The Voice of God
Over fifty years ago in the deepest jungles of the Amazon, a group of anthropologists came upon an Indian tribe that had never before had contact with the outside world. They were amazed by the strange objects the scientists brought with them: matches, steel knives, watches, guns, a shortwave radio – signs of a technological god vastly more powerful than the spirits of the jungle and its wild denizens.
The scientists also brought along a record player on which to play a variety of music and watch the reaction of these “primitives.” They tried out big band music, Louis Armstrong, popular tunes by Rosemary Clooney, and bluegrass. The Indians listened politely, but their faces expressed little pleasure or understanding of what they were hearing.
Then the scientists played a piano concerto by Mozart. Suddenly the Indians smiled and swayed in rapture as the melody drifted out into the jungle. Language could not express the pleasure they felt: It was sublime, mystical, timeless.
It was, in short, classical.
I was thinking about this recently while stuck in traffic next to a car whose entire body vibrated as a sub woofer for a rap song played at extreme decibels. I glanced over at the young driver and thought, who are the primitives now?
Certainly not my wife, who played classical music to our two children while they were still in the womb and as small babies on the belief that it would enhance their cognitive development. The so-called “Mozart Effect” is probably scientifically bogus, but I’d wager that the brain functions better in a soundscape of classical music than it does in one of mind-numbing hip hop.
I say this, incidentally, as someone who made his living as a professional rock musician back in the 60s and 70s, lugging around huge amplifiers and playing full throttle up.
I loved it, of course, but then I used to love all sorts of things I don’t find so appealing today. One of the advantages of growing older is that you don’t think you always have to be beating your head against a concrete wall.
Whatever one’s preferences, it’s hard to imagine a life without music. It has been part of every civilization on Earth. Lengths of bone fashioned into flutes were in use some 40,000 years ago. Music engages the ear, mind and body as few things do: scans show that when people listen to music, every area of their brain becomes more active. Types, styles, use and meaning of music vary by culture and groups, but its building blocks – melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre — are universal. People from all walks of life and in all conditions, including those with significant cognitive and physical damage such as stroke victims and Alzheimer patients, respond to music.
The only thing better than listening to music is playing it. I performed professionally with people who came out of a culture of poverty and overt racism. Music lifted them up. It taught them discipline and self-control, it promoted self esteem. Based as it is on performance and clearly defined outcomes, music changed their lives.
It certainly changed mine. Performing as a musician improved my ability to understand and use symbols in new contexts, develop problem-solving skills, work collaboratively, and find the power of personal creativity and self-expression. It helped to develop my leadership skills and communicate in a common language across social, economic and racial divides.
Most of all, it taught me patience and the virtue of working hard at something to get it right.
If there is, as Plato thought, a non-material world where pure, perfect and unchanging Forms exist independently of this material world of constant flux, then perhaps music is as close as we can get to experiencing it. How else do we explain the effect of a Mozart piano concerto on a tribe of primitive Amazonian Indians, or the sudden rush of emotion, even tears, in the most “civilized” among us upon being swept away by hearing a particular piece of music?
We don’t fully understand what music is or how it works. It’s a mystery, and that’s a good thing. The late music critic and composer, Virgil Thomson said, “Music is not in motion, but you are.” We are the ones scurrying about in Plato’s cave of change and illusion, and every once in awhile, if we’re lucky, we hear a piece of transcendent, timeless music.
Truly, it is the voice of God.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.