In Debate Over Lyrics, Can Son Change His Tune?

When mom pays for lessons, song selection matters.

When his father bought him a new guitar, my son gave up playing the violin, quit his school orchestra, and devoted himself to guitar lessons.

I didn’t really mind. After three years of classic violin, he wasn’t quitting music, he was simply switching to a new instrument.

Rather than Bach and Vivaldi, he would learn how to read guitar chords. I told myself my son would still reap the benefits of  being an amateur musician. He would know sight-reading, appreciate composers, and continue to improve his math skills. 

So I switched from paying for a monthly violin rental to weekly guitar lessons.

At first, it wasn’t too bad. My 13-year-old came home strumming some Beatles tunes and learned a couple of Bob Dylan songs that my husband and I enjoyed.

Then he came home playing Green Day. I could live with that if he didn’t sing the Green Day curse words. Green Day was cool. So were the songs by The Rolling Stones and The Who.

But I finally put my foot down when I overheard some notes being strummed in my house that sounded an awfully lot like Steve Miller’s, “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker.”

Turns out, my kid had heard that song on the radio and decided to learn it at his lesson. 

“I’m not paying for you to learn any song that has the lyrics, ‘Really love your peaches want to shake your tree,’” I hollered.

I threatened to cancel the lessons when I learned that Steve Miller had come on the tail end of learning songs by Linkin Park and Kid Rock. 

We had a healthy debate about censorship and me dictating what songs he could learn. Then I taught him a reality lesson about money and who was actually paying for the guitar lessons. Eventually we came to a compromise.

He wouldn’t ask me to pay for lessons to learn songs that had lyrics I thought were objectionable. He could pay for his own lesson if he wanted to learn a song I didn’t like. So far, it seems to be going just fine.

Recently, he had a chance to put his musical skills into practice. He went on an overnight trip with a church group and was invited to bring his guitar. The song he ended up playing was Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”

Guess that was money well spent after all.

Townie March 14, 2011 at 05:15 PM
This reader was confused about what offended you about some of the music your son was learning. Hopefully the terms of your financial support were more specific than your article alluded to because it is difficult to determine what you find musically offensive. You began by stating that the choice of instrument is not as important as the fact that he is still learning to read music which is a valuable skill and one that translates well to other academic disciplines. The waters began to muddy when you interchanged terms like music, notes and lyrics. Do the guitar lessons include learning the lyrics as well as the notes? It is difficult to appreciate how a music note or chord could be offensive to anyone. I do not believe that singing, reading or reciting the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s rendition of My Way is a gateway song to a life of defiance anymore than I believe that singing the words “toker or coker” glamorize the actions or practices of that it makes reference to. There is an amusing touch of irony in the fact that the very same music lessons you are financing will eventually give your son the ability to learn both the “notes” and “lyrics” to any song he desires. The amusing rhetoric that your piece may generate can not over shadow the fact that your son has chosen to spend his free time mastering a musical instrument instead of an X-Box game. Sounds like you got a pretty good kid there.


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