Music is of central importance to most of us, but tellingly, we’re extremely picky not just about what music we listen to, but also about when we do so. At a given point, we really want to listen to a Bach cantata, at another it’s got to be the Supremes; one evening, a song by Robbie Williams keeps calling for us, on a second evening, we’re impatient to hear a particular Mozart aria. Why do these different modulations of sounds (sometimes combined with a few words) seem so important to us at specific moments, and not so much at others?
To understand why, we need to take note of a peculiar, but crucial, fact about ourselves. We are highly emotional beings, but – strikingly – not all of our emotions make their way fully and properly to the front of our conscious attention when they need to. They’re there, but only in a latent, muted, undeveloped way. There’s too much noise both externally and internally: we’re under pressure at work; there’s a lot to be done at home; the news is on, we’re catching up with friends.
Yet in the background, we may be storing up the ingredients for a range of profound and potentially very important emotions: the raw matter for grief, sorrow, a sense of tender generosity towards humanity in general, a quiet sense of the beauty of modesty or pity for ourselves – for all the errors we didn’t mean to make, all the ways we’ve wasted our own best potential and didn’t properly return love when it was offered… These feelings and many others are the emotional containers of profound wisdom. But they may not have the sway they ideally might in our lives because they don’t get sustained attention and an opportunity to develop. They exist as confused, weak signals in us – hardly noticeable, easily disregarded, blips of sensation, raw matter that has not been catalysed. And so the beauty, goodness, consolation and strength they could bring us never quite emerges; we bear within us a legacy of unfelt feelings.
This is why music matters: it offers amplification and encouragement. Specific pieces of music give strength and support to valuable but tentative emotional dispositions. A euphoric song amplifies the faint, but ecstatic feeling that we could love everyone and find true delight in being alive; things that felt out of reach seem nearer; there’s so much that could be achieved. Day to day, these feelings exist, but are buried by the pressure to be limited, cautious and reserved. Now the song pushes them forward and gives them confidence; it provides the space in which they can grow; and given this encouragement, we can – as we should – take them more seriously and give them a bigger place in our lives.
A sombre, tender piece may coax to the surface our submerged sadness. Under its encouraging tutelage, we can more easily feel sorry for the ways we’ve hurt others; we can pay greater attention to our own inner pain (and hence be more appreciative of small acts of gentleness from others); we become more alive to universal suffering, that everyone loses the things they love; that everyone is burdened regrets. With the help of particular chords, a compassionate side of ourselves, which is normally hard to access, becomes more prominent.
A different kind of music might take up our low-key impulses to action and self-transformation: it rouses us; it quickens our pace. We want to stride to its beat and make the best use of our energies while there is still time. Or, other songs could boost our fragile sense that certain things don’t really matter all that much: the meeting didn’t go very well, but so what? In the end it’s not that important; the kitchen was a bit messy, but in the cosmic scheme, it’s not a big deal. Our reserves of perspective are activated; we’re fortified in our capacity to cope with the petty irritations which would otherwise undermine us.
Like an amplifier with its signal, music doesn’t invent emotion; it takes what is there and makes it louder. One might worry that boosting an emotion might at points be risky. After all, not everything we feel is necessarily worthy of encouragement. It is possible to use music to magnify feelings of hatred or to inflate violent impulses – and the culture ministries of fascist dictatorships have been fatally skilled at doing just this. But almost always, we face a very different issue around music: we’re not building up our courage to lay waste to civilisation. We want to strengthen our capacities for calm, forgiveness, love and appreciation.
In our relationship to music we’re seeking the right soundtrack for our lives. A soundtrack in a film helps accord the due emotional resonance to a specific scene. It helps us register the actual pathos of a situation that might be missed if we relied on words and images alone; it helps us fully recognise the identity of a moment.
Exactly the same is true in our lives: we’re constantly faced with situations where something significant is going on; at the back of our minds the helpful emotional reaction is there – but it’s subdued and drowned out by the ambient noise of existence. Music is the opposite of noise: the cure for noise. By finding the right piece of music at the right time we’re adding an accompanying score that highlights the emotions we should be feeling more strongly – and allows our own best reactions to be more prominent and secure. We end up feeling the emotions that are our due. We live according to what we are actually feeling.