Why do the human mind and heart respond so passionately to an arrangement of sounds and words that provide absolutely no tangible or evolutionary benefit?
The answer reveals much about ourselves and the world we live in.
We spend much of our lives looking and hoping for miracles. But the greatest miracle of all is right before our eyes: nature itself, the seamless fusion of all the forces of the world into a unified, unvarying system.
Science itself testifies to this: the principle of entropy, intrinsic to Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, describes the natural state of the universe as tending always toward disorder. In other words, nature’s law cannot account for the laws of nature, cannot explain the original ordering of the natural world that produced the immutable regularity of nature itself. What greater testimony to intelligent design can one find than the unnatural, persistent order evident in every aspect of the workings of Creation?
THE MELODY OF MAN
But what does this have to do with music?
According to the 19th Century theologian Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, there are three dimensions to music: lyrics, melody, and song.
Rabbi Hirsch explains how music simultaneously reaches the heart and mind: the words, or lyrics, engage the intellect while melody stirs the emotions. But words and melody truly become music only by virtue of the harmony produced when the two become one. In this way, mere lyrics and a simple tune become transformed into transcendent song.
The result, says Rabbi Hirsch, is “the audible soaring of the spirit to the heights of rapture, and the mature outcome of thoughts that were working in the soul. This loftiest work of the human spirit in which his noblest energy unfolds itself is, when inspired by the thoughts of God, itself a work of God.”
THE COMPOSITION OF CREATION
Just as the harmony of all the disparate forces of Creation testifies to the divinity of the universe, so too does the composition of music reveal the higher nature of Man. Through music, the constant clash between emotion and intellect is shown to be not only reconcilable but a symptom of when we have become divided from ourselves.
In truth, our hearts and minds don’t want to be at odds with one another. So why is it that they almost always are?
Simply speaking, intellect is an engineer and emotion is a gardener. The mind puts pieces together and pulls them apart, always seeking to understand the system of operations in which it is engaged. But the heart yearns for peace, not systematically but holistically, and is therefore inclined to allow things to develop as they will, tending the environment and cutting away the deadwood, but not otherwise attempting to hasten the progress of natural growth.
In short, the mind lacks the patience of the heart, and the heart lacks the curiosity of the mind.
THE CHOIR OF COOPERATION
The best partnerships exist not between colleagues who have much in common but between collaborators who bridge the distance that naturally divides them. By balancing the ambition of the brain and the passivity of the heart, one can go through life in a state of constant dynamism and organic vibrancy, rather than either crystalline stasis or zealous impetuosity.
This is the true gift, the true attraction, and the true miracle of music, in its capacity as the spiritual reset button for restoring harmony between the head and the heart.
But we have to be discerning in our choice of music, both in the lyrics and the melodies that we allow entry into the depths of our consciousness and our souls.
We should hardly find it surprising that violent, racist, or anti-social lyrics have a caustic effect upon the listener. But even instrumentalism by itself can affect us to our core.
THE BACKBEAT OF BIOLOGY
Dr. John Diamond, a doctor of psychological medicine from Sydney, Australia, noted the physiological effects of exposure to the “stopped anapestic beat” of hard rock music, which consists of two rapid beats, followed by a long beat, then a pause. Doctor Diamond observed that subjects’ muscles went weak throughout their entire bodies after listening to the music of bands including Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Queen, The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
More significantly, Dr. Diamond identified what he calls brain “switching,” in which the same anapestic beat destroyed the symmetry between both cerebral hemispheres. The resulting trauma may be responsible for diminished work performance, learning and behavior problems in children, and a “general malaise” in adults.
Most significant of all is how, when the message and the music come together, the effect upon us becomes much more profound, whether for good or for bad.
Professor Michael Ballam of Utah State University explains the effects of musical repetition: “The human mind shuts down after three or four repetitions of a rhythm, or a melody, or a harmonic progression.” As a result, repetitive rhythmic music may cause people to actually release control of their thoughts, making them more receptive to whatever lyrical message is joined to the music.
This isn’t always a bad thing. In his book Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, Boston College professor emeritus William K. Kilpatrick writes:
“[We] tend to learn something more easily and indelibly if it’s set to a rhyme or song. Advertisers know this and use it so effectively that we sometimes have difficulty getting their jingles out of our heads. But there are more positive educational uses. Most of us learned the alphabet this way and some of our history as well (“Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Concord Hymn”). Recently some foreign language courses have been developed which employ rhyme and song as the central teaching method. Similarly, one of the most successful new phonics programs teaches reading through singing.”
But the blade cuts in two directions. If we absorb positive values and useful information better through music, how careful must we be to shield ourselves, and our children, from the influence of negative messages delivered through discordant arrangements.
Ultimately, like everything else in the world, music can be used for good or for bad, for intellectual and emotional health or for devastation of the spirit. Just as we take responsibility for choosing a healthy diet when we eat, a positive work environment for our jobs, and a wholesome neighborhood in which to live, we should be equally concerned with the sounds and messages that we let penetrate our hearts and minds.
And when we do, when song inspires our spirits to soar, we can’t help but celebrate the divine harmony of creation and recognize the Conductor who arranges the orchestration of all the inhabitants of the world that sing His praises every moment of every day.
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