The Power of Music (Part 6)

The Power of Music (Part 6)

So if you music is able to speak a deep emotional language and awaken a latent but poignant human longing what can it not do? Good question. It is important to know the limits of something as we seek to utilize it.

Music is debatably a good tool for story-telling. Some in the folk-loving tradition would argue it is best that way. Certainly music can be used as a memory tool to help tell the ancient stories. In many cultures songs were the medium for history.

Yet in today’s world there is a whole new medium to bring alive stories: film. Unlike any other time in history we can make almost any period of history come alive in the most real sense. Movies have become the primary mode of story-telling.

Music, popular music, has today become very driven around something movies can not do: gather 10’s of thousands of people at a festival to dance and reinvigorate community. Music has become more and more about the live experience.

There is innately something uniquely powerful about the mass gathering around a musical cause. Experiencing things on a large scale is something deeply human. There is some almost irresistible quality to the crowd experience.

Not all the different than a football game, the crowd mentality carries us beyond the individual. We normally isolated beings find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a shared experience on a mass level and it feels really good in many way.

When we add music to the crowd experience there is a sort of sacredness to the gathering. Instead of hollering for our favorite teams to pulverize each other we are combining our voices and shared longings in a massive group experience.

There is simply nothing like 10,000+ people singing together, feeling together the emotion of a particular song. Remember how deeply intimate music is, we already talked about its rootedness in our emotional longing. Private goes public.

As powerful as that experience can be it also of course can manipulated, coerced, and downright greedy. For the promoter trying to make a buck to the attender looking to keep a high going for a whole summer, the experience can be misleading.

If we consider “Deadheads” for a second, it may illustrate. They are people who are fundamentally moved by the live show experience. They find so much much solace in the show and in the community around the show they leave work to pursue it.

They literally follow the band to continue to experience the overwhelming emotions night after night. Does it get old? Do the experiences feel coerced after a while? Is this a good use of their time and money? Are they missing out on their life?

These are the great questions of culture that we can’t totally answer. Is the music experience like that meant to be experienced over and over again? Do we ring dry the magic by expecting it over and over. Or is it new every time?

So we have been trying to get to the bottom of what does music actually do for people, for community, for the soul? The deeper we get into the question the harder it seems to get to a clear understanding. Music has multiple functions to be sure.

Perhaps helpful is to consider a world without music. What would be missing in the world without music? What part of our experience and life would be fundamentally missed without music? Dostoevsky talked about this in Russia.

They had become an artless country. Without fiction and imagination all ideas had to be run through the political sphere. What could have and probably should have remained in the realm of creativity was forced into political realities.

Art necessarily provides experimental worlds. It gives us the chance to run free in those worlds. Music particularly acts as an escort of sorts on such journeys. It may not be the foreground, but music is definitely the host, the dream-inducing spell.

Music in so many ways is the pixie dust of imagination. It takes people from the mundane to a more profound sense of feeling. It takes someone from being only “in their head” to somewhere deep within themselves.

Think of music at a funeral. It is dangerous. It is a spark in a dry forest. It can set the whole place ablaze with raw emotion. The most passionate eulogies or messages can incubate emotion but simply not on the scale of a powerful song.

Words give framework, meaning, hope. But music ignites. It simply ties into a different part of the soul. Music ethnologists study and know the central place of music in so many sacred traditions and rituals. The music begins the experience.

Music is essential, not optional. Think of young David playing the harp for the increasingly delusional king to calm his nerves. Think of the traveling prophet groups led by a musical caravan. Music escorts an experience.

Probably neither the artist nor the audience is totally in charge of making all the connections. They are simply parts of a bigger whole - a hidden wholeness. What all happens is out of the control of human beings. There is something else happening.

This is where traditionally and in most tribal cultures today they would something about the Great Spirit, or God. Who is it that weaves all these things together, beyond the control or foresight of humans? It is the author of life and art Himself.

Is it that unreasonable to think that God uses what are simply sparks from our angle - attempts to do something amazing, belief that something amazing can be done, in order to make something really amazing happen? Amazing is beyond our means.

But like the sound of the train at the perfect moment our random is God’s specific. What we can not control God can. He brings the weather, the out of nowhere calls and sounds, all together for the perfect symphony of hidden wholeness. Thanks be to God.

The Power of Music (Part 5)

The Power of Music (Part 5)

What is it that music can do that no other art form can do? Articulation of certain feelings (writers can do that), reliving a moment to reflect on it (film-makers do that), connect the visual universe with the inner one (painters do that).

What music can do it is tied into the very essence of music itself. Music connects to a feeling, it sonically translates a feeling; though the artist seldom knows what emotion he is tapping into himself. The music itself finds the right notes.

The music dives into a part of ourselves that we have not yet gone in. It reveals to us things we were not able to know. And even after the experience we still do not know (in the rational sense). It is the field of the non-rational, or extra-reasonable.

It is so luring and powerful because there is something unknown yet incredibly familiar about it. Deep calls to deep. Our longings are certainly hard to translate, yet they can be experienced. Music helps us experience our deepest longings.

Longing is essential to the human experience, though uncomfortable. It gives us the overwhelming feeling that we are not in our permanent state, that something about this world is missing. Longing is a painful but deeply pleasant experience.

It’s similar to having a “good cry.” No one seeks to go out and have a cry, but when it happens it feels very good. The dopamine in our bodies releases. We get past the temporary things to the ultimate things. We know it is a good thing.

It’s similar to going to a funeral. Again no one wants to go to a funeral. It is awkward and sad. Yet there is something healing in the environment. People are drawn together in unusually close circumstances. God works.

Music is like that healing agent in a good cry or that depth experienced in a funeral. No one wants to go there but once they enter they are so glad they did. Once taken out of our focused routines we realize just how wonderful a gift it is.

The reset that happens during a spell of longing (think a funeral), though uncomfortable and not preferred, does something unusual to our schedule. Where before it we were sure we could not afford the time to go, after it seems we’ve nothing to do.

Longing literally slows down time. As we peel our gaze away from the fury of things on our to-do list and look into heaven we are convinced again that life has more meaning than merely the things for which we produce day to day.

We are more than our jobs, more than administrators of programs. We are human “beings.” Longing reminds us of our being-ness; our grounded-ness is something far greater than our ability to produce. It is our essential human-ness.

When we get back into ourselves we start to discover the ache of our longing is leading us somewhere. It is not there simply to bring discomfort, it is there to remind us in that discomfort that comforts here are temporary. Be homesick!  

The Power of Music (Part 4)

The Power of Music (Part 4)

Music also remains one of the most powerful art mediums because it is “performed” technically every time someone plays the song on any device, and also in a live ”performance” venue. It literally almost becomes alive.

Listening to the recorded version of the song can now be manipulated, meaning the user is free to play it whenever they want once they have it. They are no longer dependent on a third parties to play the song randomly on various formats.

With this incredible accessibility comes the clear possibility that the sacredness will be diluted. The more people play it to suit their own whims it almost becomes like a drug to induce a certain mindset. The original wonder of the song gets compromised.

The same happens when in mass the general public can’t get enough of a certain song. Something new that simply has that magic touch gets played over, and over, and over again. We soon start to blame the song for its own success.

Yet the song’s essence remains. Is the spark of life in it, or is it a rousing mix of chords and melodies that will be here today and gone tomorrow? Do we miss the most basic definition of success when we attach it necessarily to commercial gain?

The very things most artists so desperately want if they were to receive would actually take life out of them? Massive commercial success can be the end to the actual power of a song. While it may not be totally up to the artist, it is important to define.

Success is really more about getting the piece that you imagine in your heart and head. Can you actually get into the real world what is only deeply inside you? Every artist knows the feeling of getting that thing out, and when it is perfect.

Like life, parenting our completed projects is where things get complex, confused, and definitely beyond the scope of pure creativity. A different set of skills are required to negotiate life after the birth of a masterpiece, both for artist and their pieces.

Does life get much less romantic for the artist after the piece is created? Yes. But obviously in every part of the process there are creative outlets. For the musician post-birth of a new group of songs, there is the translation of the songs.

Who are these songs for and what are they really about? That is creative work. Though much more pragmatic marketing work the creativity can still flow. The goal is to not lose the magic behind the songs that were made.

Perform them with great emotion and gusto, but recall the essence of the song. Don’t go beyond the songs. Perform within them. Yes, there is the chance no one will resonate with it. There is the chance that it will not hit a nerve.

There is the chance that people won’t even remember it. OR maybe quickly it will simply fade into the background, as most things do in today’s world. We can not know. That is the great adventure. No way to totally test market success.

Eventually you have to talk whatever it is to the market itself to find out. Will the people get it? Will the people connect with it? Will they simply like it? We will find out as the dust settles and we simply perform the song. Here is it, my heart for all.

The Power of Music (Part 3)

The Power of Music (Part 3)

Inevitably the question of skill vs passion comes up in the arena of music. It is possible to get Doctorates in music. It is possible to go to Juliard, to become a professional classical musician playing in orchestras around the world.

Such musicians are incredibly skilled, trained to play even the toughest of compositions. Yet few are able to go “off the page.” They are trained specifically to read music and to read it fast and accurately, playing whatever is required on the sheet. If asked to ad lib or create something not in front of them, many literally have no idea what to do. They are skilled musicians, not songwriters or improvisational jazz musicians. One is not necessarily better than the other, but very different. Some skilled musicians can write, and some improvers are very skilled musicians, but there is something about music beyond the skills needed to perform it, something almost sacred (especially in writing it), that employs a different set of things altogether.

In other words the power of music is more than the talent of its parts. Writing a classic song that gets through all the hoops and into the consciousness of a generation is not reserved for the elite, the veterans, the ones established in the business. Providence is the great equalizer. No one has the market on hit-making. Certainly there are those with great advantages, those for whom ideas are more readily heard and distributed. Still, there is an inevitability with a great song.

It’s like a melody that won’t get out of your head (or it is). There is a persistence to it. It wants to be heard. It longs to be celebrated. The pen through whom such a song is given is clearly gifted, given just randomly enough that we can not break the code. There is no code. Only Spirit. Spirit prevails. The Spirit brings life, inspiration, hope. The Spirit brings songs (“songs of the Spirit,” Eph 5.19). The Spirit is essentially the Author of such songs. He alone is to get the praise in the end. Now many a song in today’s world that gets stuck in the head the Spirit certainly would not take credit for. There are many ways to circumvent the system. If we are being honest, we discover the tilted reality that few people are making the hits.

Do they have some magical gift? Perhaps, but even though there is no code there is a formula. Some have learned the formula and manipulated the system. Though not for long, without traces of the magic. People can not be fooled for long. There may be something instantly accessible and interesting about certain songs that fail to capture our imagination. Usually the lyrical content has a great deal to do with the staying power of a song. Are there layers of meaning or are there not?

Music has such potential being one of the few art forms with more than one medium. Music has both the medium of sound itself (which alone is powerful enough) and words (which again by itself can be enough). The two together done well is magic. 

The Power of Music (Part 2)

The power of music is its ability to etch deeply into our minds. How often does the refrain of a song work its way through our head over and over and over again. Most times, it seems arbitrary and random. Where did that song come from?

Nevertheless the songs can be very persistent. Some can color a whole season, some a particular event, some a moment, and some a day. The song refrain is almost like the voice of the Divine reminding, consoling, or even guiding us somehow.

The song acts as a farmer laying seeds. The lyrics go out like the random sprinkling of seeds down a certain walking lane. What will happen to those seeds? No one really knows. Will it rain? Will it flood? Will it not rain at all?

Will birds come down and eat the seeds before they are planted? How many scenarios can happen to those seeds. How rare and how wonderful a miracle it really is when one makes it. The seed makes it into the soil where it will do what it is planted to do.

The classics are those refrains that forever whatever reason make it into the sub-conscious of a people. The make it through all the hoops to get to that special place, almost untouchable. They animate a thought or feeling like nothing else.

Of course they are worn out. The spread so far usually that the very thing that attracted us to them eventually repels us. But after that phase of hating something just because it is massively popular ends, we realize the hypocrisy.

Our contempt of the familiar is not its problem, its ours. Where so many hipster artists today suffer from trying to stay aloof enough to remain cool, there is great freedom understanding this principle. Humans will always do this.

We despise what is common. We search constantly for something else, for something better, for something newer. We, especially Americans, innovate to our own despair. We fail to truly enjoy something, worried about its associations instead.

We re-invent classic ideas, melodies, progressions, themes over and over and over. In our attempts for new we simply borrow from the past and dress it up in some different clothes, sometimes acknowledging sometimes not what we borrow.

Is it that we are not really that inventive OR that everything has really been tried? Is there nothing new under the sun? With technology that of course seems not to be the case. Yet we still have the same basic 8 notes to work with.

No matter how we dress up those 8 notes and the combinations thereof we can not necessarily come to new progressions, but we can make new arrangements - timely ones that speak powerfully to our time and our place.

The naysayer will always say “what’s the point?” We’ve already heard this. Maybe. But not from me. Not in this time and place. Life requires we “own” our particular part of history. We need to act, to create, to sing, to make our music!