A Discovery of Songs Sunday morning. I'm at the piano rehearsing a song for the end of the sermon in this afternoon’s church service, I volunteer there every Sunday. On this occasion it is Bowie, but my 13 year old, bounding across from the back room, is having none of it. “Are you playing Africa?” “No, I'm playing Space Oddity.” “Can't you do Africa?” “I did Africa a few weeks back, and I couldn't play it then.” “Aww, go on. Play Africa.” “Josh, I'm not playing Africa.” And off he goes to raid the biscuit pile. A while back we did an impromptu Friday disco, and I stuck on Africa to Josh's great enthusiasm. The very next day I read about an art installation in the Namib Desert that's going to play it on a loop for eternity. Perhaps I ought to buy him a plane ticket. Africa - Angel City Chorale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-c9-poC5HGw Tonight's car journey on the way to take the eldest to band practise was a re-airing of Time To Make The Floor Burn, which I can still remember buying from the local hypermarket on a weekend in 1990. I slipped the cassette from its inlay into our Sony music system and had to explain to my father what this awful noise actually was; “It's, um. It's a bit like Jive Bunny, Dad.” These days my kids are the ones doing the explaining. It's difficult to write about the role music plays in our lives. It's not unlike writing about the role played by eating, or walking. It slots into the routine – no, not even the routine, just the natural state of being, these acts of playing and listening and half-listening and singing and performing. This does not mean that music is our lifeblood, something we could not possibly live without: we would find a way. It has become something that happens without conscious thought – the hand on the radio switch, the song in the shower, the fumbled grab of CDs from the shelf on the way to the bedroom in the evening. For better or worse, the boys currently look to us to help them forge their musical identity. Joshua raids the shelves, picking out Pink Floyd, The Who, Eels or Radiohead for the nocturnal listening sessions he has with his brother. I press my ear to the door so I can hear what they are listening to, then when Joshua and I are alone together I'll ask him his opinions on the songs; “Yeah, it was good,” is the response nine and a half times out of ten – although “Really good” was his recent reaction to Hounds of Love - which I consider a personal triumph. Kate Bush - The Big Sky https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV7w5TaYjRA But it bothers me, this apparent assimilation of views. It shouldn't. It doesn't bother my wife. When I mentioned it to her she said, “You know, you could try worrying about something that was actually important. They enjoy it. What else matters?” I spent large amounts of Thomas's younger years in front of the computer, the two of us watching Queen videos, or vintage Elton John, the iPod awash with ABBA or the strains of Beatles songs. But what's happening here? When I was their age I loved Guns 'n' Roses and De La Soul and look, I'm ashamed to admit this but Beverley Craven. Shouldn't they be listening to chart music by now like Red Sheeran, or Ariana Grundie or whoever the kids like these days? The simple truth is that Thomas was a difficult baby and sometimes it was the only thing that would calm him down. Josh has spent the last three years learning to play rock guitar, and when you're learning to play rock guitar you start with Sunshine Of Your Love and move on to Hotel California by way of Jimi Hendrix. The riffs that form the musician's staple just happen to be the songs I enjoy. Pink Floyd Reunion: Wish You Were Here/Comfortably Numb https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_KX1Lcy8aA Everyone in our house loves Uptown Funk, although some of them a little less after I'd done a full on Dad Dance to outside a Lidl one fractious August evening, parenting tip: the best way to circumnavigate anticipated bad behaviour is to outdo your children before they get the chance to play up. Our family car song is Total Eclipse of the Heart, although currently my wife and I are the only ones who'll sing it, doing so with such gusto the kids tend to feign unconsciousness. It's tit for tat, of course. Joshua is naturally under-stimulated, which generally means music has to be played loud and late. We'll be settling down on an evening when there's the click of a CD tray, a sudden reversed piano chord, and then that inimitable voice singing “YOU SUCK MY BLOOD LIKE A LEECH....”. It is usually Night At The Opera. He falls asleep to the damned thing (usually somewhere between the beginning of The Prophet's Song and the end of Good Company) and I'm the one who has to get out of bed to turn it off. Either that or Nirvana, who cares that I have to get up at six in the morning? Oh well, whatever, nevermind. We also realised that all four of our children can play music by ear. I walked into the study one evening to hear Edward, then four, bashing out Bach's Minuet in G. It was the ringtone I'd picked for my new mobile. He'd heard it once, and was note perfect. At the time I was probably disproportionately fixated on the fact that at least it wasn't the Wallace and Gromit theme tune. Edward's obsessions tend to be intense and of a fixed term length, and then he moves on. Currently it is making his own PowerPoints. Jacques Loussier Minuet G Major https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaGGp3kLOVA All that said, I'm still not sure how much this relates to autism. The kids had favourite songs, the ones they'd ask for over and over (with Joshua it was Mika's Grace Kelly, played on a loop during a windswept visit to the Isle of Wight). But most kids do, don't they? They pick things up quickly, but what if that's nothing more than innate, inherited musical talent? Much of autism is about the recognition of patterns, a strength when it comes to producing any sort of music, but is it too much to ask that they'd have been good at it anyway? Guitar practice is the one thing Joshua will do without being asked or nagged, but how much of that is the fixation that comes from his condition – and how much is simple enthusiasm for something he's able to do, and do well? And then I think about Thomas, who complained that his school used the same empowering song This Is Me several weeks running during their Friday motivational sessions. It's not that he didn't like The Greatest Showman, but why did it have to be the same thing over and over? I sympathised and then told him about my childhood assemblies, where we'd always enter to the strains of Morning from Peer Gynt – and how I wouldn't have minded, except our assemblies were always at quarter to three in the afternoon. I realised that children pick their own obsessions without our help, in Thomas's case, Despacito, or two of the songs from LazyTown, and the fixations and repetitions do not stem from anything you did. So, whenever Thomas complains about his school's taste in empowering music we'll usher him quietly toward the piano, or the radio that's tuned permanently to Jack FM, or the YouTube app and a set of headphones, and let him forge the path as he sees fit. And I'll keep supplying the CDs until the kids ask me not to. Maybe he could ask if they'd play Africa instead. That'd probably work.