The French novelist Victor Hugo once wrote, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” – what is it about music that affects us so deeply?
From the time we were born, music has possessed the ability to soothe us when we’re troubled, and move us to an energetic, upbeat mood; and yet, we are not consciously aware of why we’re so touched by melodic sound.
To an extent, we might know why we enjoy love songs or, say, Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys – some songs have an obvious relation to our own emotions and, depending on how we’re feeling, they can enhance our mental states to a considerable degree.
But what about those music pieces without words or any obvious message? I remember the first time I heard Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and being blown away by how much it moved me even though I had no idea what it meant. Similarly, whenever I’m feeling down, my go-to song is Suzanne by Leonard Cohen. Again, it’s a mystery as to why I find the song consoling, but it certainly does the trick.
For much of human history music has been a powerful tool of expression, and in Greek mythology, music is shown to soothe the savage beast in the story of the famous musician Orpheus. In order to save his wife from the underworld, he has to get past Cerberus – the fierce three-headed dog that guards the land of the dead. Orpheus is said to have played such sweet, harmonious music that it tamed the ferocious beast long enough for the musician to find his wife.
The story doesn’t end well for poor Orpheus, but it does reveal a fascinating insight into human psychology with regard to emotion and reason: namely, where reasoning has its limits, we are all incredibly susceptible to emotional seduction. It might explain why, when we’re feeling down, rather than try to analyse and think through our problems, we find ourselves feeling much better after listening to our favourite music.
Music has tremendous universal appeal, and there’s a number of studies that suggest our preferred choice of music can also lower stress levels, improve our health, reduce depression, and help us to sleep better.
The reggae legend Bob Marley once said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Perhaps one reason for this is that, all the while we’re ruminating about our problems, we are, in effect, reliving the difficulty with every thought and reinforcing the unpleasant emotions that arise. When we listen to music, however, our attention centres on something that often connects with us in a way that words don’t, and so for a brief time at least, we are given respite from our troubles.
So, the next time you’re feeling down or overwhelmed at work, you might want to try listening to some uplifting songs to help restore order to your universe. Likewise, if a friend is upset or anxious, it might serve to their benefit to sit with them as you listen to a playlist of meaningful songs together.
Music can be euphoric. Whether it comes from an angelic choir or an Ibiza nightclub, it’s something that appears to transcend our own rationale and reasoning – and frequently helps us to make sense of our experiences where thinking falls short.
At its most potent, music reconnects ourselves to times gone by or feelings we desperately need, particularly as the hustle and bustle of life can make us feel as though we’ve lost touch with who we are thanks to the daily grind and the stresses we invariably encounter.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that we should count every day on which we haven’t danced at least once as wasted. For some, that might be a stretch too far; however, there is a strong case to be argued that, by taking the time to listen to music on a daily basis, we can be much better off psychologically and emotionally.
Of all the great considerations of life and its meanings, something that is routinely overlooked is that we have so much pleasure to enjoy if only we could take the time to pay attention to it. Music is, perhaps, unique in that very few people dislike it – there truly is something for everyone, and the science suggests that it can do us a lot of good if we listened to more of it.
To paraphrase the biologist Charles Darwin, we might do well to make it a rule in life to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every day. Not only could we reap the many benefits suggested by research in doing so, but it would also reconnect us to one of the fundamental points of being alive in the first place – to enjoy the gifts of life while we still have the time to do so.