I’ve been shying away from this for a while because it seems so vast a topic to contemplate– where do you start? Of all the art forms, this has to be top billing for me, because I can imagine living without writing, reading and painting and my garden – just about – but I can’t imagine living without music in my life. It enriches our lives in so many ways, it makes us physically move and emotionally feel, with a magical blending of the two into a state we can’t describe. Where would films be without their soundtracks to impart the varying moods, adding a sense of adventure, tension, elation, or poignancy and loss. I once asked a music tutor on an OU beginners course why music moves so many of us, our very minds, bodies and souls. What is going on? He directed me to a book called Music and the Mind, by Anthony Storr, which I duly bought and read to try to understand how it operates within us and I’ll get to the book shortly. But first I want to look at how music shapes and marks the span of our individual lives like plotted points along a timeline. And I can’t talk about music without some links to tracks, so I’ve included just a few.
My own first musical memory before the age of five has to be my mother and I bopping around to Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ – my adapted line was ‘one of these days these boots are going to wockle over you’. I stuck to my guns over wockle until a school friend enlightened me as to my error many years later.
At some point we have all probably sang in a church or a school choir. I can specifically remember singing the Jerusalem hymn at a big school event around the age of eleven – ‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ with lyrics by William Blake. I got a sense of swelling grandeur from this hymn, which I’d never felt before with music. My favourite line was ‘Bring me my arrows of desire’. Then there was me and my friend using hairbrushes as mikes to belt out Frank Sinatra’s ‘I Did It My Way’, in my friend’s bedroom, and listen to Cher singing ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’ on the orange plastic record player.
My piano playing days where a bit of a chore, since I wasn’t a natural and had to work at it. What stands out most from those days is the old favourite of many piano teachers – Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’. This is etched in my memory, and in my suffering sister’s too – I was a bit too fond of those opening trills! But once I ditched the lessons and played for pleasure, I connected with my former pianist grandmother, who had died a few years earlier. Back in her day, she used to play the piano to accompany silent movies in theatre halls. I would play songs from her old song books and sing along to them. A favourite was a Welsh folk song called ‘The Ash Grove’ and when I used her music to conquer a little of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ – well, that was the pinnacle of my piano playing days. Here is a beautiful pianist, Tiffany Poon, doing it justice after she gets her dress sorted and into her ‘playing zone’.
Time moved on to typical teenage collections, my sister was into heavy rock, and I was more into the mainstream stuff – she did the head banging, I did the ‘slushy stuff’, as she called it, that was in the charts, but we both loved Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Then there was the jazz I had to listen to now and again, which my father liked ‘play drumming’ to, with his hands on the edge of a table, and so I became a Benny Goodman fan – and many years later I found myself painting to the accompaniment of Sing, Sing, Sing. I called the mixed media painting ‘All That Jazz’. What else?
Next came retro golden oldie singles being added to my growing collection – too many to name, but many songs from the sixties. But the next significant song has to be Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ – I was the Prince fan in our family, something to do with the beat and my loving to dance. And when I met my future husband to be, I introduced him to Purple Rain, which we played in the car on our trips out. In return he introduced me to Peter Gabriel – our getaway song was ‘Sledgehammer’. Next came more Pink Floyd albums – I could go on, but I’ll be typing all day. Today my tastes are wide and eclectic, as seems fitting.
So what is it about music that can do this to us, to stir us to feel pleasure or pain, and all moods in-between, to stir us to move, and do what poet and playwright, William Congreve said in his wisdom?
Music alone with sudden charms can bind
The wand’ring sense, and calm the troubled mind.
Music has charms to soothe the savage breast
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
Well according to Anthony Storr in his book, Music and the Mind, there are some really fundamentally human aspects going on when we listen to music, and I’ll attempt to summarise and paraphrase the fundamentals from his book. It’s believed that musical sounds are so interwoven with human life, they probably played a greater part in our prehistory than can ever be determined, probably used for social interaction, communication and a way of coordinating group feelings. It’s a language of physiological and emotional arousal, and can be used to stimulate emotion in a collective manner, just like what happens during a concert, or in a choir performance. It can penetrate our core, make us weep, make us love, it can temporarily transform out whole existence. We use it to resolve inner conflicts or at least work through them and we use it to celebrate joy.
He stresses that music is rooted in the body. When we’re in ‘tune’ with it, we enter a state of heightened alertness, interest, and excitement, an enhanced state of being, and feel the urge to move, to at least tap our feet to the beat, if we must stay seated. Music and movement are intertwined. And there is a closer relationship between hearing and feeling, than seeing and feeling. Why else would moving pictures employ music to intensify the story? Music is processed in the right side of the brain, in contrast to speech which is processed in the left, so we have a split here between emotion and logic (right-sided creative brain and methodical, analysing left). When words are directly connected with emotions as they are in sung lyrics, then the right brain is processing the music to a more heightened effect of feeling.
Music also structures time – by imposing order, music can control when certain emotions arise. Just think of how the shaping of a song operates much like a dramatic story arc. Music’s regular rhythms echo the rhythms in our bodies – our heartbeat, our breathing, our walking. Because music is in constant motion, more than any other art form, it most aptly represents human emotional processes, always in a state of flux. Yet it can order our own internal disharmonies, bring harmony where there is turbulence. It can bring enhanced significance to any scene from film or real life. It can make coherent patterns out of abstract ideas, and it can order human experience, and finally, it exalts life, enhances life, and gives it meaning. It’s a source of reconciliation, exhilaration and hope.
So, whether it’s playing your own instrument solely for yourself to enjoy some reflection and feeling; or whether it’s dancing in your kitchen and letting the rhythms and melodies flow through you with your very own unique responses; whether it’s playing music together in companionship in a street busking group to share with passers by and to lighten their day and your own; or whether it’s playing at a concert, or being one of the crowd, where everyone present seems to open their hearts to the music, where many hearts beat as one, where the music brings mutual feeling and shared hopes, where only music seems to be able to bring people together with any sense of love and understanding, because the music articulates what we all can’t – it’s then we really know what music is, and the sheer power of it.
Here’s what Plato had to say:
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
And on a more personal note, the proof copy of my novel, On Turtle Beach, came in the post yesterday. So, I’m almost there now in the publishing process. I had to get my hubbie to open the package, because I was half expecting it to be in Russian or some other indecipherable language to me…well no, it’s fine…whew! And then I got the feelings I’d heard about from others who have had these moments before me. The thrill, the excitement of it, the feeling of disbelief. And as I’d just come back from a walk and had decided to post next about music, I then thought of a piece of music that fits this moment of revelation, a piece I once described as a backing track in a story I wrote about an artist. And it feels so fitting, because one of my characters in the novel is an artist. But the piece of music isn’t just for me, it’s for all of us who have had, or are going to have , this feeling of having created something out of nothing, which is our business as creatives. Here is the music I picked. Hope you enjoy and please feel free to share your musical moments too.
(pic courtesy of pixabay)