young adult turns a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent on to new music. A fellow boomer, Diane Fender, age 48, told me about a special connection her husband and daughter share through music. "Roger was never a country music fan until Elise, our daughter, was in high school," said Fender. "She lived all her life in Nashville and loves country to the heart of her soul. Now a love for country music (some old, but mostly new) is one of their father-daughter connections. They share music from iPod to iPod and talk about it across continents."

Carol Cober, also a boomer, finds that her young adult daughter, Laura, has widened her musical horizons. "Sometimes I catch myself driving in the car with the radio tuned to her rap and hip-hop stations," Cober said, "and sometimes I actually LIKE what I hear!"

That appreciation goes both ways. I remember the relief I felt when my oldest niece, Liz, started showing an interest in the Beatles. I knew then that we'd always have music we could enjoy together. Apparently I'm not alone, according to Lisa LaCamera, the senior director of communications and marketing at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, an outdoor arena in Vienna, Va.

LaCamera reports " an intense popularity of the Beatles music today among the younger generation," she said. "We see a good deal of families come out for 'RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles,' and I continue to be amazed at the young (16- and 17-year-olds) who come out for the Steve Miller Band." It seems that the growth in radio options may be fueling some of this cross-generational sharing. When asked why they like the band, said LaCamera, "they remarked that their parents listened to Steve Miller on the classic-rock station, and [the kids] love him!"

Sue Avery, a boomer mom, says her daughter has been into her music from day one show tunes and all. But she's also become fond of her daughter's music. "We are going to a Beyoncé concert next week and a Pink concert in the fall. But she still comes with me to see Springsteen!," said Avery. Now that is a cross-generational exchange!

What is it about music that seems to connect the generations often when they feel they have nothing else in common? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, "Music is the universal language of mankind." Perhaps it's just that simple.

Rhonda Cagle, 41, says she and her 16-year-old daughter, Megan, often share headphones. "Sharing music leads to a deeper conversation about what is taking place in our lives," she said. "Listening to music together opens up a dialogue that circumvents barriers of style or genre. Good lyrics stir the soul and ask the questions that too often lay silent and unspoken in the heart of the listener. By listening together, we are able to explore those questions in unison and learn from the different perspectives we hold."

At one time or another, every generation's music was considered to be wild and crazy. And what generation hasn't felt, at one time or another, the emotions expressed in The Who's hit, "My Generation?" One of the best covers of that song, in my opinion, was recorded by a group of older adults called the Zimmers.

Next time you feel as if you had absolutely nothing in common with your sibling, child, grandchild, niece, or nephew, try listening to your loved one's favorite music. Chances are you can find some common ground. Maybe you won't suddenly become a fan of the Wiggles, but you might be surprised at what different musical genres have in common. You might even develop some new skills.

Phil Martin, a self-identified music lover, says three-year-old D.J. often has a better developed sense of rhythm than his grandfather does. When they listen to music together and tap out the rhythms on the table, a drum, cymbal, or anything else that's handy, D.J. often sweetly and patiently corrects Phil's rhythm: "No Opa, like this!"

"And he's right!" said Martin. Better get that kid a drum set, Opa. Some day you can be his roadie and learn about music from him...

and the beat goes on, from generation to generation.

Tips for Sharing Music Across the Generations:

  • Go as a family to hear music. Experience all kinds of music. Expose younger and older generations to a wide variety. Everyone doesn't have to like the same things, it's all about listening, discerning, appreciating, and having common experiences. Elderhostel even has several intergenerational trips that are musically oriented.
  • Share your earbuds. Have a mediaplayer? Ask your kids, grandkids, or parents to listen to bits of your music now and then. Listen to their playlists. You will surely find something to talk about, whether it's how the music makes you feel or the variety of the playlists. No mediaplayer? Ask the younger generations in your family to share theirs with you and to show you how it works! Or poke around on the Internet to find music sites.
  • Take it outdoors. There's something extra moving about music outdoors. It can make music you don't care for seem much better, and the casual atmosphere is conducive to family interactions.
  • Stretch yourself. Try something new among the generations in your family. Introduce a whole new genre of music to your family. Take music lessons together. Try writing your own songs. Play Guitar Hero, or Ultimate Band, video games that all generations can rock to. Be a role model; show that anyone can enjoy making music. You don't have to be a pro!
  • Start young. Children have open attitudes about music. They often show great enthusiasm and unbridled joy when it comes to making, listening to, and moving to music. Take advantage of that, and make sure they hear all kinds of music on a regular basis. It will help them learn.
  • Stay young. No matter your age, experiencing music with other generations can keep your mind stimulated and keep you young. Don't get stuck in your oldies. Try something new. Music can boost your brain power!