My wife and I have been a little bit behind the binge-watching TV curve. I say this confidently because we are just now watching The West Wing over a decade after the show ended its run. But I bring up the show only because of the reaction my wife had the other night to the opening theme music.
The theme, written by W.G. Snuffy Walden, has been described as “stirring Americana” performed with “orchestral grandeur.” It is a beautiful piece of music. My wife asked, “Why does this music make me want to cry?” She motioned with her hands imitating the way the music soars and said in an agitated voice, “Why does it do…(frustrated pause)…THAT?!?!”
As one who has listened to and written music all my life, I’ve always been slightly annoyed by people who try to explain music. Oh you can talk nuts and bolts. You can explain the basics. Major is happy, minor is sad, etc. You can study the theory and the mathematics behind it. But when all is said and done trying to explain music is like trying to explain God.
Some things have to be experienced. Even then, there is a mystery that explanation fails to capture. Music is like that.
I get chills and weep every time I listen to Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. But nobody is going to make me cry just by talking about it.
SQUEEZING MY HEART
If it were possible to watch a reel of the greatest scenes in movie history without their music scores it would become apparent instantly how important music is in reaching and amplifying our emotions.
For me the most obvious example is Field of Dreams. The score, written by James Horner, is one of my favorite pieces of music. I remember vividly the first time I heard it. I was in the movie theater with my friend Michael Johnson.
We are watching a movie about baseball. The scene on the screen is of two men playing catch. In no time at all I’m crying so hard that my friend is going to need a spoon and a sponge to get me off of the floor. Why? The music is saying this is sad.
Yes, the scene is bittersweet. Yes, I did play catch with my dad when I was a boy. But my meltdown is because the music is squeezing my heart.
I saw the movie on TV again a few months ago. Once I hear the music the water works starts up all over again.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
All of us walk around with pain stored up inside us, suppressed if you will. Music, specifically melody, speaks to the same hemisphere of our brain where trauma resides. It also travels at the speed of light. That’s why we can be brought to tears almost instantly by a piece of music. It taps into feelings buried so deep we don’t even consciously know they are there. In part, that’s an answer to “Why does it do that.”
I was talking to a man who leads a Griefshare group recently. He was expressing his appreciation for our project Drink Deep with healing songs created to help people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. He was trying to get some of the other group leaders he knows to use music in their support groups.
He explained that he was experiencing some resistance to the idea. “They’re afraid the songs will make people too emotional,” he told me.
This suggests two things to me. First, that people in general do in fact recognize the power of music to tap into emotions. Second, it revels how some people underestimate – or perhaps do not understand at all – the power of music to be a healing agent.
I suppose that some may think the idea behind a support group might be to make people feel less sad and their fear is that the music will make them more so. But the tears we cry in grief are the tears that need to be cried to begin the healing process. By helping us to access and feel our emotions more deeply the music helps us get to the heart of the matter. The healing songs speak for us when we cannot find the words.
As one who loves music and all of the ways it moves us to a fuller expression of our feelings I finally land on a very simple answer to my wife’s question. “Why does it do that?” Because God created music and created us to respond to it in the way we do.
I am reminded of a quote from he English writer and poet Walter Savage Lander. “Music is God’s best gift to man; the only art of heaven given to earth, the only art of earth we take to heaven”