What is there about music and musicians that is so powerful and leads us to grieve so much upon their deaths? I’m reminded of that today with the news of the passing of David Bowie from cancer a couple of days after the release of his last album, Blackstar, to my ears an extraordinary meditation, musically and lyrically, on first listening upon life and death.
Unlike in sound, but not in time and meaning from Johnny Cash’s American IV, each man confronts and expresses, for themselves and their fans (humans who honor those who give them entertainment and art) a creative acceptance of life’s brevity. The opening lyrics of Bowie’s last and great album:
- In the villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle
At the centre of it all, your eyes.
We know the learning and playing of music can change the brain, but it is obvious even without any knowledge of neurobiology that hearing music also can change our souls. It’s well documented that rock and roll and jazz pierced the iron curtain and the music of the Beatles contributed to the bringing down of the Soviet Union.
We know how much the songs of the civil rights movement contributed to the courage and the passion of the workers in that great effort. We are also reminded of the fight against apartheid and the dancing of the African people there that gave them hope and forged unity. Music has always been a part of traditional life, unifying toiling farmers in the field and bringing people together in shared joy and sorrow of social and family events.
Music accompanies soldiers into battle, not just the drum and bugle for marches and orders, but with songs of home reminding them of why they fight. It is a double-edged sword, however, making some braver, but others too sentimental to go on or inspiring rebels against established order.
We know that simply listening to music as do people in the the dentist’s chair, the MRI or surgeon’s table reduces pain and anxiety. But it’s most powerful impact is perhaps, in its constant accompaniment, especially pronounced with radio, records, and WiFi to both the mundane and the most intimate moments of our personal lives. I wrote one book with Dylan as constant background. Judy Roderick was there when we first made love. I got so high the day Sgt. Pepper came out, and so on.
Virtually every individual and social activity is accompanied by particular songs and sounds and singers of each of our times and generations. There is an area of the brain seems to particularly respond to hearing music and it is the last to be affected by a disease such as Alzheimer’s. Maybe it’s heaven’s gate.
We ask why people continue to believe in Elvis’s existence. Perhaps it’s a wish that life will go on as before and the person and people we love will always be there. It is a plea for eternity. Music gives us hope. It is in the best sense, in the phrase of Abraham Maslow, a “B-vitamin,” enhancing our being.
It’s a necessary medicine for both body and soul. There is, I believe, in what it gives us and why we weep a little when a music maker dies, little difference between the sounds of the sacred and the profane. Soulful voices need not sing sweetly, but sound like what they mean.