Science of Music: Literary Interludes

Great readings on why music moves us

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These excerpts are part of a package on the psychological power of music. For an exploration into the science of sad music, read Blue Notes: The life-giving link between mood and musical expression.

Beyond Words

Part of the magic of music for me is that it can evoke emotions that you can’t even have otherwise, emotion there isn’t even a word for. I remember when I was a little bitty kid hearing the Platters singing “Harbor Lights.” I was from Lubbock; I didn’t know what a harbor was. But the melody, the sound of the voices, gave me a feeling of pleasant longing that had nothing to do with anything that had yet happened to me. I wasn’t old enough to have had sad love affairs.
—musician Jimmie Dale Gilmore to writer Nicholas Dawidoff, from In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music (Pantheon, 1997)

Death Songs

Interviewer: There’s a moment in Finding Beauty in a Broken World where you write about “genocide music” in Rwanda. Could you describe that music and what it means in context?

Terry Tempest Williams: Music is a significant part of the collective mourning each April. We were in Rwanda during this month of remembrance. This is the only time that Rwandans allow themselves to grieve publicly. The rest of the year the genocide is not openly discussed. Music becomes the backdrop. There’s a singer named Dieudonné whose haunting lyrics you hear constantly throughout the country on the radio, in homes and on the streets. The musical phrases are repetitive, a refrain and a melody at once. We were told each song tells a story. Many are graphic accounts of the genocide. Others are requiems, elegies. Another musician, Jean Paul Samputu, sings: “Where were you, God, during the genocide? Why did you abandon us?” There’s a saying in Rwanda: “God travels the world during the day but comes back to Rwanda to sleep.” Music embodies the pulse of grief felt throughout the country. Within each province, a procession begins in the morning and continues through the afternoon, culminating at a memorial site. That pilgrimage is aided by music as tens of thousands of people walk the path of memory. The people stop, the music stops, and a story is told about who once lived here, who was killed, how, where, why. There is a moment of silence, and then the music begins, and the procession continues as people walk this storied landscape. Music accompanies memory. It is an homage to those who died and those who remain.
—writer Terry Tempest Williams to interviewer Heidi Hart in Image (#58), a journal of art, faith, and mystery;

Giving It Up

I’ve been teetering on the edge of my seat at the Dakota Bar & Grill for nearly an hour. Now I’m standing up, shaking my head in disbelief, calling out encouragement to the Dave Holland Quintet, which has come to town for two sold-out nights. Saxophonist Chris Potter’s hands are a blur as his horn honks, sings, squeals. Trombonist Robin Eubanks talks back, sliding from high pitch to low pitch, stripping the gears as he changes speeds. Billy Kilson’s drum kit is a musical machine gun—crisp, clean, and tight enough to hurt James Brown. And on bass, grooving with a grin, is the 56-year-old bandleader, bassist Dave Holland.

This isn’t jazz the way the mainstream media trains the masses to think of “jazz”—corny as cocktails at the Playboy mansion or, worse, some sort of math class for music geeks. This is something entirely different. It is free, but funky as a mix master’s turntable. It’s brainy, but punk-rock raw. Just before I give myself over to it, I conjure one last cogent thought: I wish that those I care about could instantaneously be transported to this place, because everyone should know what it is to feel this good.

Then I’m gone.
—David Schimke, from the Minneapolis alternative weekly City Pages (2002)