I was speaking to some students the other day and one of them asked “What does music mean to you? Is it just entertainment?”
I was nonplussed for a moment. It was quite the question, and I wasn’t really sure how to answer. After a moment’s thought, I replied that music meant everything to me. “Without it,” I said, “I feel empty, I feel lost. It goes far beyond entertainment… Nothing quite captures the entire palate of human emotion. Give me an emotion,” I said to the students, “any emotion.”
The student replied, “How about pain?”
To which I responded, “Listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony. I still cry when I listen to it!”
Another student chimed in, “How about love?”
“Elgar’s Serenade for Strings,” was my response.
“How about feeling powerful?” said a third student.
“Sibelius – Symphony No. 5, listen to the French horns,” I said.
“And what’s amazing,” I went on, “is that nothing can change the mood of a person and unify a room of people, like music.”
As I said to the students, the next time you go to a concert, just sit back and observe. Watch the thousand or more people filing into the concert hall. There’s all kinds of chatter. You will see all kinds of emotions on the faces of those coming to listen. But after the concertmaster has tuned the orchestra, you can hear a pin drop, you can feel the anticipation. All eyes on the orchestra.
And then look at the faces of those listening as the music begins. You will see eyes darting back-and-forth as the music darts back and forth between the violins and celli. Smiles and frowns as it moves through the development. You’ll see people moving in their seats. And you will see people jump to their feet in thunderous applause, if the performance has moved them.
And you can feel a connection between the musicians on stage – especially the soloists – and the audience. It’s a connection resulting from everyone resonating to the same musical experience.
But for me personally, it’s even more. Imagine the power of a great book. What music does is even more powerful. It picks up where words stop and transports you to another level of human experience. It elicits an almost psychedelic experience, really. If you close your eyes you can actually imagine the scene the composer imagines. Listen to Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals. You can imagine royal guards marching and huge elephants, lions roaring and exotics birds soaring, roosters pecking and tortoises plodding along in the mud or a beautiful, lone swan gliding across a shimmering lake.
When I finished describing this sensation, a student asked why she didn’t feel this way.
I replied, “It only happens if you really listen and let yourself imagine. If you treat it as background music, it won’t happen. You really have to listen intently.”
“Then there is playing music,” I went on. “You become one with your instrument. And sometime you feel like the music is coming from inside your brain or directly from your heart. And after you play, you reach a place of calm, of Zen. Whatever worry you might have. However bad your day might have been. Well, as Bobby McFerrin would say “Don’t worry, Be Happy.”
That’s what music means to me.
Professor Santa J. Ono
President and Vice-Chancellor