As I was writing last night I had the TV on and was listening to a PBS special about music. The show was centered around recent studies into the connections between music and neuroscience. One of the contributors said that people often talk about music “touching them” – reaching into their souls and affecting them deeply. He recounted a memory from childhood about sitting on the couch listening to a song and suddenly weeping for its beauty. He said he was about six or seven years old at the time
The show kept switching to other angles on music and neuroscience, but kept circling back around to this scientist guy. He talked about the shape of what most people consider harmonious musical tones: how they form regular, wavelike patterns that make the organs in our ears vibrate. Eventually, in the typical solipsistic documentary style, he brought his hypothesis home and asserted that music really does “touch us” – in that it sends sound waves into our skulls to massage our ear drums, causing them to vibrate in a unique and idiosyncratic way.
We literally vibrate when we listen to it.
I’m writing about this because I went to see my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary this last weekend in Shawnee, Oklahoma. During the party several great, emotional and funny speeches were given, and my second cousins Hilary and Hannah sang a song that within about two seconds brought me within a heartbeat of breaking down into tears. It was that beautiful. I don’t know if it was the song, the event, the combination of the two or what – but the moment was really amazing and unforgettable.
When I was about fifteen I used to listen to the album “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. I haven’t sat down and deliberately played the album from start to finish in about ten or twelve years, but tonight I did just that and suddenly I felt 15 again. I remembered my teenage bedroom, the teak bookshelf in there that smelled of new and stale pages, the strange and violent atmosphere of the house I lived in, the yearning for escape. The sunlight angling through the window shades in late winter. All of it came back with the force of a tidal wave, or freight train, or some other tired emotional metaphor.
My wife’s dad Arthur has a house full of vinyl classical music. His wife used to call music “the other woman,” he was such an opera buff. My wife Lisa once met Placido Domingo at an opera in San Francisco. She and her older sister strayed away from her dad at the after-party and bumped into him. He looked down at the two tiny red-headed girls before him and said, pleased beyond belief, “and who do YOU belong to?” Whenever Lisa tells this story she simultaneously lowers her voice into a deep baritone tone while increasing the volume of the word “YOU.” The effect is a hilarious crescendo that perfectly captures the moment.
I’m realizing now that the “YOU” in Lisa’s story resonates like the Bruce Hornsby album. I can literally feel the lilting cadences of her story. If everything goes as planned, in 37 years or so Lisa and I will have a 50th wedding anniversary.
If so, there will be music.