The Art of Music
Of all the astonishing things the human mind does, the most amazing may be that it can take sound and turn it into music, and then take music and turn it into meaning. The rest of the leaps the mind makes look almost easy by comparison: we like pictures of babies at picnics in sunlight because, after all, we like sunny days and chubby, pink-cheeked babies. The stories we tell in our literature are like the lies we tell in life. But music, a set of physical vibrations that reach our eardrums. And from those vibrations we make the emotional map of our lives.
Yet, as generations pass, the style and manner of those maps evolve. A few years ago, I realized that one of the great changes in my lifetime involves the way we listen to music. As a teenager, I was hungry for albums. My own teen-age kids, as obsessed with music as I was, had an entirely different way of listening. They carried around their “boom boxes” and blasted their favorite stations or CD’s.
The teens today have an different way of listening. They ignore the glowing-tube amp and classy articulate speakers in our living room; they bounce instead to tinny earbuds, and often spend hours listening to Taylor Swift or Radiohead on the still more tinny speakers of their computers. Sound quality seems secondary to some other thing they take from music.
Music has the ability to deflect my mood. I seem to find the most accurate notes and words to go along with my emotional turmoil or happiness, or romantic daydreams. Music represents for me not the endless, shifting weather-cover of sound that it does for kids today, but more of a cloud in every sense, a perpetual availability of emotions to suit a mood and moment. Music meant difficulty—and, when the difficulty was overcome, the possibilities of life, too. It was something to master.
Sometimes we drift away from our music, but when an unexpected event occurs, whether it’s a tragedy, a new love, a divorce, or a loss of a loved one, we always return to our tunes. We shop for the right melody that allows us to contemplate our sorrow, like a strong meditation. We hope that it can heal us while identifying with our feelings, and leave us feeling a little better.
I remember after my husband died, seeking out music that had a purpose—music that either allowed the memories to flow or music that seemed to reflect the deepest of my feelings. The first time I heard the musical score to The King’s Speech, I knew I had to buy the CD. I listened to it over and over again, never tiring of the repetition. My friends would visit and I’d play the music for hours, or until they politely requested another tune—one more uplifting. I never understood why they couldn’t see the beauty in this musical score. I didn’t find it depressing, but more of a combination of reflections of sorrow and hope for the future.
But just why we like music isn’t this thing or that thing but many things at once pressing down hard, and then lightly, on our minds. The few writers we think of who capture something of music on the page do so not with a crisp formula or any kind of technical precision but through a gently, fluid, metaphoric web of words, laid out over the pool of sound. Good music is a current of hard choices made to seem easy on the mind. Perhaps what really moves us in music is the vital sign of the human hand, in all its unsteady and human grace. Expressiveness is error. Too much imperfection and it sounds like a madman playing; too little, and it sounds robotic. The art is the perfected imperfection.