Whether releasing sadness or sending shivers down our spines, the songs in our ‘emotional toolbox’ can transform daily life … if we learn how to use them.
Alain de Botton, one of my favorite writers, comes up with his wisdom on the point of music in this article published by Guardian. He argues that the theoretical role of music can enhance our capacity to appreciate music.
Musicians themselves have tended to reinforce such an approach, rarely venturing to supply an additional prose commentary around what their chords are already communicating. Yet a clearer handle on the theoretical role of music may at times enhance rather than impoverish our capacity to appreciate music. Knowing what music does for us can give us a sharper sense of which of its varieties we might be in particular need of, why and when.
He uses the example of Peter Gabriel’s music to make his point clear.
What seems especially striking are his repeated pronouncements that music should, to quote his distinctive formulation, provide us with “an emotional toolbox” to which we can turn at different moments of our lives, locating songs to recover, guide and sublimate our feelings.
One of Peter’s songs, I Grieve, a standard at many funeral services,
knows how to release our sadness and yet also channels and contains it. It creates perfect conditions for a catharsis. It starts with what sounds pure lamentation. The tone is utterly dejected.
Even though we may know these things in theory, we need reminders in the form of songs to turn cliches into an effective call for redemption.
Music is so necessary because it rehearses in the language of the body concepts and truths we are in danger of losing touch with when they reach us only through our rational faculties. Music is “the sensuous presentation of the crucial ideas”. There is a role for music in opening up channels of feeling that have become dammed by habit, caution, excessive individualism, or the demands of daily life.
He uses Nietzsche’s teachings to emphasize this point.
We need to be thoughtful and sober, yet open to the instinctive and the irrational – and it is by combining these two ideals that we stumble towards maturity. This is why music and dance have such importance for Nietzsche (“Without music, life would be a mistake”); they provide us with a setting in which the neglected parts of our personalities can be rediscovered and reconciled. The ‘shiver down the spine’ we feel at points in music are encounters with our suppressed longings for forgiveness, reconciliation and harmony – returning to us with an alienated majesty. The great musicians stock our emotional toolboxes with what we most need to endure life’s journey. Though they don’t always say it themselves, they are in the very best sense the therapists of our souls.
Whoever said that ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it is a stupid thing to do’ might want to rethink.
This article resonates deeply with Sou's Voice blog's philosophy and explains the connection between language and music.