WHEN SATISH KUMAR asked me to guest-edit the special Music For Transformation feature in this issue of Resurgence, I was delighted, as it gave me the opportunity to reflect once again on that most profound question, What actually is music?
Music is different things to different people: to Ian Skelly, author of the article ‘Beauty Speaks’, above all things music has a transcendental significance that is captured in the beautiful patterns of Nature and architecture – a kind of ‘frozen music’; to Mark Kidel, author of ‘Conversations and Crossroads’, music can bridge cultures in a universal ‘conversation’ that is beyond intellect or reason, but which is heartfelt; to Brian Eno, music brings the joy of unexpected and beautiful sound; and to singer/songwriters like myself and Howard Milner, music – and singing in particular – takes us to a world apart: a world beyond self and ego; a place of emotion that touches the soul.
I present to you an insightful glimpse into the world of music: yet it seems to me that the question ‘What is music?’ has no ultimately fixed answer, because although music can be defined in mechanistic terms as merely vibrations that are detected by the organ of Corti and assimilated by the brain’s cortex into what we hear, that is still only half the story.
It is no accident that the Latin word for breath – that prerequisite of music – is spiritus, for music invokes the spiritual in us. It is of the spirit and so is universal, other-worldly, nebulous and freely evolving. What a wonderful gift to humanity.
EVER SINCE I can remember, music has been an accompaniment to my life. It would be impossible for me to even try and conceptualise a world without music. If you have a natural aptitude and appreciation for it, then music simply draws you to it and connects. Watch a baby nodding her head, clapping her hands, or bouncing in response to a rhythm or melody.
Songs in particular contain something profoundly elemental. The singer actually ‘becomes’ the instrument, or vehicle of communication and expression. Through the combination of voice, lyrical content and poetic structure, melody, rhythm, the nuance of combined tonal qualities and phrasing within the breath, singers can transmit and translate thoughts and feelings, potentially elevating and transporting both the singer and the listener to another realm. Music really can lead us into another dimension.
Music also tells stories, breaks hearts, reduces us to tears, or seduces us into falling in love, over and over and over again. Music is a universal language. A human creation from a divine source… perhaps.
Music is a mystery, a code. A vehicle of spirit and soul. It is perceived through ‘hearing’ the vibration of sound, the most sublime resonance – from the eardrum to the brain. Music moves us beyond intellect to the heart-centre.
I’m not a music ‘expert’. I’m a music lover... A discoverer, an explorer. Music for me is pure ‘potentiality’. I can engage with it. I can commune with it. Sometimes, if I’m open to it, it takes me by surprise, and I step out of myself. Music is a friend, a companion, a guide and a teacher. A challenge, a landscape, a palette, a texture, a shape. Music is chord structure, harmony or dissonance.
Music is culture from every origin; it is identity and belonging. It is history and invention. Music is remembering and forgetting. Music is symmetry, rebellion, genius, prodigy, mastery, virtuoso, dazzling, breath-taking, spell-binding, and extraordinary.
PAUSE FOR A moment to ‘think’ of these sounds: harp, clarinet, kettledrum, xylophone, violin, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, sitar, oboe, flute... They are all uniquely different yet we can ‘hear’ them in our heads, just by thinking of them. Then think of the individual styles of various composers – Bach or Debussy, for example. We can tell the difference between Vivaldi, Couperin and Telemann – and they too have unique ‘sounds’. But what drew them to compose? How could Mozart play with such brilliance at the age of four? What made Miles Davis tick? These are the deeper questions that remain unanswered.
There are other questions that need to be asked: what does the wind sound like, or a dripping tap? Can this be a form of music too? A car door slamming, a baby crying, footsteps, whispers, a log fire crackling, animal sounds, city sounds, bar-room conversations, the roar of a football crowd, a familiar voice, the ocean, early-morning birdsong... Are these sounds musical to your ears?
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