Saturday, March 26, 2011

Our Desire to Communicate

I once read a book that talked about a man's experience in the afterlife while he was in a coma. Whether or not you believe such things are possible, I think something he described has a lot to do with music and art. He talked about what happens when people embrace there. He described it as being one of his favorite parts of his experience.

People did not say "Hi" or shake hands, they embraced and it was like you gave "a feeling and synopsis of your life to one another. Suddenly you [knew] and [understood] a person in ways far beyond any verbal communication. It [created] an instant bond . . . [that built] a foundation for loving one another more perfectly." (from The Message by Lance Richardson)

I think that music and other forms of art can give us a similar experience here - especially music. Leo Tolstoy says in What is Art that true art is "a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals." I'd recommend reading all that is found at the previous link (or the whole book - which is what I'm working on currently).

There is a reason that music has been called the "universal language." It has the ability to communicate in a way that language cannot. But why doesn't it do that every time? Why do I come away disappointed from some concerts that are performed perfectly and yet come away "fed" and inspired by other musicians that may have been technically accurate or not? Why can some performances communicate to me and join an audience together and others not? I think these are very important questions. 

Have you ever had an experience that filled you with so much fear or joy or peace, or hatred, or ______ (fill in the blank) that you'd never forget it? What was the first thing you wanted to do when it was over? Tell someone! Right? I remember finding out that I was pregnant for the first time and thinking that I'd wait to tell my husband and surprise him somehow, but I just couldn't - I had to call him that moment while I was feeling the excitement and fear and anticipation of the moment. Or maybe in a quiet moment while rocking a baby, or talking with a friend you felt such profound emotions that you wanted to always remember that moment?
What often happens when you try to relate these important events or moments in your life to someone else? I often find myself frustrated because I can't find the right words to express what it was really like. "You just had to be there I guess", we often tell people. Music and other art forms can convey those feelings (while maybe not the specifics) of those moments in our life. Or it can help us recall to life those special moments or memories that may lie dormant in our minds if it weren't for the reminder.

For instance, when I want to remember and recreate the feelings of rocking my children to sleep (now that they are too old to let me do that), I can play or listen to Chopin's "Berceuse" and I feel the left hand as the rocking chair and the right hand as the feelings of the mother and the dreams of the child intermingled (here is an interpretation that is similar with how I like to express it).

I believe we have an innate desire to communicate our life experiences with others. To create something that communicates the greatness we feel inside ourselves. To learn from another person's experiences. To be inspired by the greatness of others. Music when it is in its true form, can do this in ways words cannot - or can be coupled with words to enhance their meaning and the feelings behind them.

So - how do we participate in this process? There are many ideas I have brainstormed to answer that question that I will write on later. First, though, do we have to be musicians to appreciate or experience this communication? Of course not. Thinking that music has to be your profession or has to somehow be inherently a part of you for you to benefit from the "great conversation" is part of the reason we hear less and less music that truly inspires, or "infects" (as Tolstoy puts it).

I think another problem is that music has primarily come to be a tool for other purposes. It's for entertainment, or becomes a religion of sorts, or is a way of proving we're better than others, or worse than others, or that we deserve respect or adulation because we can make sense out of music notation, or we can compose music, or because we can play fast, or memorize quickly, or . . . you get the idea.

To answer the first question (of who qualifies to participate in creating music or other forms of true art) the answer lies in Tolstoy's definition:
"Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them."

This includes you if you are "human" :)

The other part of the answer - how we avoid using music for the wrong reasons - begins with something I've adapted from the Arbinger Institute and call the Music Pyramid. But that's a topic for another post . . .


  1. Great post Kate. I think everything you said is right on the spot. I also like what we discussed pertaining to "line-upon-line" with music as well, which can also be a factor in how much/what a person might take away from a performance. Sometimes a brief intro to the piece by the performer can help set the stage. Other times nothing is needed. What are your thoughts. Keep it up Kate, it is helping me look at communication through art in a whole new way and music not just for music sake.