Monday, January 6, 2014


We all know that music can affect us emotionally. The quality of the composition or presentation is not always the key factor: a poorly whistled tune sometimes can be as evocative as a full-orchestra performance of Chopin if the former links to a thought or memory in some way. Words that are very bad poetry when straightforwardly read aloud suddenly can become moving when sung.

It is not at all clear why this should be so. A surprisingly vast amount of research – using MRIs and PET scans among other tools – has been conducted on the physiology of our responses to music. In a mechanical sense, the investigations provide some answers to how, but still leave us in the dark as to why – specifically, why should these physiological responses have evolved? Do they serve some useful function? If so, is the function biological or social? There is no shortage of learned commentary on these matters either, much of it in dense professor-ese. I’ve yet to read any that is more satisfying than Nietzsche’s speculations in The Birth of Tragedy. However, while I’m convinced he was onto something with his notions of the Apollonian and Dionysian, not even Fred satisfies completely. To his credit, Nietzsche was dissatisfied, too, and at one point was reduced to saying “we listen to music with our muscles.” This isn’t entirely true either (as he knew), but we at least understand what he meant.

These questions turn up in popular literature, too. Arthur C. Clarke in 1953 published one of his best regarded science fiction novels, Childhood’s End. In it, earth is visited by a benevolent race of aliens dubbed the Overlords. Despite their soubriquet, they don’t interfere by force, but merely help humans transition to a stage where they can connect and merge with a galaxy-wide consciousness. Out of curiosity, the Overlords attend a human concert. While they are capable of understanding that the arrangements of sound constitute an art form, they are baffled by the emotional responses the arrangements evoke in the audience. We later learn that the Overlords are a bridge species: they help others join the galactic mind, but are somehow excluded from joining it themselves. They are missing something intangible, though not even they know what; whatever it is prevents them from taking the step. Perhaps it is a failure to hear the music of the spheres.

Whatever the reason for the impact of music, the affect is undeniable. When coupled to nostalgia, even the most simple and otherwise forgettable popular tune can elicit strong reactions. Accordingly, all of us hold a special place in our hearts for the music that was popular from our childhood to our mid-20s, the era when our identities and strongest memories are forged. Some people never learn to like anything else. Even those who keep up open-mindedly with the new, however, are likely to keep space on the shelf (or backed-up in flash drives) for the songs of their youth. They are so interconnected with our life histories that when the artists who performed them die, we often feel the loss as a personal one. One recording artist from my childhood, Phil Everly, died last week at age 74. He and his brother Donald were enormously popular in the late 50s and early 60s.

Most kids become conscious (almost obsessively) of the contemporary music scene sometime around the age of 9 or 10. Nowadays, the tween demographic (9-12, sometimes broadened in definition to 9-15) is recognized as a distinct market, but in the decade straddling 1960 it wasn’t. 10-year-olds and 20-year-olds at the time listened to precisely the same thing, though in truth all of the popular music then had more in common with present-day tween fare than with what currently is aimed at 20-somethings.

Always the youngest in my class in elementary school and in high school, I would have been perpetually a step behind my classmates in popular music and every other element of popular culture (and personal development) except for one advantage: my sister Sharon (1950-1995). Sharon was a little over two years older than I, and, throughout her life, never failed to immerse herself in the age-appropriate zeitgeist, whatever it might be. Because of her I always was introduced to the contemporary thing before I ever would have found it on my own. 45 RPM singles of the Everly Brothers were an early example. They played in the house at least since 1959, and by 1962 I was playing them myself.

I can’t hear any number by the two brothers to this day without being transported to my parents’ house on Main Street in Brookside where my sister spins 45s, an aqua cabover Jeep truck sits in the driveway, the aroma of something seasoned heavily with black pepper emanates from the kitchen, and our Great Dane named Woody romps in the back yard. Thanks for the memories, Phil.

Crying in the Rain reached #6 on the US charts in 1962. Written by Carole King and Harold Greenfield, performed by the Everly Brothers.

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