On the “About” page of the new book blog I started, Great Books of Old Stream, I spent some time thinking about why I read. I asked myself, why is it important for people to read great books? Also, why do I continue to read challenging things as often as I can? Here on my music blog, I was naturally led to ask myself a similar question, “Why Music?”. That is almost a more difficult question for me to tackle, because I take music for granted. I am like a fish trying to explain water, because for me music is everywhere and I am immersed in it. Music making, music listening, and being engaged in musical activities is like breathing air. I don’t remember a time in my life without music. I imagine I was born in a hospital delivery room with something wonderful playing over the radio speakers, although due to the therapeutic effects of pain medicine, not even my mother remembers exactly which song.
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
― Bob Marley
I think this is a common phenomenon among musicians, one whereby music is ubiquitous in their lives, but articulating exactly why it is important is something of a challenge. I can’t tell you why I compose, it is simply an inner compulsion. I do it because I have to, it is who I am. It matters not if no one listens, I compose anyway. Much music is very emotionally expressive, but I don’t find an answer to my question “Why Music?” in the endless parade of empty platitudes, such as, “music gives a soul to the universe”, or “music heals the heart”, or “music is the language of the spirit”. I don’t know where the soul-giving, heart-healing, spirit language is in the score, or when it might go on sale at Guitar Center. Even an explanation of music as an “expression of the human”, falls short for those of us who have met some wonderfully talented musicians who were simply awful human beings. The sublime beauty of the operas of Richard Wagner, for example, are the product of a man who was a despicable person. I have to separate the music from the man, the art from the flawed human creator, in order to live with myself for enjoying it.
““And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Conductor Benjamin Zander has amazing energy and a wonderful sense of humor in his TED talk, “The transformative power of classical music” from 2008. The talk is very engaging, and very powerful if you do what he suggests, and imagine someone you love who is gone, while you listen to the “shopping” piece. I don’t think it is a complete answer to why music is important, but it is a great twenty minutes that demonstrates at least part of the answer.
“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”
― Albert Schweitzer
Of all the things that music is said to do, what I most hope it has the power to do, is bring people together. People need to come together now, more than ever. The most powerful music I know about bringing together the Brotherhood of Man (forgiving the all-male tense, I mean all humankind), is the setting of “Ode to Joy” in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Ninth on December 25, 1989 in East Berlin as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall. I found a video of some comments Lenny made about the “Ode to Joy”, recorded about fifteen years before that Berlin performance. I am saddened by how current Bernstein’s comments sound today, forty years later, as he goes on a tangent about war, refugees and bloodshed. I hope music does have the power to unite people, and like Bernstein, I pray that we all grow into something worthy of being called the human race.
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary!
Your magics join again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.