Music is Love

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« Everybody’s saying that music is love, everybody’s saying it’s love. »
         Neil Young


30,000 in the crowd.
Swaying to the music,
Singing along.
Video screens show images of beautiful people in beautiful landscapes.
Also slums and suffering.
A fishing boat rocking in the ocean swells,
A lineup at Walmart,
A military execution.
A blot of oil on the ocean,
The birth of a baby, dark-skinned.

It’s all got something to do with the song the band’s playing that moves us emotionally as we sway our bodies with its rhythms.

There’s a lot being said from the stage with these songs; this particular stadium band has a huge social conscience.
And we get it; all of us.
It seems extremely profound.
We hold up our lighters and cell phones, and we all chant the repetitive chorus together; we have never felt so good.
And we definitely want more.

Is this love, addiction, or fascism?

Sometimes this image seems more like a Nazi rally than a concert.
A large mass of people goaded on from the stage to think and feel the same thing together.

And it’s irresistible.
Like a mother’s love.

Music / Autism

At Wilfrid Laurier University, where I teach contemporary music, there is an excellent music therapy program.
I was once invited to view a clinical session, that involved a single music therapist and a severely autistic teenage boy.
At the session, a few of us sat behind a one-way mirror, so that we could view the session without disturbing it.
The teen couldn’t see us, but we could watch everything.

When he first came in, he was petulant.
Pacing, extremely restless, making unusual sounds.
An undertone of violence.
He came up to the mirror and paused many times, as if he sensed us there.

The therapist calmly spoke to him.
Played some music on the piano; tried to get him to join in on a drum.
But the boy was excited.
A caged tiger.
Full of a wild and barely controlled energy.

Then the therapist struck a suspended cymbal with a drumstick.
Quite loudly.

That got the boy’s attention; and the therapist immediately gave the boy a drumstick.

I worried then that in his mood, he might use it as a weapon, but he only repeated the gesture; struck the cymbal with the drumstick trying to imitate the sound that the therapist had made.

The therapist leapt on that, and improvised something from the piano.
The boy continued to play the cymbal.

The therapist reacted to the sounds of the cymbal, creating the most unusual improvisation; entirely dependent on this willful boy’s cymbal playing, but still creative and musical.
The music sounded like a song without words.
A collection of musical phrases built out of scraps of piano/cymbal sounds.

Then the boy moved to a small drum and continued to play, less fiercely now.
Listening more attentively, but still leading the therapist, who deftly played along, converting some very unusual drum rhythms into a piece of music for drum and piano.

The session went on.
The boy tried some piano.
Spoke a few words.
Communicated directly to the therapist with some vocal sounds.
But mostly just made music with the therapist for about half an hour.

It looked like he was getting healthier and healthier.
And he was beaming by the end of the session.
Completely absorbed in the music-making.

He wasn’t happy when it was over; he wanted more.
But he was compliant.
Smiled at the therapist.
And was glad to see his mother when she came in to pick him up.

It was one of the most powerfully moving musical experiences of my life.

Elevated Consciousness

I’m often asked to do improvisation sessions with classical musicians.
I’ve done this in master classes and in high schools and also with members of symphony orchestras.

Even though they rarely use improvisation in their professional work, many classical musicians find improvisation to be good therapy for them.
It helps them relax when they perform notated music.
And it gets them involved in the creation rather than the re-creation of music.

I was once asked to lead a master class of budding pianists at a university; all young adult performers, all virtuosi, all with highly developed musical instincts.

I clearly remember one of the musicians who performed for me that day: a young woman, quite shy.
I had paired all of the students off into piano duos and this young woman was in the duo that performed last.
Many of the pianists were nervous; most weren’t used to improvising, and felt they had no gift for it.

I had this last duo improvise together for a few minutes; first, playing anything they wanted, but listening for ways to shape the music as they heard the chords and tunes emerging from each other’s piano.
Then I gave them a simple task, which involved them concentrating on the passage of real time while they improvised a short piece of music.
I asked them to listen carefully for the ending, so that the small audience might also hear the signals of their improvisation drawing to a close.

It was actually a meditation exercise.
Focused thinking and free imagination at the same time.

And the musical result was fine.
Not wonderful; not necessarily something I’d like to hear again, but that wasn’t the point.
It was a well-motivated piece of music that hadn’t existed before these players had made it up on the spot.
It was a music therapy session; for healthy aspiring music professionals.

But this young woman hadn’t merely enjoyed the performing; she was glowing and excited.
It looked as if she’d just had a spiritual epiphany.
That was very obvious to everyone in the room.

After a performance like this, I usually ask the performers about the music; the object of art that they have just created.
I ask them what they think about the piece, how much they can remember; what developed in the music.
Whether it was it mainly melodic, or mainly rhythmic, or built from an abstract texture.
I ask for details about the piece of art that we all heard and that they invented.

But because she looked so transformed when the performance was over, the only thing I could think of asking this young woman was how she felt.
She was shining; but could barely articulate her experience; at least not with words.
Creating music in this way very obviously had an elevating effect on her consciousness.

Fun / Healing / Addiction

Music is fun.
We dance to music at clubs.
And want to dance more and more, all night long.

Dancing and singing along to music makes us happy.
And therefore healthy.

We like to sway and sing at stadium rock shows too.
The band makes their point, usually very serious.
(For U2, it’s often social irony.
For Bob Marley: protest songs laced with Old Testament prophesy.)

But mostly we’re there because we like the music.
The message is fine; we agree with it.
That message, and the seriousness of the band, is likely what brought us to the show.
But it’s the music that makes us sway and sing.
It’s the music that’s fun.
Having fun makes us feel better.

Also, when we’re inside a mass audience, and we’re all loving the music, there’s another quality.
We lose ourselves to the larger will.
The band’s message, the crowd’s approval and the sweet music bring us together.
Our individual selves merge into something much larger, and to be a part of that is irresistible.

It all feels so good that we’re both giddy and disappointed when it’s over.
And we yearn for more.
We’ve become addicted.

(I’ve seen the same effect at orchestral concerts when there’s a large audience appreciating excellent music together.
Symphony shows are stadium rock’s ancestors.
A big sound from the stage supported by the enthusiasm of a large audience.)

Music is fun.
And it heals, too.
At least temporarily.

The autistic boy went home happier.
Even empowered.
So did the young woman improvising at the piano for the first time.

And I’m intrigued by that.
I’ve always felt that music has a healing quality.
So when we were interviewing for a new professorial position in the music therapy program at the university, I made a point of asking the applicants for the job if they thought that music could permanently heal psychological ailments like autism.
If this boy persisted with his music therapy, would he eventually be cured?

The answer was always no.

Music-making was obviously good for the autistic boy; it made him happy.
A healthier and better citizen, but only temporarily.

In other words, there was no hope for a cure for him, at least not through music.
So if this boy wants to feel better more often, he’ll have to participate in more music therapy jam sessions.

Music is fun, and it heals, but when the music stops, we only have the memory of it to sustain the fun and healing.
If we want more fun or healing, we’ll need more music.
The salve only works while the music is there, though the sweet memory of music always brings us back to it.

Sometimes that means more music therapy sessions.
Sometimes more string quartet or rock concerts.

So then, is music bad for us just as addictive drugs usually are?
We easily get hooked on music.
And it has a consciousness-elevating effect, similar to the effect of some recreational drugs.

Drugs and music are often associated.
(Consider the heroin epidemic in New York among jazz musicians in the 50’s, the psychedelic drugs that went hand in hand with rock and reggae music in the 60’s and 70’s, and the fact that many 19th-century artists were hooked on opium, laudanum, or hashish.)

So maybe, because of its addictive quality, music is bad for us.
Like addictive chemicals are usually bad for us.


But most people would agree that love is not bad for us.
That it is in fact very good for us.
Even though we are all addicted to love.

No one can live without love.
It’s necessary for all creatures.
(Any pet owner will tell you that all animals need love, and give love.
And gardeners would expand that: all living creatures need love.)

The music in that autistic boy’s therapy session wasn’t so much like an addictive drug.
It was more like a mother’s love.

As children, we know when our mother is absent, because we don’t feel the love except by remembering it.
Often that makes us yearn for the love, just as addicts yearn for their drug.
It’s definitely something that we need.
(Many drug users become addicts because this kind of love is absent from their lives for some reason.)

Like other addictions, we keep coming back to the source and object of love: mother and father, our children, revered teachers, our dear friends, inspired thinkers from the past - our prophets.

We want them to stay in our lives.
They feed the need that we have for love.

Love can also be dangerous.
Most lovers, having lost love at some other time in their lives, know about the vulnerability of loving, and usually have a tendency to pull back in the early stages of falling in love, for self protection.
If someone loves prematurely or obsessively, and the object of that love does not return the favour, it can lead to irrational and violent behaviour.
Like the behaviour of an addict who cannot get his fix.

We all know that.
But we also know that the extreme cases always involve other issues.
So we continue to love and continue to encourage our loved ones to keep loving as they move through their lives.

We know that love is important.
Everyone knows that.
We all know that it’s absolutely necessary for our good health; that love is an essential quality of being alive.

So music is not like an addictive drug.
Music is like love.
Music isn’t addictive like heroin is addictive.
It’s addictive like love is addictive.
So, as with our loving, it’s healthy to keep renewing our relationship with music.

Music is free.
And it’s easy.
As free and as easy as singing and dancing.

So yes, music is love.
And love is music.
(Though love is also many other things.)