Art is a doorway, a passage beyond our ordinary senses. Listen to artists of all kinds, and they will tell you how art seems to come to them from outside their minds, even our wills. Not every painting is rationally mapped out in advance, and songs are more than emotions reflected on an instrument. It’s not without reason that poets invoke the muses – art almost seems to have a life of its own. More than the intellect or feelings can produce, it borders on the most ethereal, spiritual elements of ourselves.
But we do not usually think of the world in this way. Most of our social philosophy is an extension of the idea of dualism – mind over matter, brains versus brawn, left versus right brain, art versus science versus religion…the list goes on ad nauseum. We are taught to separate, to categorize, to label. When something is different from us, we put it in its own box where we can give it a name, give ourselves a sense of control over the unknown. A shadowy figure terrifies us, but a known threat can be rationalized – likewise, we make every attempt to comprehend the experiences of life, including art.
But art does not always work this way, especially with music. It can be listened to “objectively,” sure. A music theorist can break down for us all the notes and chords in a song. But in language, we don’t systematically decode each word – we take sentences apart in chunks and process patterns. Similarly, music is not handled piece by piece, with us going back to review every part before continuing. So we can’t just hear music objectively and expect to understand it.
Most of us go a little further and listen to music, attempting to appreciate songs as wholes, composed of units of meaning. The distinct choruses, verses, and instrumentals are strung together in our efforts to grasp the artist’s message. When we think we understand, or when we feel we have connected with the tone, we might believe we have done our part and been a good audience.
I’m going to suggest that we haven’t been doing music justice if we only hear it, if we just listen to it. In life, don’t we seek to connect with each other and give something meaningful back to those around us? If we just analyze each other, just listen superficially and observe one another before reaching a final judgment, we have failed to love or even appreciate others as we would like them to do for us.
Art isn’t just a way for the creator to scream into the void, leaving themselves out to be dissected and discarded at our leisure. It’s a timeless reminder that we are not the only ones in the universe who matter, who have had the experiences and emotions we are going through. Music enters our brains and requests an audience, its creator hoping beyond hope that we wake up and realize that they are just as human as we are. When we do, we are listening with them.
In our attempts to build community, tackle the issues we care about, and be good to one another, nothing can be done if we believe that others are not quite as important as ourselves. We don’t have to sacrifice our individuality in the name of some collective – but we owe it to each other to display respect, and that requires stepping outside of ourselves and considering new perspectives from time to time. Music is an amazing conduit for this communion experience, but only if we allow it to be. The musicians are knocking on our door, asking to be allowed inside to share a meal. Will we pay them that courtesy in return for the gift they’ve given us?