The beat goes on – Colm Keena on music, evolution and society

It is odd that collective music-making has now become such a parcelled-off activity

A good few years ago, when my parents were alive and my children were still children, we had a family gathering at which one of my sons played a tune on the recorder.

“Here”, my father said when the tune ended, “give me a look at that”, and he played the table a reel, his eighty-something-year-old fingers hopping about the instrument while we all looked on agog. It can be a heavy burden having an accomplished father.

It was commonplace in rural Ireland when he was growing up for groups of young people to go between houses at certain times of the year and play music, and my father had been part of such a group.

When I was a child, I’d seen him play the tin whistle, and mess around with a mouth organ, but I had never seen him play a recorder.


Moreover, I hadn’t seen him play anything for years and had all but forgotten about his ability to play an instrument when he surprised us all with his lively performance.

Like my father, my mother came from a farm in Westmeath.

Her mother – whose name was granny – was my only living grandparent when I was a child.

We would regularly drive down from Dublin to the farm, where there were cows, pigs, sheep, cats, a workhorse, a dog, and various type of fowl.

Granny ran the house, fed the range, baked bread, and could kill and pluck a chicken, which I recall her doing while sitting in a sunspot in the farmyard. She could also, though I never witnessed it, play the accordion.

My older siblings say she would sometimes take a low stool out to the front of the house in the evenings and play to the fields and the stars.

I like to imagine it as an act of gratitude and celebration.

Humans have evolved a capacity for, and appreciation of, music.

In my case this has resulted in an enduring love of music combined with a capacity to sing and play an instrument (strumming a guitar) while being oblivious to being out of tune.

At one stage during my teenage years, I invested in a cheap guitar and a couple of Dylan and Bowie songbooks.

Not once did my father, or my mother, who had a lovely singing voice, ever shout up the stairs that they couldn’t take it anymore.

But the out-of-tune penny eventually dropped, and my music-making activities faded to silence.

You could say that was a positive for humanity, but the thought that the experience is commonplace is surely a sad one.

I came across the suggestion recently in an interesting book, The Musical Human, by Michael Spitzer, that music, song, and our sense of a beat, have a strong links to, amongst other factors, our two-legged gait.

Among the memories this sparked was going on marches when I was in the reserve defence force – the Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, or FCA – when a teenager (I joined when I was three years below the minimum age for joining).

On our first summer camp, in Gormanston, Co Meath, our platoon went on long afternoon marches down country lanes, chanting a bawdy responsorial tune about the thoughts of two old ladies in a bed (one turned over to the other and said). Such responsorial singing, it seems, is common among hunter gatherer people as they move about.

Spitzer’s suggestion of a link between music and labour sparked another memory, of when, as a university student, I worked for a summer in a Larry Goodman meat plant in Ballymun in Dublin.

I remember clearly the powerful impression made when the noisy, overhead, motorised pulley system from which the animals were hung kicked into action and the men in the killing line began a loud rhythmic chant as they got down to business. We are a very particular species.

Given how embedded music-making is in our nature, it is an odd aspect of contemporary culture that collective music-making, whether it be motivational, devotional, celebrational, comic, or for the drawing down of consolation, has become such a parcelled-off, as against a day-to-day, activity.

In my case, once every Christmas we have a stew and carol night.

And in recent years myself and my partner, along with one of her sisters and her partner, have taken to getting together every now and then with some Dylan song books, guitars, guitar tuners, and a few bottles of wine, and spending an afternoon or evening playing and singing.

Every time we do, I’m left wondering why I don’t do it more often.