On the Strange Magic of Music
The Bittersweet Sounds of Sirens Singing in the Night
Unless you’re a total clod, you’ve had the experience: you hear a song, and in an instant the music inspires a memory in full living color, so close you feel like you could almost reach out and touch it. That’s the strange magic of music.
The sense of smell can have a similar property: you catch a whiff of a forgotten scent, and it immediately triggers a tangible memory of a specific time and place. But smell is not nearly as powerful as music.
A song can summon all the feelings you felt during the original experience, feelings that you could not consciously call to mind if you tried, but which spring forth unbidden and unrestrained. These emotions have a life of their own, and depending on the feelings and memories in question — and also depending on your level of intoxication — they can hit your heart like a riptide sweeping a helpless swimmer out to sea. But what gives music that power?
The Magic of Music Defies Materialism
Phenomena like this are what has saved me from ever seriously entertaining reductionist materialism as a philosophical first principle. My friends in the sciences have done some amazing work exploring the external world and human nature, but no matter how sophisticated and thorough their account of things, it seems to me that it is forever doomed to arrive at an impenetrable question mark, a certain magic that underlies our lived experience and that resists all attempts to quantify it or reduce it to mere matter or physical energy.
What, after all, is music, from a materialist perspective? A pattern of energy? Although, I think the materialist has to engage in a bit of hand-waving to explain what a pattern is, without using a term that ultimately signifies something hopelessly abstract. But even if you could get a solid materialist definition of “pattern,” the pattern of vibrations that convey the sound to your ear is not really the mysterious part: what is really amazing is what your brain does with that pattern of energy and how it creates an experience of hearing a song, and from there how your mind presents itself with feelings, scenes, and experiences from memories that you associate somehow with the song.
The Sirens’ Song: This Time It Was Seasons Change by Exposé
So last night, since the kids were with their mom, I took advantage of having the night off from parenting duties by taking an edible (i.e., Delta 8, the legal loophole — at least where I live — in the war on drugs). That’s been something of a self-administered psychedelic therapy, as I usually spend some time meditating Vipassana-style and just seeing whatever comes up and kinda just being with myself. I did that for a bit last night, and when the effects of the drug began kicking in more powerfully, I decided to just sit back and just listen to music.
I love music: listening to it, composing it, performing it, everything. [Note: I said “music,” so that eliminates 95% of the autotuned garbage currently on hit parade; I’m talking about real human voices and real musical instruments being played by real humans with real human emotions.]
I put on a playlist I had created with a couple thousand or so songs that I’ve been gradually adding over the past few months, everything from old-school R&B and classic rock to jazz and big band, and of course a whole lot of 80’s music, including “Seasons Change” by Exposé; and that’s the song that really did it to me last night. The next song that nails me like that could be by just about anyone, from the Beatles to Bob Marley; there seems to be little rhyme or reason to any of it. Last night it just happened to be Exposé.
The song “Seasons Change” conjured up a memory of a relationship that was in its dying stage: the point where you both kind of know it’s not going to work out, and you’re just postponing the inevitable end of things, because you both feel lonely and sometimes it feels better to go on being in a pretend relationship than to go through the valley of loneliness you have to traverse before you can get out of the relationship you’re in and get into a new one [or you can do the whole “rebound” thing, which has almost never worked out well for me or for anyone I know]. Anyway, back during that time in my life, I heard “Seasons Change” on the radio one night, and at the time I felt like it perfectly captured everything I was feeling and processing. When I heard it again last night, it was like, BAM! An electric shock right to the gut, and my heart was suddenly awash with all the feelings from that erstwhile-forgotten moment.
I tried to experience all of this as mindfully [I hate to use that word now, as it’s become so trite and clichéd, but there’s not a more accurate term that comes to mind] as I could: allowing myself to receive without judgment the aesthetic enjoyment of the music itself and the feelings and memories conjured up by it. But maybe I was a little too high by this point: the mindfulness part started to come and go. Periodically, I plunged headfirst into the experience, engaging it so fully as a participant that it swallowed up all awareness; and as I felt those feelings, the feelings themselves had a quality such that I just wanted to go on feeling and contemplating and enjoying their company forever. I suppose that’s the element of this melancholic experience that C.S. Lewis described so well in Surprised by Joy, or that Susan Cain celebrated recently in her new book Bittersweet. (Cain’s title really nails it: there is no better, more precise adjective for this experience than “bittersweet.”)
So this experience was thoroughly bittersweet — and thoroughly enjoyable. I think it was also meaningful, but I am at a loss to say precisely what it meant. I am convinced that a life with music is more meaningful than one without it, but this conviction is probably entirely the product of a feeling, rather than any kind of reasoned argument.
Why Is Music Magical?
What is it about music that gives it such strange and powerful magic? Is it a means of tapping into some spiritual realm and experiencing, if only at a distance and for an all-too brief moment, it’s raw beauty and aliveness? Is our capacity for enjoying music tied somehow to that part of our beings that craves erotic romance? Probably both of those things and even more.
Music obviously goes hand-in-hand with being in love — or lust. Many, possibly most, hit songs seem to be either happy songs about falling in love or sad songs about falling out of it.
And there’s definitely a spiritual dynamic to music — or at least there is for most of the music that’s any good. It’s no accident that pretty much every religion seems to incorporate music into its rituals [except for the current state-sponsored religion of Wokeism, which is thoroughly unmusical]. I’ve heard it said that before he fell, Satan was God’s worship leader, although I have not been able to find explicit Biblical verification of this; but if true, it would explain a lot. Like the comedian Bill Hicks observed, if rock and roll really was the devil’s music, then the devil can really jam.
At any rate, there are certainly hymns and spiritual songs that are powerful conduits for religious experiences. Here’s a blend of the rock and roll with the spiritual: The Doobie Brothers singing “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me:”
Regardless of how or why music works its magic over us, I just thank God that it does. It’s really amazing that by hearing a pattern of sounds, even one that being played very softly, we can find ourselves suddenly and strangely transported into another, deeper, fuller, richer realm of experience. How much poorer Life would be without music!