What is Music?

Here are some thoughts regarding music. They're not really developed enough to be a philosophy as such, but rather, just some interesting ideas that have been rolling around in my head for a good while now. Having played or studied music in one form or another for about forty years, it's taken a while to register, but maybe that's because some things just take a long time to reveal themselves. Either that or I'm a slow learner. You likely will not agree, and to be sure, I myself may change my mind on this topic as time goes on—I know I certainly think differently about many things than I did when I was younger—so don't feel like you need to point out my errors. In time, my view will differ slightly, so if it's not right now, check back later; things may change.

And one last thing: If you've never been moved to tears (literally) upon hearing a magnificent performance of a beautiful piece, you probably won't relate to what I'm about to say. You may still be able to understand it from your head, but it's unlikely you will from your heart. So having dispensed with the disclaimers, here goes...

You've certainly heard it said before that music is a language, although it's fairly evident that it's different from any spoken, written, or signed language. Music is a language in the same respect that touch is a language, a means of communicating as rich and subtle as any other. In fact, I would go so far as saying that music is a language that is the basis of all languages, a language that both encompasses and surpasses all others—an über language, if you will—simply for the reason that it involves sound; a subset of sound really, which I believe is one of the most fundamental and powerful forces in the universe.

Most really good musicians—people who have studied and played their entire life, having devoted countless hours practicing and performing for many people in a variety of settings, people who are really, really good—will tell you that music has a spiritual dimension. Musicians are a notoriously skeptical lot, and most are not what you'd call church-going, but I believe that nearly all of the great ones would acknowledge something above and beyond the mundane, something that transcends the daily grind of our existence.

For me personally, on those all-too-rare occasions when everything is perfect—the band is playing well, I'm playing well, the compositions being performed are sincere and artful vs. commercial and utilitarian—music becomes more like prayer. Literally. When the music I'm hearing or playing is right on—when I get into that space very deep in the sound where I'm no longer thinking, just reacting, flowing, experiencing—I feel as if I am talking directly to God. Pure communication with the Creator, the source of Good that permeates everything seen and unseen. There's a cliché often expressed in art and literature that refers to reaching out and touching the face of God, but frankly, that's sort of what it feels like. If there's any reward worth all the sacrifices and effort one must invest into becoming an accomplished musician, that's the one that trumps all others. I don't know, maybe that's the same way truly talented dancers, comedians, maybe even athletes, feel on their best nights, but I do music and that's how I've come to experience it. There are plenty of entertainers who do it solely for the applause, accolades or money, but I'm convinced that those who have experienced this thing that is beyond definition, will keep coming back to try to reconnect with the Divine.

Is it possible to play without approaching this prayer-like status? Absolutely! In fact, very little of what passes for music in popular culture comes anywhere close. Even among True Artists (however they may be identified), it is a rarity to sit atop the mountain, so to speak. It's not exclusive to particular styles of music (although I suspect that there are some genres wherein it never happens) and it's not exclusive to performance-type situations. Most likely the majority of these moments occur in less glamorous environments: in the practice room, at the piano composing, listening to recorded music, and so on. It's kind of like the perfect golf swing: if it happens once in 18 holes, even on a practice round, it's enough to keep you coming back to the course.

And I don't necessarily believe this communication to the Divine is exclusive to believers; many people who are not practitioners of any particular faith will tell you that there's much more to music than just waves of air vibrating some tiny bones in your ears. But since this is my essay and not theirs, I'll tell you that I believe that God yearns to fellowship with all humanity; the whole reason Christ came to live among us. Earlier I stated that music is a language; to put a much finer point on it, I'll say that music is a prayer language, a two-way dialogue with God wherein we can speak directly to Him and He can in turn speak directly to us. Not in the way that someone would say, "Turn left at this next light," but rather in deep and intimate ways which can only be registered in our souls at a subconscious level.

What are we saying in these musical prayers? Who knows? Possibly, we are expressing emotions and appeals that are beyond our ability to articulate with words. Groans and tears, laughter and peace, love and commitment, fear, security, anger, thankfulness. All the things we dare not speak in the presence of others, hopes and dreams in which we would never indulge ourselves, yearnings or disappointments we don't even understand or recognize or know exist. In the context of a musical group, maybe it's prayers offered for the other musicians, the audience, family members, and so on.

What is God saying back to us? Exactly what we need to hear, which of course, is much different for everyone. For the unbeliever, I think God is trying to bridge the gap between doubt and love; for the believer, perhaps it's assurances of mercy and grace, comforting deep hurts, nudging in ways that would lead us to be a force for good in others' lives. A personal God knows us more completely than we know ourselves, and therefore knows exactly what it is we need most.

Scientists believe that regardless of the actual words or language spoken, babies respond to the pitch of whatever is said to them. That is to say, someone could use nonsense words and, if delivered with the appropriate pitch and inflection, communicate as effectively as with a known language (at least, before the child starts to learn vocabulary). It's been documented that certain words or phrases delivered across multiple languages and cultures using amazingly consistent pitch and inflection. If that's not music, what is? As a humorous example, recall the sound of Charlie Brown's teacher in the Peanuts cartoons, created by a muted trombone (Waaaahh-wah-Wah-Wah-waaahh), and you start to get the connection between pitch and what we usually refer to as language.

When viewed this way, music takes on a whole new dimension for me. It's almost as if it's an insult or a wasted resource if presented carelessly or mockingly. Sure, there are many times when music occupies a more utilitarian place in our lives, but even then it can be presented with respect. I often think that the way music is constantly bombarding us 24/7 is in itself a sign of disrespect. Music is no longer treasured; it's not regarded as something special. For most people, it's been relegated to background noise while driving, eating, studying or watching TV. I find it hard to believe that anyone walking around with an iPod constantly firing in their head has anything but a superficial attachment to music: good, bad or otherwise. This is unfortunate, because to experience any kind of sensory distinction, the experience devolves into seeking sounds that are more extreme in terms of volume, velocity, rudeness, or outrageousness. No wonder everyone thinks music is free these days; people have demeaned it to the point where it has no value, even (or especially?) for those who listen to it constantly.

More and more, I tend to regard hearing music as a gift, a precious mystery yearning to be embraced and engaged. When I hear great and beautiful music, I can't help but feel honored that the musicians, who have given so much of their lives to be able to communicate in this way, have made it a significant part of their life to serve others by sharing sound, joy, tears, and prayers with others. And what an awesome responsibility for those given the talent to create and perform: to nurture and present music to others for their enjoyment, peace, enlightenment, and healing. Musicians, never forget that to those who never had the opportunity, guidance or resources to learn to play an instrument, what you do, when done well, is like magic to them, especially in a live context. Share it often and with humility. If the music is great, you will be shown gratitude; if not, a lot of histrionics and attitude won't fool anybody, and certainly won't leave them better off.

I am exceedingly grateful for the gift of music which God has given us, a gift which allows us to share the better and more real aspects of who we are with others, and especially with Him. The challenge for musicians is to create more music with longevity and reverence, and less music designed for temporary consumption, a distraction for the moment but quickly discarded. There is wisdom to be learned, profound truths to discover, and touching emotions to share, if we would more often listen for the voice of God and dare to converse with him through the music we create.