On Thanksgiving Day I caught a holiday special on NPR. The hour long show featured stories of Americans especially grateful for music. Each story had one or more narrator with samplings of the music that inspired them. The stories and the music touched me, and I remembered the words of the philosopher Nietzsche (himself a musician) who said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Most of the NPR stories revolved around love and death. There were stories about music leading to romantic encounters that led to happy, enduring love. Other stories told how music can heal deep wounds that life inflicts on us. In one sad tale, a woman describes how she lost her true love in a cruel, untimely fashion; yet, in the end, their shared love of music saved her from despair, and in her ongoing love of music has come to feel she’s gone beyond the pains of her loss. She lives, she seemed to say, in a mental atmosphere beyond anything that death could do to her—thanks to the subtle effect of music on her consciousness.
Plato was another philosopher that saw music as important in the education of the soul. He was aware of the different effects of different kinds of music on our minds and bodies: from modes that play on the cruder emotions of the self to those that appeal to the higher modes of consciousness.
Music was a staple in the Renaissance philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, a key part of his theory of soul-making—music has powerful effects on the soul because it operates through the air that is kin to the spirit. In Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872), we find the ecstatic music of the cult of Dionysos pitted against the corrosive Socratic dialectic. Nietzsche perceived the dangers of rampant rationalism that could paralyze and stifle the creative potentials of the human animal. Music is central to native American culture, as you can see from Ruth Murray Underhill’s book, The Song Magic of the Papago Indians.
So music is powerful stuff. I agree with Nietzsche on the need to preserve the all-important ecstatic state from the clutches of reductionist fanatics. Nietzsche and F. W. H. Myers agree on the key role of ecstasy in the production of so much high-order creativity, e.g., Blake’s prophetic works, the music of Hildegard von Bingen, and the levitations of Joseph of Copertino.
Intuitively, it should be clear why ecstasy increases the chances of extraordinary mental and physical breakthroughs. It opens and clears our mental space; it unlocks a gate, clears the path, brushes away the obstacles to free movement. In the ecstatic state, all the filters, screens, and veils are blown away. The psyche enters a state of pure energy, and is minimally disposed to repress or to feint away from any possible influx. The records of human experience are clear: throughout history, people have used different forms of music to open their hearts and minds to a larger life.
Sometimes it happens in a big way, as in a near-death experience, or maybe after being bed-ridden (like Matisse who discovered he was an artist). Some people pray, some meditate, some use psychedelics. Perfectly “normal” people are sometimes opened up by physical accidents, often in ways totally unpredictable and freakishly coincidental.
The point I want to emphasize: Music is a common way that people may catch glimpses of something transcendent. I love all kinds of music. I also know that a few times in my life the music I was listening to temporarily lifted me out of my normal self so that I sensed I was immortal and felt at that instant that I was perfectly happy to die. When I recounted this to my friend, Laura Dale, former editor of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, she replied, “Nothing makes me believe in life after death more than listening to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I’ll bet there are many readers with interesting stories to tell about the powerful way music has affected—even changed—their lives.
And by the way, I’m sure it can happen with almost any kind of music. It all depends on how much soul you bring to the listening.