Nuvi Mehta & Pepe Romero
The Healing Power of Music
[Plays music 0:00:18.2- 0:01:11.9]
Good afternoon. Why that grand pause that I just stuck in there? I hope that you felt you were able to engage a little bit with the sense of the story of that music that we just played, the Paganini. You will notice that we engage with music completely differently from the way we engage with any literal information that we have to process with our conscious minds.
I wanted to heighten that just a little bit by suddenly not doing anything, stopping the rhythm and giving you no information so that you wondered for a split second, perhaps, what was going on. Some of you may unconsciously, for a moment, have held your breath or felt just a tad uncomfortable.
And indeed, perhaps uncomfortable for me. That’s empathy. A universe of knowledge was coursing through your body before your conscious mind could form any kind of an assessment. Music has a unique power to reach us, because it reaches directly into the subconscious, making no pit stop whatsoever in the conscious mind for interpretation.
All performing arts, therefore, use music to make us feel. But it’s more than that. Those feelings then convey to us a sense of the truth about what we are witnessing. Try this. Watch a scene from a movie twice, with completely different music the second time. You will realize a new truth about what really is going on in that scene.
Your conscious mind will turn somersaults to reconcile what you are seeing, never mind you saw it just two minutes before, with what you now know to be the truth of what’s going on the screen because you feel it in your subconscious, because the music is telling you this.
Science is now beginning to paint us a little bit of a picture of the power of music. Advances in neural imagery are showing us all the areas of the brain that interact with music. Music is processed in older, deeper centers of the brain than our cognitive functions, which is why patients who may have frontal lobe damage due to trauma or disease, Alzheimer’s patients for example, who may have lost their memories and the function of speech can nevertheless finish a song that you start.
It can be any number of verses. They can complete the words because those words are connected to the music, which is in other parts of the brain.
Music is now being employed in an ever-widening group of clinical applications where these connections in the brain can produce a calming effect on the body. The Harvard Professor, Dr. Elaine Scarry, took this a step further in her book On Beauty and Being Just. She posited that a perception of beauty can actually tune us to the truth, that beauty and justice are in fact interrelated.
That’s also not a new idea. Keats, having famously written, “Beauty is truth. Truth, beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” He was perhaps poeticizing Plato who wrote, “For now we find that the force of the good has taken up refuge in an alliance with the nature of the beautiful. For measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas of beauty and virtue. The perception of beauty tones us to truth. Emotions are knowledge.”
Really? Emotions are knowledge? It’s kind of counterintuitive. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the objection. Yes, music is terrific entertainment. But my conscious mind is in charge of what I know, thank you very much. I think. I listen to debates on important topics. I listen to speeches. I reason and that’s how I know what I know.
Well, speeches can provide information occasionally. But a speech writer wishing to change the world has as his or her main objective to make you feel. Let’s face it. What is it that really excites us in the moment of a great speech? It’s that gathering of momentum, driving towards the glorious culminating final statement of the premise.
What is that? That’s a cello rondo, a crescendo. That’s rhythm. That’s patterns. That’s poetry. That’s music. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” the famous John F. Kennedy line incidentally is, “Short, short, short, Berliner, long.” Short, short, short long is a quartus paeon, what already in 350 BC, Aristotle told us was the one poetic rhythm that could be used in oratory because it drives our point without being recognized as poetry.
Short, short, short, long. “I have a dream.” That’s Beethoven. Listen to even a few phrases of that and one cannot help but feel connected to something universal, a truth that speaks to all mankind.
This week, try this at home. After a long day, unwind as you normally would. Watch the news. That may not be the best example. The next day, instead, close your eyes. Listen to music. Go ahead. Close them now.
[Playing guitar 0:07:55.6- 0:09:41.7]
In the Baroque Era, composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach wrote each movement of music in one unchanging tempo to align our emotions. Listen this week for 15 minutes, more if you can spare it, to Bach. Then ask yourself how you are. You will feel deeper. You will feel wider. The perfect logic of those harmonies acting directly on your subconscious will have tuned you to a sense of what is true.
Then ask yourself how you are. Take it a step further. Ask who you are. Wagner and his erstwhile acolyte, the philosopher Nietzsche, based much of their work on Schopenhauer who said that, “The world is will, and our individual will’s reflections of that keep us in a state of constant misery, ever questing after something new.” Schopenhauer concluded, therefore, that empathy for our fellow sufferers was the only reasonable basis for a system of morality.
Nietzsche disagreed. “What’s the use of empathy in such a world?” Yes, we struggle. We strive. We contend. We suffer. But that’s just the way the world is. Suck it up. That’s a paraphrase.
But they all agreed that music was the one thing that could pull us out of ourselves. When we perceive the universal, we come to an observational state. For a moment, we are freed from our own egos. In that moment, we perceive and sense what is true.
How many myriad examples have we of young people who unlocked their potential through the creative power of music? One of America’s first great composers was an example of this. In trouble, skipping school, getting brought home regularly by the police. George Gershwin was brought up short one day as he was about to skip school at the beginning of a music assembly by the blue note in Dvorak’s Humoresque.
[Plays note on violin 0:11:59.6- 0:12:08.5]
In those last four notes, he saw the whole world. Of course, the rest is history.
[Plays violin 0:12:14.5- 0:12:18.8]
We marginalize the arts in society. We limit the opportunity of young people to study music at our peril. It limits not only our empathy and our connection, but even our ability to perceive. Why do you suppose it is that dictators the world over having prescribed the freedoms of speech assembly, the press, next always have to ban or banish the musicians? “Music tells us the truth,” Shostakovich wrote. And even Stalin sensed that, which was why he feared it.
We marginalize the arts, which teach us to see in society at our peril.