From the moment of conception, we begin compiling playlists for our funerals. My grandmother’s is slated to be a multi-day lollapalooza.
As you can probably guess, this post is about how sounds play to our emotions. Think back to your most visceral art experiences–a spontaneous concert or a midnight showing. Can you remember an instance where you cried to art without a musical cue? Personally, I can’t. Music is literally the soundtrack that invades every memorable (and forgettable) moment of our lives.
I don’t mean to raise music above the other arts, but time-based or live performances with a musical component definitely pull our collective heart string.
Is this simply because we’re inundated with music every day? In his book, The World in Six Songs, cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin asserts that the average American hears over five hours of music per day. He goes on to state another revealing fact: as a nation, we spend more money on music than prescription drugs and sex. Wow.
What can learn from this revelation? And why does music offer us the catharsis we crave? Here are four tear-jerkers of mine and the reasons why they “get” me every time…
At least to me, genre seems irrelevant; even an instrumental work can conjure up a wave of release. Because I was raised on equal parts Bach and the Beatles, I’ll start with my classical favorites and then move to pop. Let’s first get beyond the stereotype that classical music expresses emotion in a more mature or deeper way than pop.
Tempo and Mood – V. “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” from Quatuor pour la fin du temps – Messiaen
This piece needs no introduction. Written under the unthinkable conditions of a WWII prisoner of war camp, Messiaen composed the work for the performers, and instruments, imprisoned with him. The quartet premiered in 1941 for the camp’s guards and inmates. Messiaen was deeply spiritual, and this movement reflects Jesus as the “word” of God drawn out in one everlasting musical sentence. The only marking reads “infiniment lent” or infinitely slow.
Story and Circumstances – “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” from String Quartet No. 15 – Beethoven
In Beethoven’s late work, there is a preoccupation with the music of Bach’s time–fugues and chorales abound. The composer wrote this movement after recovering from a life-threatening illness (the long-winded title is basically a thanksgiving). While the fifteen-plus minutes are at first harmonically “simple” (sorry Alice Hanson), they’re anything but lackluster. In fact, these may be the most intimately emotive notes Beethoven ever penned. Listen to Beethoven experts Takács perform.
Lyrics – “Both Sides Now” – from Clouds – Joni Mitchell
This song captures the universal out of something personal; using a specific experience to capture big kid things like love or death. In 4 and a half minutes, Joni walks us through live, love, death, and everything in between. Watch this early performance on the Johnny Cash Show.
The Performance- “Hallelujah” from Grace – Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen)
Sometimes a musician takes a great song and makes it transcendent. That’s the case with the ubiquitous “Hallelujah” written by Leonard Cohen. Buckley’s premature death will forever cloaks his persona, but it’s his captivating guitar and voice that turns this swaying gospel ditty into a spiritual experience for atheists and devout believers alike. Listen to the note he holds for thirty seconds near the end.
All of this is of course my opinion. Our relationship to music is perfectly subjective in every way. If you have music that tickles your tear ducts, post in the comments and tell me why you find yourself a tear-eyed surprise after listening.