In November, 1978 it became inescapably clear that I was not going to be the next Eric Clapton. It was a sobering moment, but an honest moment that helped me make the transition to a career in the guitar industry. It also made music a source of pure enjoyment. I have never stopped playing or dreaming.
Over the last 40 years, I have been witness to countless discussions about guitars and the power of music with my colleagues; men and women on the same career path, driven by the same love of guitar. Curiously, not one of these discussions among us served to answer why music has had such a profound effect on us. We talked about that euphoric rush of deciphering some elusive riff and the sheer joy of expressing ourselves through music; that mystical connection that occurs between a player and the audience (sonic clairvoyance) – but never why it is so.
Endless debates raged on: “ Who was better, the Beatles or The Stones?”; “Is Hip Hop on a par with Beethoven?”; and, has American Idol proven to be a blessing to the music community or a hideous perversion of the process that gave us musical greats like Ray Charles, The Beatles, and Stevie Ray Vaughn? The debates were motivated by such deeply personal feelings that we could never find a definitive answer.
We were amazed at the difference between our memories of songs before and after the video age. Before MTV, music was the sound track to our own life experiences. Videos came along and presented prepackaged memories. The video told us how to feel and what to think.
Eyebrows were raised as business and the media learned that it was easier and more effective to create brand identity through the seductive power of iconic rock songs, rather than extolling the actual merit of their product. Some accused artists of selling out, while others saw it as the just and proper reward for artistic genius.
As a history buff, I learned that, from the first gathering of human beings into small tribes to the largest, most sophisticated modern industrial state, music has been employed to engender patriotism, to unite the population behind a common cause.
Wildly conflicting activities have harnessed the power of music; religious movements created music that inspired people to devote their lives to faith, while military campaigns have used it to summon up the courage of warriors marching to certain death (what Abraham Lincoln described as, “the last full measure of devotion).”
Schools have their fight songs and modern corporations leverage music to ignite team spirit among their sales people.
Thousands of years ago, the great philosophers had already weighed in on the power of music. Understanding that music was based on math, they believed that musical ability was a clear indication of creative problem solving and the ability to lead or govern.
These are just a few of the ideas that have received serious consideration, and again, they address the effect, but not the why.
Most of life’s experiences stimulate an emotional response; the passing of a loved one, the birth of a child, a promotion at work or the acquisition or loss of a prized possession can create intense joy, sadness or regret. The reason, the “Why” for the particular response, seems clear.
Music is different and, remarkably so, when you consider what it is in a physical context. A player strums an acoustic guitar, causing the strings to set the top in motion. This movement creates waves in the air, alternating groups of compressed and relaxed molecules. The molecules roll out in waves across the auditorium and bounce off the listener’s eardrum. This stimulus is transmitted to the brain and, in moments, several thousand people are overcome with sadness or happiness, grown men are driven to tears or to their feet dancing, unable to sit still. Why?
How is it possible for a steel string attached to a wooden box to convey the musician’s deepest feelings and then, elicit such an intense range of emotion in the listener? Why does a D major chord sound happy and a D minor sound sad?
This is even more remarkable when you realize that our western scale is made up of only twelve notes: twelve notes that, through the relentless power of individual creativity, have given us everything from Mozart to Glen Miller, John Lee Hooker to Elvis, Gershwin to Dylan and The Beatles to Hip Hop.
Just twelve notes; the language of music, arranged to express ideas and feelings that cannot be accomplished by any other means; notes that slam the senses without any need for interpretation.
How can Pete Townsend, Segovia and Dylan play the same instrument to such astonishingly different effect? What is it that draws a listener, almost uncontrollably, to Stevie Ray Vaughn, another to Metallica, and yet another to Chopin?
The last, and possibly most disturbing, question is “Why is it that one person can be emotionally overcome by music and another person feels nothing? Are some of us simply more primal in our emotions, or others, more pragmatic”?
After 40 years in the industry and 53 years playing, I still don’t have the answer. It is only slightly consoling that scientists from Darwin to modern neurologists can explain our chemical and neurological response to music; the “Why”, however, remains shrouded in mystery.
I suppose it is a bit like trying to explain love. For many of us, music, like love, is the force that makes life worth living; life enriched in ways that defy understanding.
Maybe it’s best that we simply appreciate the countless ways that music enhances our lives, and not concern ourselves with the “Why.” And, whenever possible, to nurture and support this magnificent mystery that makes all of our lives a little bit better.