What is it about music that has the power to touch the mind and spirit so profoundly?
A couple of mornings this week I have gone up to walk on the roof of our apartment building shortly after sunrise. Listening to music while I watch light come over the city is a very stimulating experience.
While walking, I have listened to a couple of my favorite albums, one of classic movie themes, and the other Richard Rodger’s Victory at Sea suite.
How is it that one tune from that suite—“The Pacific Boils Over”—can so easily depict in the mind the ferocity and devastation of the Pearl Harbor attack, and then the can-do recovery spirit of its aftermath. When I was a young boy and we first had television, I saw some of those black and white Victory at Sea programs. (Yes, I know—huge generation gap here.) Using footage shot during World War II sea battles and naval activities, the programs told the story of how allied forces achieved victory in the Atlantic and the Pacific. The music Rodgers composed perfectly matches the tone of the footage and is an amazing complement to the narration in the programs. To this day, hearing it still brings those images to mind.
Among the music I love are many great movie themes, from “Gone with the Wind” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Star Wars” and “Dances with Wolves.” Some instantly evoke the story and specific images—“The Magnificent Seven,” or “The Great Escape.” And some of them evoke emotions that I cannot explain, often bringing healing from the cares of the day.
So, too, with hymns. My music library contains several Tabernacle Choir albums, as well as sacred music from other sources. Just listening to the music calls up powerful spiritual feelings, and sometimes inspiration.
Nearly any genre of music appeals to me, except most opera and rap and hard rock.
Despite the forcefulness of the words, rap and rock do not usually “speak” to me. I do not find in the words messages of value to my life. (Yes, yes—HUGE generation gap.)
Opera usually does not appeal to me because I do not enjoy watching people standing and singing at each other. So why was I a sucker for those movie musicals of the 1950s and ‘60s? I can’t explain it, except that some of them integrated music very well into the development of the plot and the characters—notably, “Oklahoma” and “West Side Story.”
For me, music in movies and television programs does its job best when it is not too obtrusive; it doesn’t overpower the visual images on the screen, but hearing it later brings them back. For example, the Lord of the Rings score does this for me. On the other hand, the score of You’ve Got Mail was a bit too much. It made me aware that the moviemaker was trying to set a mood.
As I write this, I’m listening to the “Hatari” album, from a John Wayne movie out of the ‘60s with a score by Henry Mancini. In my mind’s eye I can see the beautiful images of Africa in the movie, as well as the tense and comic moments with some of the animals. (For a similar experience, try the album from Out of Africa.) Mancini was one of the few composers who could make me aware of a movie’s musical score as I realized in the back of my mind that it was enhancing the experience and at the same time helping advance the plot. Rent the movie Charade sometime and pay attention to how the music works with the plot, helping build suspense at times, relieving tension and even injecting comic relief at others.
Undoubtedly, music that evokes one image or feeling in my mind would evoke others in someone else’s mind. But undoubtedly we all have this experience in common with music: it reaches depths of the heart and soul that other things often cannot touch. I cannot explain it. Just how does that work?