Bruce Springsteen once said music was his “life’s blood. Nothing means as much to me or ever has”. That was when he was young. Before he got married and had kids. He may phrase his passion for music differently now. But he had a point.
Sometimes music is all that people have. When I interviewed Holocaust survivor and pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, for the north London newspaper, Hampstead and Highgate Express in 2002, she told me music had been the “food of life” for prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.
Music entertains, it relaxes, it expresses. But not in some lite fashion: it sometimes has the power to make people hang onto life because it IS the expression of life. Music is important outside of commercial considerations, with which it is visibly entangled. This may seem obvious, but music is too often synonymous with the charts, celebrities and fame. And its other appeal is not merely to lift down-at-heels kids out of the ghetto so they can express themselves and become rich and famous. It has a proven ability to improve the quality of life of those suffering from traumatic experiences and illnesses. Organisations like Nordoff-Robbins are one of the lead practising and representative bodies for the music therapy field.
Academics say music is often the first thing many babies are exposed to when the mother (or other primary caregiver) sings and/or makes baby talk with a newborn. Music is rhythm, tone and vibration, according to Inayat Khan, the founder of the Sufi movement in the west. In his book, The Mysticism of Sound and Music, he said: “The music of the universe is the background of the little picture which we call music.” English writer Aldous Huxley said: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Nevertheless, music probably still evokes Lady Gaga, Beyonce or some intangible, feelgood feeling we have for a song or an artist’s work, rather than these profound musings. It’s all about who’s in the charts or what’s playing at that hip club. As I handed in my final project about music therapy to Columbia Journalism School this week, I reflected on how my views on music had changed while writing it.
I can conclude that I have even more reverence for it. Music means a lot to us as listeners – and players – but why we love it is not always explored. Music is not just an indulgence or only about youth, different scenes or the latest download. It is something more basic, it gives expression to life’s heartbeat, the layers beneath the everyday. It even has the potential for concrete medical results like rewiring brains, a study from Harvard found this year. It would be nice if we could keep this in our minds when we listen to the next chart hit.