• July 24, 2014

Can Music Save Your Life?

Can Music Save Your Life? 1

Tim MacPherson, Cultura, Aurora Photos

Who hasn't at least once had the feeling of being remade through music? Who is there who doesn't date a new phase in life to hearing this or that symphony or song? I heard it—we say—and everything changed. I heard it, and a gate flew open and I walked through. But does music constantly provide revelation—or does it have some other effects, maybe less desirable?

For those of us who teach, the question is especially pressing. Our students tend to spend hours a day plugged into their tunes. Yet, at least in my experience, they are reluctant to talk about music. They'll talk about sex, they'll talk about drugs—but rock 'n' roll, or whatever else they may be listening to, is off-limits. What's going on there?

When I first heard Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965, not long after it came out, I was amazed. At the time, I liked to listen to pop on the radio—the Beatles were fine, the Stones were better. But nothing I'd heard until then prepared me for Dylan's song. It had all the fluent joy of a pop number, but something else was going on too. This song was about lyrics: language. Dylan wasn't chanting some truism about being in love or wanting to get free or wasted for the weekend. He had something to say. He was exasperated. He was pissed off. He'd clearly been betrayed by somebody, or a whole nest of somebodies, and he was letting them have it. His words were exuberantly weird and sometimes almost embarrassingly inventive—and I didn't know what they all meant. "You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat." Chrome horse? Diplomat? What?

I sensed Dylan's disdain and his fury, but the song suggested way more than it declared. This was a sidewinder of a song—intense and angry, but indirect and riddling too. I tried to hear every line—Dylan's voice seemed garbled, and our phonograph wasn't new. I can still see myself with my head cocked to the spindle, eyes clenched, trying to shut out the room around me as I strained to grab the words from the harsh melodious wind of the song. "Ain't it hard when you discovered that / He really wasn't where it's at / After he took from you everything he could steal."

I couldn't listen to that song enough. I'd liked music before that. I'd liked stuff I'd heard on the radio; I'd even liked the Beethoven and the Mahler that my father played at top volume on Sunday mornings, though I never would have admitted as much to him. But Dylan was different. Other music made me temporarily happy, or tranquil, or energized. But this music made me puzzled. There was something in the grooves that I wasn't getting. There was something in the mix of the easy, available pop hook and the grating voice and elliptical words that signaled in the direction of experiences I hadn't had yet, and maybe never would. The song made me feel that life was larger than I had thought and made me want to find out what I was missing.

That song kicked open a door in my mind—to borrow a phrase Bruce Springsteen used to describe his own experience with it. But to be honest, in time that door may have gotten a little rusty from lack of use. Because really, after I heard "Like a Rolling Stone" on the radio and bought the single and listened to it 50 or so times, I put it away. I never went out to cop a Dylan album. I never even thought much about the guy for the next five years.

I went back to what you might call music-as-usual: using music to tune my moods. It was as though I was myself an instrument, and I was playing away, but in a perpetual state of disharmony. I was out of whack with myself, out of tune (at 16, who isn't?), living in a mash of discordant feelings and thoughts.

I wanted things, a lot of things—but I wasn't always sure what they were. I wanted a girlfriend, but after a certain point, I didn't much want any of the girls at school (nor they me). I wanted to be an athlete, but games often bored me, and the school jocks could be hard to take. I wanted to be right with God, but when the time came to go to confession, I often had so many sins on the docket that I despaired of getting them lined up properly before the judgment seat.

So I had a lot of static inside. My inner life resembled what my aged radio—red, the size of a toaster, and badly chipped—emitted when I swirled the dial from one pop station to another. It gave off the sound of chaos and the feel of the crackling void. But soon I arrived safely on the shores of WMEX, and there was Arnie Woo Woo Ginsburg, up until all hours, ready to maître d' me into the sounds of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Jan and Dean, the Stones.

Then all of my jarring and jangling emotions went into the radio and came back out making melodious sense. It was a little like what happened when my mother washed my clothes. She'd trudge down to the basement with my raunchy jeans and T-shirts, my stained football pants and jerseys, and an hour or two later, there came my laundry back in pleasant white piles. The football stuff was folded into a mound that looked like a fluffy loaf of just-baked bread.

Of course, some of the songs I listened to were sad, but sadness lies latent in the soul. We are always sad to some degree. The sadness in a Leonard Cohen song or the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" was different from the sadness that inhabited my spirit. The musical sadness was melodious: It had a shape, it made sense, it flowed along almost predictable lines. I won't say that musical sadness exorcized my sorrows, but the music gave my sadness a benign expression. It put my sadness in an attractive box. It let me feel sadness from a distance. I experienced my grief over my younger sister's death, which had taken place a few years before, but I was able to contemplate that grief at the same time. It's difficult to express.

Music makes life melodious—assuming that the music has a melody. But life is often jarring. Pop music suggests, by its easy, pleasurable repetitions, that life makes sense. We can pretend, for the duration of a song, that there is harmony in our lives. The music of Beethoven or of Coltrane is also patterned, but the patterns are harder to find. You have to listen closely—you have to have an educated ear. You feel that you're almost collaborating with the composer when you seek out the subtle echoes and indirect recapitulations. Life makes some sense to Beethoven and Coltrane, but it is a difficult, remote way that is not available to all and that can wink out in an instant.

In Beethoven's late quartets, the coherence can be unbearably elusive. Is this music all about theme and variation? I once asked my father, hoping to grab his attention in the midst of something by Brahms. All music is theme and variation, he said. But how attenuated that variation can be! We might listen to a piece of music pining for a phrase that will connect us to something we have heard before, something that reveals an overall structure. In Coltrane's late work, I sometimes can find no consistency of theme, no unity of sound, try as I might. I wonder if his impulse was to turn against sense-making through music and declare life to be incoherent—"a tale told by an idiot," as the poet says, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Usually, though, music gives harmony to feeling and suggests a sense to life. I wonder: Do we sometimes go to music to hide from our fears that the world makes no sense at all? Do we seek in music's harmonies a way to stabilize an inner life that is incoherent and strange? Do we use music as a way to soothe ourselves into a kind of torpor, to quell in ourselves what we cannot understand?

Music does sometimes kick a door open inside the mind, but it also sometimes insulates the house, secures it from all wayward feelings and thoughts. And when a song does seem to kick a door open, we frequently listen to it over and over again until it loses its power and all of its passion is spent.

The philosopher Allan Bloom didn't much care for the effect that music had on his students. He believed that they used music to counterfeit experience, in particular to fabricate joy. He said that music—rock music especially—reproduced in listeners the feelings of triumph that come from completing a great work of art or doing a heroic deed or making a conceptual breakthrough in science or philosophy—or even finding the true love of one's life. Students, Bloom said, found in rock music a way to fabricate those emotions, and then they often took the logical next step and asked themselves, implicitly, Why bother going further? Why should one actually do the deed and put in all the work leading up to it, when one can have the reward simply by putting on some music or showing up at a concert?

Bloom compared the Dionysian experience of rock music to the experience of drugs: He seems to have had hallucinogens in mind. After a heavy dose of LSD, in which the world becomes a wondrous kaleidoscope of sound and sight and even thought, what can everyday experience possibly offer? It manifests itself as a gray world of sameness and routine, nothing like the Wonderland one has recently left. People who have dabbled with psychedelics often trudge through wearisome lives that never quite meet their expectations.

Just so, perhaps music lovers feel alive only when they are plugged in to their tunes: The rest of the time they have only themselves, and they are, in themselves, insufficient.

Bloom is a student of Plato, and his critique of students' music echoes that philosopher's and also the later views of Nietzsche. Plato thought that music had a critical educative function. To Plato the soul is, by its nature, split into three parts. There is the rational part, the spirited, and the appetitive. What's wanted is to bring those parts into harmony, with reason ascendant. And music can do a great deal to stimulate that harmony. Melodious music helps to create a melodious soul. There is need for martial music, for Plato: Warriors must be inspired. What there is no need for is music that sends the soul into ecstasy, that lets appetite usurp reason and so makes a man or woman into a beast.

Nietzsche was a great lover of ecstatic music, at least when he was young. His drug of choice was Wagner, on whom he wrote copiously. Wagner's music gave him a Dionysian thrill. It took him above the sobrieties of his classical education, churchly background, and tamped-down temperament. But did Wagner visit the same magic on the crowd? Sure, Nietzsche maybe needed to loosen up a bit. But did the already-wallowing common man need to unbind himself further from civilized restraint? In time, Nietzsche thought not. By the end of his life, he was drawn to lighter opera—Bizet became his ideal.

My students, like Allan Bloom's, live inside music. Their musical lives may well be their spiritual lives. It is hard to say, because they don't talk about music very eagerly. In class I can get a conversation going about God with no problem. And students love talking about alcohol and its effects on the human mind and spirit, theirs in particular. A conversation about sex is easy to start and quickly goes way further than I'd imagine—and sometimes further than I want. But try asking about music.

Students listen to it for hours a day. They trot around the university grounds with headphones on; they plug into their tunes when they sit at their computers. Music, usually rap, is the iron-hard heart of their parties. There is surely a competition, at least among English-major types, about who listens to the most recondite bands. Sometimes students name them in discussions: the Fruit Bats, the Shins (now no longer obscure), Fatkid Dodgeball, Pimp the Cat, Full Throttle Aristotle, Disgruntled Sherpa Project. I sometimes make up a few myself and throw them into the mix.

But when I ask what role music plays in their lives or why they listen to what they do, there is silence. When I tell them what Plato had to say about music and that he'd disapprove of almost everything they listen to for being far too raucous, far too stirring, far too close to anarchy, they bristle and tell me that Plato is wrong. I ask them if listening to hard-core rap might influence their attitudes toward sex and money—major themes in rap, of course. They tell me that I'm being silly—which to me is a little like saying that the food you eat has nothing to do with how your body feels and how it functions.

But I speculate, and my speculation is this: Music brings drama to their lives. It makes them feel more vital, vigorous, intense. Because—students tell me this all the time—much of their real life is a mildly toxic combination of boring and stressful. Music turns boredom into drama and anxiety into equanimity. Listening to little-known cool bands puts young people in a club in which they can feel special and singular. It is cool to be a fan of an up-and-coming band—you can look down on others who join the jam too late. My students need the melody and the preciousness that music brings.

For life now is hard. It is as hard for my students as it was for me when I was their age. They are heaped with expectations. They are pressured to perform. Many are majoring in subjects that do not interest them at all. They are in their courses of study to succeed, to secure jobs. They grind away, in econ, say. Their prospects are shaky—they are worried about what is to come.

Does music save their lives? No, it preserves them, much as it did mine. Music allows you to tolerate dullness, muted, icy boredom. Music is a balm—a cortisone spread.

I say this because of the disparity between the wildness and freedom of the music and the lives my students live and want to live. This is the generation of no generation gap. These students are busy cloning their parents. They need music as a world elsewhere, just as I needed mine. And if that is true, no wonder the kids don't like to talk analytically about their tunes.

Can music still kick open a door in your mind? I'm nearly sure of it. No doubt every day numberless young people—and a few older ones too—have the kind of experience that I did with "Like a Rolling Stone."

But it's worth asking what kind of door that song kicked open. What room, exactly, did I enter? Looking back, I guess the song helped me get excited about the possibilities in words. For what made the song different wasn't its melody. That was wonderful, sure—the organ intro still makes me grin with happy expectation: Something fine is coming soon. But I'd heard other tunes just as gracefully intense. It was the lyrics that got me. I'd read other poetry then, though not much. But I thought poetry was by definition old stuff: moving in its way, but always out of date, a little like those Beethoven symphonies.

In Dylan I saw that music and lyrics could sound contemporary. Someone who listened to "Like a Rolling Stone" 50 times wouldn't be entirely lost reading "The Waste Land" or even Wallace Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." If you've met a "Napoleon in rags," you might, with a little more effort, be able to reach terms with Stevens's Canon Aspirin or even Nanzia Nunzio, who provokes Ozymandias to tell him that "the spouse / the bride is never naked," whatever that means.

The door Dylan kicked open was into the world of words, and eventually, after five or eight years fluttering at the threshold, I made my way inside. In time, I began trying to write as well as to read, and I owe that to Dylan as much as to anyone.

If I'd had a little more musical inclination, the song would have made me want to make some songs of my own. I'd have wanted to bring across my own view of things in musical language as strange and funny as Dylan's and phrased with his sense of inevitability. In fact, the best thing that hearing music can do for you is make you want to make your own.

I find it close to absurd that some people are musicians and singers and others are silent apostles who never let out a peep, maybe not even in the shower. Music seems like a basic human right, much like the right to prayer and the right to fall in love. Everyone's got a right to sing his song—though no one should be compelled to listen to it.

The notion that people have to do our singing for us is, in some ways, a result of the mind-set developed under capitalism with its insistence on the division of labor, which, though it surely has its virtues, we have taken to an absurd degree. It's amazing that thousands of people will pay a lot of money to go to a concert to watch 10 people on stage have the lions' share of the fun.

I read recently that every Comanche warrior had his personal song, written for him by the wise man in his tribe, and modified by the singer as the mood arose. The warrior woke up singing it, sang it from time to time during the day, and hummed it when he was going to sleep at night. The song might go on about what a great hunter he was; how many buffalo he'd shot; what a formidable lover he could be; how tall and handsome. It was righteous music.

If music kicks in any door regularly, it's the door that separates us from making music of our own. Sing, hum, strum, toot. It's said that when the Diggers, a group of early hippies, were invited to a Saturday night Grateful Dead show and told they could come in gratis, they declined. Saturday night was the night that they toked up, got out their guitars, banjos, and harmonicas—for the more amateur, the pots and pans and clicking spoons—and made their own noise. They had fun.

The ultimate liberation that someone else's music may provide is the liberation of you—the individual—into your own music, or your own creations, of whatever stripe.

Music can be a pleasure to listen to. But spending your life as a consumer and not a creator is a chump's bet. Nietzsche said that eventually he judged music by one standard. How fertile did it make him? How much and how well did it inspire him to write? Many of us have been duped by consumer ideology. Consumerism says that life's greatest pleasures are in consuming, in buying good stuff and enjoying it. But that's wrong.

Life's pleasures are in creating things, even if the creations have a few cracks in them. (Even if the creations are nothing but cracks.) If music doesn't produce music, or something fresh, it's often a sterile diversion. There's no one whose company I shun more than that of the Music Geek—someone with catalog-like knowledge and taste like a guillotine, who sits at stiff attention when the tunes play. He is sterility itself.

Take every aspect of his relation to music, reverse it, and good things will come. Music at its best moves you emotionally. But it should also move you from one place to another; it should move you to get off your enjoyment-oriented posterior and do something.

The Music Geek listens only to the best music. He does it all day long, sitting in his Herman Miller Aeron chair, with his Bose headphones on; he wears pads on his eyes; his face is drawn in sublime concentration. He's like someone who eats only the best food—very picky in all his selections—but then never uses the strength and health he engenders by it.

The Music Geek condescends to everyone else's taste. I half-believe that, on some level, the Music Geek doesn't really like music, doesn't get it, and wants everyone else to join him in his sterile funk.

Can music save your life? My wonderful former teacher, Geoffrey Hartman, said that most reading was vague and lazy, like girl watching. Feminists gave him the bastinado for that, but he was right. Something similar is true about listening to music. Usually it's about getting your emotions packaged for you, quieting the static inside, fabricating an exciting identity (the gangsta, the hipster) to counteract one's commitment to a life of secure banality.

Most music listening, like most reading, is passive. It's about girl watching rather than woman wooing, which is a tougher game. Schopenhauer says that most reading is letting other people think your thoughts for you. I'd add that most music listening is about letting other people feel your feelings for you.

Feel them for yourself, I say. Then shout them out loud. And sing them too. Do it for your own pleasure. It doesn't matter whether anyone is listening.

Mark Edmundson is a university professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author, most recently, of Why Read? (Bloomsbury USA, 2004) and a new book on college teaching and learning, forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2013.

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