This post has nothing to do with voting. I didn’t notice until I went to schedule it that it was on Voting Day. Voting is more important than reading this. Please, if you like living in a democracy, go vote.
But if you’ve already voted, then here you go:
When I was a kid, one suppertime around the table, my sister asked one of her questions. She had good questions. This one was, “why is music the only art that goes straight to your feelings?” My father, who was the musical one, declined to answer; I don’t remember whether he said he didn’t know or just didn’t answer but the latter would have been like him. I thought, “she’s made me feel dumb again, she’s always making me feel dumb, but that’s a really good question.” I knew what she meant: the other arts evoke your emotions but music seems to get right in there and create them. Music seems to happen interiorly.
Likewise but recently, I was getting a haircut from the salon’s owner. She’s a woman of a certain age and a certain temperament, and the music that the 20-something receptionist had put on the sound system was getting on her nerves. “Put some other music on,” she yelled across the room, but apparently she didn’t trust the receptionist’s taste so she said, “Here, look out, I’m going to do it.” And sure enough, a minute later a tenor singing Puccini billowed through the salon, and she came back to my hair. “Turn it up,” she yelled again. The receptionist apparently demurred. “Turn it UP!” she yelled, and the tenor bloomed in passion. She stepped away from me and stood in the middle of the salon to get some scope for her declaration. “You don’t just listen to this music,” she yelled. “You gotta BREATHE IT IN!”
Ok, so, interior. How does that work? I rummaged around in online psycho-neuro-type researches and found out that, of course, people have been thinking about the connection between music and emotion since the ancient Greeks. “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” and I know, it’s Congreve not the ancient Greeks, but the idea obviously has staying power. Anyway.
Current science, from what I can tell, backs it. Science plays music and measures peoples’ physical reactions – heart rate, skin conductance, muscle tension, blood pressure, goose bumps (piloerection, thank you) – and yes, people react physically to music. Science asks people questions: does this music make you feel an emotion? what emotion? what about the music makes you feel this emotion? do other people hear the same music and feel the same emotion? Then science makes charts of the obvious answers. Then science argues with itself about whether people are perceiving the emotion in the music or whether they’re actually feeling it inside themselves. So science goes farther and peers into your brain with various methods – really, science? PET scans using radioactive tracers to study music? surely over-enthusiastic? – and finds that the brain areas that light up with music are the same areas that handle emotion (but also many other things, right?).
None of this science is going to tell you anything you didn’t already know or couldn’t guess. And besides, it’s not what my sister was asking. She wanted to know why music seems to go straight inside you to your emotions, that is, why is its effect so direct? Notice, she was implicitly comparing music with the other arts: painting and sculpture, literature, theater. I think I’ve figured this out – it’s taken me decades but I haven’t worked on it full time. I think it’s because all the other arts, even literature, are visual; you can see them, touch them, they exist outside you, they have an external reality. Music, invisible and intangible, happens inside your head.
I think this answer is nice but obviously flawed. I can tell the difference between music that’s coming out of the stereo — that is, external reality — and music that’s going around in my head. But never mind, music is still more interior than the more visual arts and flawed argument or not, I’m sticking to it.
A quiet, cool, sunny Sunday afternoon, I was reading and not thinking about sickness and decline and the funeral service I’d been to. On the stereo, a curlicuing soprano voice spiraled up to a high note and hung there, silvery and effortless, slipping into all the things I wasn’t thinking, sliding into my bones and resonating, condensing into a pinpoint of loss and grief. I wasn’t listening to it but I still had to put down my book and stare out the window for a while, watch the deepening sunlight turn the brick houses across the street to a color you couldn’t paint, only feel.
Estonian violinist and singer Maarja Nuut at Viljandi Folk Music Festival, photo by Vaido Otsar via Wikimedia Creative Commons. For some reason, the photo reminds me of Rhiannon Giddens, though she’s much plainer and more down to earth and scary as hell.