A few weeks ago, I cued up Frankie Beverly & Maze’s 1993 slow-burn “The Morning After” on Spotify, listening for one specific moment that Ben Ratliff highlights in his book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty. The song is about infidelity, but Ratliff hears a spirit of devotion in Maze’s long held note about three-quarters of the way through, an acknowledgement of something powerful and mysterious beyond the singer. Various illustrations of devotion, Ratliff reasons, can be heard across styles, periods, and geographies. It’s audible in that moment from “The Morning After,” but also in John Lennon’s aching paean to his dead mother “Julia,” and a 1983 live version of “Haq Ali Ali Moula Ali” by legendary Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Ratliff uses these songs and a handful of others to pose a query about how music works. “Can you point at an emotion in music, and claim it as a function or property of the music itself, rather than of what the listener brings to it?” It’s a deep and controversial question, one that has been mostly limited to classical music theorists and educators. Yet Ratliff’s idea with Every Song Ever is to allow the listener/reader to judge for themselves. He assumes (rightly) that any reader can easily hear these recordings while reading along, thanks to massive digital streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. More importantly, he contends that listeners should attend to music in this way, using the newfound agency that comes with having nearly any song available with the click of a mouse to seek out musical characteristics that the services themselves can’t deliver.