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Open Sesame

Everything I need to know about music I learned from Elmo

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My 2-year-old son can turn the most mundane household product into a viable musical instrument. Last week, I spotted him playing drums by hitting a plastic bag with a foot scraper. He wrote his first song at somewhere around 16 months -- banging out an open chord on a toy guitar, he repeated words that sounded distinctly like, "no money, no money ..." (which might've been a profound social statement had he any grasp of what money was).

Lately, he's shown less interest in guitar -- ever since he discovered a shinier, easier-to-hold sound-maker: the triangle. He's also been pretty punk rock in his approach to that most approachable of orchestral instruments. He never had a lesson, and shows no respect at all for the rules of meter. He doesn't even know or care that the triangle is named that way because of its shape. But he plays, you know, with heart.

I'm not bragging (or at least, not just bragging). The impulse to create music is pretty much a kid's natural instinct. A fascination with the triangle, on the other hand, is not. That, actually, he learned from "Sesame Street."

Telly, a monster friend of Elmo's, plays it in a video we own called Music Works Wonders. It's a great program, made in conjunction with groups like the American Music Conference and the National Association for Music Education -- groups that believe in the power of music for childhood development, creative fulfillment, cultural discovery and for expressing our shared humanity. In its focus exclusively on music-making, Music Works Wonders is different from the typical "Sesame Street" fare -- no rubber duckies, no Cookie Monsters, and it wasn't brought to you by the letter "L" or the number "7."

Still, I'm hoping that portions of the Sesame Street Live stage show coming to town this weekend will -- given its subtitle, "Everyone Makes Music" -- include material adapted from the video. That's because, while Music Works Wonders basically confirms what kids already know, it's a lesson more adults than ever need to hear: Music is everywhere and in anyone's power to create.

It's an obvious point on some level, perhaps. But these days, it can seem like a radical notion -- the kind of insurgent idea that might get the Record Industry Association of America wanting to eavesdrop on your hard drive.

There's a scene, for instance, in Music Works Wonders where Elmo and a saxophone-playing hipster owl named Mr. Hoots discuss the possibilities for what constitutes music. The sound of water dripping into a bucket; the sound of brooms sweeping leaves from the street; the chirping of a cricket -- all of it, they determine, is music. Avant-garde composer John Cage -- not to mention electronica icon Aphex Twin -- would be proud. Later, when Elmo can't figure out what instrument to bring to the neighborhood jam session, he happily conjures one out of a spoon and a box.

These are radical ideas because, given the tremendous variety in sound possibilities, the world of commercial music offers us only hit after hit, CD after CD, of utterly monolithic sounds. A huge amount of what we hear is created with electric guitars and a conventional drum set (two of perhaps 10,000 known instruments in the world). And the music industry conditions us to associate music as a whole with the narrow slice we hear on TV and radio -- the stuff we must buy in order to own.

And it's not just an industry bad-guy conspiracy. It goes way, way deeper than that -- into every teenagers' head who goes out and buys an electric guitar, willfully recreating the limited timbres to which they've been exposed. Into consumers so deeply entrenched in the system that even when they rail against it -- expressing contempt for a music industry bent on suppressing illegal Internet downloads -- they work off the assumption that the products offered by the music industry are worth possessing in the first place! As if being passively spoon-fed monotony is a God-given right.

Let them keep their downloads. Crickets and brooms and plastic bags make music, too. And they're free. If you make up words to your own songs, you can sing about exactly the kind of thing you want to hear sung about. Two-year-olds do it all the time. And you never hear them complaining about how "bad music is right now."

For info on Sesame Street Music Works and Music Works Wonders, see www.amc-music.org

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