Anyone who has followed my articles this past year may remember that I like to ask questions about the ways music affects us. Looking at science, art, and the human soul brought together by neurotheology, I find opportunities for music to open us up to powerful inner experiences. Of course, it is difficult to fully understand this complex and ever-evolving topic. To a certain extent, discussing it at all is controversial in the sense that people have widely varying opinions about whether there is even such a thing as a soul and whether spirituality is an appropriate public conversation piece. It’s not my objective to make religious or even abstract philosophical arguments; I want to add my voice to a conversation about the real value of music that goes beyond just “art for art’s sake.” Art for art’s sake is no more a true aphorism than “food for food’s sake.” Isn’t food there for hunger’s sake? In the same way, music meets very real human needs (see my articles on telos and why we turn to music in the first place for a more thorough explanation).
We’re trying to find out ways that music can fulfill desires that are obscure, if not mostly subconscious. In doing so, we might find some of the best clues in art as a whole. One purpose of art is the expression of ideas, yes. But not every art piece really seems concerned with ideas. Landscape painting and dance, for example, can be called “expressive,” but they are not explicitly communicating a point of view. Rather, they serve as media for storytelling. Instead of the artist using the work to push a certain understanding, it’s up to the audience to interpret what’s there. An Ansel Adams photograph gives its viewers a wilderness perspective and allows them to see themselves in the scene, projecting their emotions and experiences into the canvas. Whether they feel solitude or connection to nature, each person can take the inert piece and use it as a vessel for internal, personal storytelling.
The same is true of instrumental music. Without lyrics, the musician is not telling any particular story. There is no explicit (or even implicit) “point” being made; you as the listener have to decide how you feel. Additionally, you have the creative ability to conjure images in your own mind, preserving a lasting emotional impact. When you hear a film score, the images on screen do that for you – Superman’s triumphant theme invites you to associate the music with Superman’s brand of heroism. On its own, instrumentals invite you to supplement the notes with deep memories and gut reactions.
Here’s another example, a song by Patrick O’Hearn called “Beyond this Moment.” Play the song without watching the film and then go back and see the video images with the music.
Taken with the images in the video, which gives the song a kind of desolate serenity within nature, we might come away with something of a gentle tranquility. But if you don’t have the video, what do you imagine? The piano notes reminded me of rainfall. This melded with the somber guitar to make me think of scenes from a favorite movie – a woman moving through a busy city with dreary clouds overhead, a writer handling her depression by walking through the English countryside. These images didn’t come to me consciously at first, but they were in the back of my mind, and I had something of a pensive, reflective response to the song.
This is just one example of the powerful ways we can participate in music – and art in general – by playing out stories within ourselves. The more we’re able to use music as a tool for exploring who we are, the more we are capable of understanding how it affects others. Perhaps more to the point, we increasingly learn what it is to be human and to share in the exploration of the deepest, most ineffable matters of life.