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The Emotional Resonance of Music

Igor Stravinsky wrote in his 1936 autobiography that “music, by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all”. The matter-of-factness of this statement is disconcerting, but the Russian composer does explicate the impossible — a sound wave or decibel structurally embodying any one emotion. Listeners have come to associate the minor key with melancholy or harshness or the state of being subdued and the major with optimism. But notes cannot encapsulate inherent emotion. Fact. 

Later in his book, Stravinsky argues further: “Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions, such as joy, grief, sadness, an image of nature, a subject for daydreams, or – still better – oblivion from ‘everyday life.’... Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for music itself… they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realize its intrinsic value”.

Stravinsky gets at something essential here. There is danger in loving music solely for our reaction to it. That’s a disservice to the artist and listener. Our worlds get bigger if we are smaller in them. While at university, it’s easy to turn deaf to genuine musical beauty by confusing it with something not as stable — your emotional trajectory. The medium becomes less reliable, and therefore unfixed, when defined by how much jubilation and ease flow from the artist-to-music-to-listener interaction. Humans grow and change. They also differ in their perception of the music. According to writer Neal Gabler, Walt Disney bought Stravinsky's scores from The Rite of Spring for his 1940 cartoon film Fantasia. Later asked about the visuals Disney had supplied, Stravinsky said, “I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility”. To Stravinsky at the time, Disney complicated finding worth in the actual composition. And, as established, the individual reaction should not be the leading metric for what is valuable. That’s what Stravinsky would have said, I think. I agree.

I push back more so against Stravinsky’s belief in the complete reduction of beauty as a product of emotional association. My instinct is, yes, it’s risky to forgo genuine appreciation of music for the sake of individual psychological regeneration. But some songs prevent me from agreeing, wholeheartedly, with the notion that all music loses significant value when we honour it for the exact emotions with which we associate it. Or, at the very least, make it difficult to believe Stravinsky in the first place. 

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On took the experience of police brutality and the suffering of his brother in Vietnam and asked about the United States, “What is going on?” The sound of Gaye’s voice and the fluidity of the percussion are impactful on their own, worthy of praise on their own. But What’s Going On is not what Rolling Stone has ranked as the number one album of all time without the hyper-awareness of the psychological story of those on behalf of whom Gaye sang.

I remember listening to Van Morrison’s 1971 “Tupelo Honey” for the first time while driving solo through western Massachusetts. During the fourth listen, around when choristers sing “She’s an angel” at 3:34, I sobbed at the thought of couples in love or en route to being so who’ve danced to this track in their living rooms (do commend me for my full transparency here). The daydream elevated the musical experience. The song thereafter meant more to me. 

In the case of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’, the quintessential New York City nostalgia anthem of the 2000s, the sensory overload of Nancy Whang’s unrelenting keys physically propels its listener forward. The lyrics, however, move the listener back in time: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life”.

The song only reaches its full effect when listeners embrace James Murphy’s prescription of self-reflection and nowness and nostalgia. The instrumental and emotional dance demanded of the listener is the experience. Anything shy of accepting both the psychological command of Murphy in addition to instrumental prowess would be incomplete. 

Stravinsky likely emphasised classical music in his remarks. Instrumental pieces in general provoke musical appreciation before psychological deliberation because there are no words to shepherd memory. Similarly, works like those of Miles Davis or Aphex Twin are first for the experience of sound and its effect on the body more so than anything else. The music doesn’t tell the listener what to think. This is good. We should dance freely. 

However, it’s not just lyrics that inhibit my complete alignment with Stravinsky’s remark. In his 1988 Different Trains, Steve Reich self-reflects in three movements on his train trips between Los Angeles and New York during World War II and their parallelism to those transporting his contemporaries to concentration camps. With panoramic synthstrokes and vehicular recordings, Kraftwerk’s 1974 track ‘Autobahn’ sonically portrayed post-war Germany’s figurative car journey into the future. John Coltrane’s 1965 A Love Supreme is a moment of prayer. Each part — ‘Acknowledgement’, ‘Resolution’, ‘Pursuance’, and ‘Psalm’ — traces the jazzman’s ineffable embrace of the supreme love. I’m unsure if a listener can divorce the spirituality from this album. It’s far too personal. In all of these works, the inexplicable interiority blurs the line between music and emotion. 

The anthemic Civil Rights Era tune, ‘We Shall Overcome’ still serves as the most convincing counter to Stravinsky’s claim. One cannot truly appreciate the beauty of this song without knowing of its evolution. According to Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute, it originated as ‘I’ll Be Alright Someday’ when it was sung by enslaved Africans in the United States during the slavery era. Then Methodist minister Charles Albert Tindley wrote “I Will Overcome Someday” as a hymn in the early 1900s, a modification woven into future renditions. Baptist Chorister Lucille Simmons convened with black strikers outside of American Tobacco in Charleston, South Carolina to advocate for a pay raise. They sang “We will overcome.” In 1947, Zilphia Horton of Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee learned the song. Other like-mindedly progressive individuals heard it, one of them was folk singer-songwriter and activist Pete Seeger. At its core, folk music seeks to be of people and subsequently for people. Seeger was a master orchestrator of this folk pattern. He modified the song to “We shall” to simplify it for all singers. (Never mind the tedious “shall”/”will” word use debate.“Shall” is an easier word to sing than “will”. It opens the mouth.) He played it for Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Guy Carawan, the succeeding musical director at Highlander, formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that carried both the Civil Rights Movement and its tunes to the nation. Joan Baez led the song at the March on Washington, where Dr King delivered “I Have a Dream”.

These activists, Dr King, Baez, Seeger, Carawan, in part valued ‘We Shall Overcome’ because it told a story of multiple eras. Dr King, in his speech at the National Cathedral, prefaced his partial recitation of ‘We Shall Overcome’ by referencing the original singers of the song’s earliest form. He claimed that if slaves worked wage-free for dictatorial and violent slave owners, the African American community would let ‘We Shall Overcome’ work its magic, just as it had for centuries — absorb justified anger and use it for fuel. The song inherited the stories of its singers, and it kept going well after the end of the Civil Rights Era. In Northern Ireland, China, Czechoslovakia, and Lebanon, voices never stopped singing ‘We Shall Overcome’.

It takes little for ‘We Shall Overcome’ to effect emotion. This immediacy we should acknowledge. My father and I used to listen to Pete Seeger’s 1963 Carnegie Hall live rendition to honour Dr King’s birthday. These listens made me sure of two things. First — ‘We Shall Overcome’ stirred something in my father. Second — that it was an important and effective piece of music for the American people. I believed it primarily because my father told me so (at that age, what he relayed to me I considered textbook fact). But the recording spoke for itself. Each line of unified singing raised the hair follicles on my six-year-old head. As much as the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, ‘We Shall Overcome’ made me aware of the American story. 

Why it became an important and effective piece, however, was unclear to me, albeit because I was under ten and far removed from the piece’s target audience. Indeed, it is not just political and psychological association that makes ‘We Shall Overcome’ special. This song bears an invaluable musical accessibility. As David A. Graham of The Atlantic explained, ‘We Shall Overcome’ is a simple track to sing en masse. It sits in a petite music range from middle C up to a D. Just over one octave. 

But the music and the beauty of Baez and Seeger and hundreds of voices who have given themselves over to the song is only half of its beauty. ‘We Shall Overcome’ retains an unplaceable nature. It belongs to no one person and therefore everyone. The communal cry of certainty — we shall overcome — wills its listener into bravery. Whether or not he or she is individually fearful ceases to be of importance. Insufficient recognition of both the music and this emotional transcendence would be an injustice to the composition. I encourage you to listen:


‘We Shall Overcome’, What’s Going On, and Different Trains have served as coping mechanisms, inspired emotional maturity, and provided escape. Beautifully so. After all, via the theatre showings, four video releases, and many staged celebrations of that Disney abomination Fantasia, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ has reached millions down the decades. Each listener cannot help but put their own spin on the music.

Stravinsky’s remarks remind us that listening to music should bring us out, not in. I hope to practise this intentional listening out of respect for the musician if no one else. Nevertheless, there’s an inevitable humanity that comes with artistic engagement. My listening to a timeless song activates the same sequence: the piece enters my life, slowly and then permanently, I digest it, I take it with me, and it transforms into something else entirely. In the wake of beautiful music, there arrives a token of emotional resonance. I’m thankful for this exact pattern. It’s added much meaning to my life.

Illustration by Holly Ward

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