This I Believe:
The Power of Music
My mother is a music teacher. From my earliest memories, music was a constant in our home. My four siblings and I were taught piano and voice, and the living room resonated with my mother’s piano and violin lessons in the afternoons, church vocal ensembles on the weekends, and plenty of cassette tapes in between. My favorite in our collection was a box set of Beethoven’s symphonies. I listened to them relentlessly, until I had every melodic theme in every symphony memorized. As our church’s choir director, my mother put on a spectacular Christmas program each year. I particularly remember one year when she had outdone herself; there was the usual choir, piano, and organ, plus a string quartet and all the church’s children singing an elaborate arrangement of “silent night.” As I sang with the other children in the chapel, I looked out over the congregation of my friends and neighbors and was stunned to find that everyone was crying. I couldn’t find a single dry eye. I kept searching for someone unaffected by it all, but face after tear-stained face made my own throat start to choke up. That was when I first realized the power that music holds over us.
In the years since then, my experiences with music have grown richer and more diverse. I have seen grown men and women break down into sobs during a song or sonata. I have seen musicians in bars and concert halls stand or sit at their instrument with the perfect poise of an athlete, releasing the flawlessly executed notes not by concentration or effort, but by emptying their mind in a kind of zen-like trance. I have been one of the millions of revelers on any given night dancing to throbbing nightclub beats, hundreds of bodies pulsing as a single organism. I have traveled to foreign continents and watched listeners roll their eyes back and fall to the ground in rhythmic convulsions, while the pounding of hands on drums shook the very earth I stood upon. I have felt the release of performing, writing, or participating in a piece of music and knowing that an emotion has been captured perfectly.
Not only can music move us emotionally, it can also be a powerful tool for communication and transcendence. When coupled with words, its effect can be strong and precise. Broken-hearted lovers find solace when they sing along to their favorite love songs. The faithful of all religions connect with God by singing their devotion. Political protesters put their ideals to music, and would-be revolutionaries sing them as they march for a better future.
All humans across the globe have had experiences like these. Babies who haven’t learned speech will still recognize a melody and respond negatively if it is played erroneously. Even animals appreciate music; whales trapped in ice have followed tankers that lead them to the open ocean by playing music. It would seem that music is somehow written into us. Music itself is just wavelengths of sound, and the waves have different frequencies, or “peaks” and “troughs.” When two waves match up, they sound harmonious, and when they clash, it sounds dissonant. This is a constant in our world and beyond. Indeed, if we were to make contact with an alien species, their music would probably still sound good to us. Music is not just written into us, it is written into the very fabric of the universe. When we hear music, a part of us is connecting with the cosmos.
Noise, sounds, tones, beats – how can something so commonplace evoke such strong emotions in us? It’s a mystery to me. But I would love nothing more than to spend my life exploring this mystery.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.