‘Where words fail, music speaks.’Hans Christian Anderson
You don’t have to be good at it. You don’t have to learn how to perform it. You don’t even need to understand the complexities involved in its creation and ultimate delivery. But boy do you need it in your life when times are challenging, wonderful, hopeless, confusing or any other emotion you’d care to throw at it. Music. Defined as ‘the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity/vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony’, but more importantly for me, music is the language of emotion, often describing the journey of a life.
Music and me
I didn’t come from a particularly musical family but my working-class parents must have felt a need to imbue an interest in their children and (probably at great sacrifice to themselves) purchased a plain old second-hand piano. Add to that the expense of weekly lessons for my two siblings and myself and you’ll begin to understand the significance of music in my life from a young age.
I found playing the piano difficult with my stumpy little fingers and just about managed to progress through the exam system at the time, but I did apparently have a ‘good ear’ and could sing. This was rather to my detriment. When the organist of our church visited the house to test my brother’s suitability for joining the choir and finding his voice about to break took me instead, he therefore committed me to the torture (as I saw it then) of three Sunday services and Friday night practices every week for donkeys’ years.
It was the last thing most 12-year-olds aspire to and you could hear the stamping of my cross adolescent feet every time I left home to do my expected duty. In hindsight, the anthems, psalms, hymns and chants that ultimately became second nature, stood me in good stead in later years when I began to perform the type of music I actually enjoyed.
“Teach your children well
Their father’s hell will slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick, the one you’ll know by”
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 1970
At grammar school, the onus was almost solely on choral or classical pieces of work and I believe strongly that I missed out because of it, as I longed to at least experience some traditional Irish music. I’m out of touch now, but I really hope that state schools have a much wider acceptance of the diversity of cultures here. It was the same with the teaching of history but that is an argument for another day.
Music can be emotional
Things changed fundamentally for me when I found Joni Mitchell’s Blue and subsequently Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Eagles and countless others. My journey through music pretty much continued apace from there, carrying me through those trials and triumphs we all have to face throughout the course of our lives. For what I began to understand was that music was not just about sound. To me it was about connecting with emotions, not least of all the one that is most commonly written about – Love.
“All I have is all I need
And it all comes down to you and me
How far away this world becomes
In the harbour of each other’s arms.”
Beth Nielsen Chapman
Perhaps the music that moves me most these days comes from film scores or TV dramas. It’s hard not to feel affected by John William’s beautiful and haunting score from Schindler’s List, or The John Dunbar theme for Dances with Wolves, or the main theme from Band of Brothers by Michael Kamen. You will have your own list of favourites but I would encourage you to listen to any of these if you don’t already know them.
During visits to the nursing home where my mum lived before she died, I would take part in regular musical activities designed to stimulate the residents’ memory. It was both astonishing and very moving to witness some folk who rarely interacted emotionally at all and who suddenly became alive with the rendition of an old-time waltz, a hymn or the wartime connection of ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile smile’.
Never were there more smiling faces in that dining room. I can promise you, it did my heart good. A particular favourite was the song Carrickfergus and I sang it badly on repeat manys a time, only happy to offer even momentary comfort to an audience who would forget it in an instant.
There is much to like in the popular music of today, although I was not mad keen on some of the music I heard blasting out of my son’s bedroom when he was a teenager. I always had to resist the urge to shout at the door, ‘No, no, no. Turn it off and play something that sounds like actual music!’
But of course, it was music to him and every generation needs an outlet for venting their emotions and I guess rap and the like, provides that release. My problem was, and still is, the crudity of much of the language and at this juncture I should add that I’ve spent a hopeful hour trying to find a suitable lyric for you on the internet, without much success!
So, from folk to rock, heavy metal to reggae, opera to gospel or whatever your taste and experience of music may have been, I hope I’ve stirred up a few interesting memories.
Nowadays I’m open to any new musical experiences but my playlist in the car is always going to be the 70’s oldies stuff of a misspent youth. And my all-time favourite song, because everyone has one, is a little known Don McLean track called Empty Chairs, but if you look it up, have a hanky ready.
“Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing
Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music
For giving it to me”
You’re singing it already – aren’t you?
This article is part of a series, check out the other parts in the series below: