“Memory is the scribe of the soul.” – Aristotle
Memory is a product of our ability to make associations — every memory is connected in some way to other memories.
And very little sparks memory with the intensity of music.
Music can work like a time machine, taking us back to a specific time and place. If we hear a song that was popular when we were young, we might suddenly begin thinking about friends, places, and events long forgotten.
Those of us who are baby boomers possess more than our share of "time machine" moments from music. For most of us, popular songs shaped our youth. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” for example, can bring back such distinct memories that many boomers will remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard it.
If you would like to test this theory, I recommend clicking on the "Music for Baby Boomers" link below and take a look at page recently added to this site that links to dozens of songs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. If you are a baby boomer, the songs will most likely evoke a variety of memories, thoughts, and emotions. Listen to the songs and let the memories flow.
For those of you not old enough to remember when the songs were popular, I can guarantee that you'll be listening to some absolutely terrific music.
"Music for Baby Boomers" (Click Here)
Flash Back provides baby boomers with over 300 conversation prompts that are designed to spark memories of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The book is designed to help boomers begin conversations about everything from metal cap guns and Polaroid land cameras to John Wayne and Sidney Poitier, from Zig Zags and waterbeds to Gloria Steinem and Barry Goldwater. The book has no higher purpose than entertainment and will, of course, include many references to the music that helped baby boomers define their youth.
Flash Back will be available on March 31, 2017, through Amazon. For more information, click on the link below.
Flash Back (Click Here)
The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
"My aim really is to teach the world to listen. That is my only real aim in life." – Dame Evelyn Glennie
According to Evelyn Glennie's biographical information on her Facebook page, she is "the first person in history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist." What her Facebook bio does not mention is that she has been profoundly deaf since she was twelve years old. She claims to hear with parts of her body other than her ears and performs barefoot to help feel the music. In this TED talk from 2003, Glennie not only provides a great musical performance (beginning at 27:15), she also offers a new and more mindful way of listening to music. As a bonus to the TED talk, I have embedded a video of Glennie performing Piazzola's Libertango.
Evelyn Glennin, TED Talk, February 2003
Astor Piazzola, Libertango, perfromed by Evelyn Glennie
Longinius intended to describe how good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but its message might also apply to music. Great music does not “persuade” us, it transports us, providing us with moments of elevation.
Roger Ebert described moments of elevation as a “welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift.” All of us have experienced uplifting moments in books and movies that move us and fill our hearts. Even great athletic feats in a sporting event or stories of heroism in a local news report can bring us a moment of uplift.
For me, nothing provides more moments of elevation than music. Something that touches me emotionally while I’m reading a book or watching a movie might catch me off guard, but moments of elevation in music almost never catch me off guard. I expect them.
I also don’t know how to describe why those moments happen in music.
In most cases I can describe the reason something touches me emotionally in a film. I know, for example, why I am moved by the young chess player named Josh in Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh is a good and ethical soul. He makes unselfish choices and cares how others feel. I am touched by his goodness.
But why does music affect me so much? Why does the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony provide me with a moment of elevation?
I have no idea.
All I know is that the beginning of the fourth movement touches me at a visceral level, sometimes making me smile, sometimes moistening my eyes.
Roger Ebert wrote that he was most moved by “generosity, empathy, courage, and by the human capacity to hope.” That explanation works well for what I might read in a work of literature or see in a film. It might even work well in describing something that moves me in a sporting event or news report.
No words, however, can describe what I feel when listening to the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Here's how I might describe that transition in technical terms.
The transition begins with an ostinato in the kettledrum and the reduction of the dynamic level to triple pianissimo. This section is then followed by a crescendo that leads to a phrase played forcefully in C major, completing the attacca between the third and fourth movements.
I wouldn't be surprised if that description leaves you cold. Quite simply, words are inadequate for describing moments of elevation in music.
What do they say? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.
The transition from the third to fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is embedded below. The ostinato in the kettledrum begins at 22:45. The moment of elevation comes at the beginning of the fourth movement, which begins at 23:23.
Turn up the volume and enjoy!
Chung Myung-Whun conducting the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
– Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Two days ago, in a blog titled “Music and the Doctrine of Ethos,” I wrote, “music has the power to magnify emotions.” As a follow-up to that blog, I have embedded two film clips below that show how powerfully the memory of music is imprinted in our minds.
The first clip shows an old man named Henry reacting to music from his past. Henry is an Alzheimer’s patient who has spent over ten years in a nursing home. He is depressed and normally unresponsive when people speak to him. He comes alive, however, when listening to music. As seen in the film, music has the power to liberate Henry's memories more than any other form of therapy.
The clip I have embedded comes from Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music and the social worker who uses it to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer's.
Man in Nursing Home Reacts to Music
“[Music] gives me the feeling of love, romance! … The Lord came to me and he made me a holy man, so he gave me these sounds.” – Henry
The second film clip comes from ABC’s Nightline and shows U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords finding her voice through music. In January 2011, Giffords was shot in an assassination attempt. Although the bullet passed through her head, she has recovered some of her ability to walk, speak, read, and write. She owes her life and partial recovery to many talented doctors and physical therapists. I have embedded this clip to show how music therapy was a large part of her recovery.
Gabby Giffords Finds Her Voice Through Music
2500 years ago the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. In modern times the doctrine of ethos seems to have modern science on its side.
Notice how music is used in films to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in a story. It might be tragic enough to see an innocent child die in a film, but if the death is accompanied by the right music, the film can make you sob until you are honking like a goose.
A belief of the ancient Greeks held that music had a magical power to speak directly to human emotion. In what has come to be known as the doctrine of ethos, the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in a positive way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion.
"We accept the division of melodies proposed by certain philosophers into ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate or inspiring melodies, each having, as they say, a mode corresponding to it".
– Aristotle, Politics, Bk 8, Pt 7
In Aristotle’s mind, someone listening to the wrong type of music would become the wrong type of person. Certain instruments and modes would take one toward either the logos (rational) or pathos (emotional), and it was essential to raise children with the right kind of music.
"Shall we argue that music conduces to virtue, on the ground that it can form our minds and habituate us to true pleasures as our bodies are made by gymnastics to be of a certain character?"
– Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 8, Pt. 5
In a similar manner, many people in modern times believe music can be used to help educate children and promote good health.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music can be used to "promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation."
In an article posted on the Huffington Post," Therese J. Borchard, who is the author of the Beyond Blue column, writes that music can be used as therapy. “Everything with a beat moves my spirit,” writes Ms. Borchard. “I can't get enough of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, because I think so much better when these guys are playing in the background.”
I recommend reading what Ms. Borchard has written and then listen to the pieces I have embedded below to get a sense of what she is saying. Both pieces are referenced by Ms. Bochard in her article “Music Therapy: Got the Blues? Play Them."
Whether we call it music therapy or the doctrine of ethos, the concept is simple to grasp. At its best, music has the potential to affect our emotions so deeply that it can cleanse our soul and connect us with something that might only be described as “spiritual.”
Sarah Brightman singing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera
Rachmaninoff, Prelude in C-sharp minor (Ruslan Sviridov, piano)
Embedded in this posting is a must-see TED talk by Benjamin Zander, the conductor and music director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.
I hope Zander's lecture will give tyros a reason to give classical music a chance. His moving performance of Chopin's Prelude in E Minor should be enough to persuade people to begin the journey.