The Many Moods Manifested when Music Moves You

Having spent a good deal of my life being involved in music, in one way or another (listening, playing, going to concerts, selling records…. you name it) it does surprise me from time to time how seldom people think deeply about the effect music can and does have on the human heart or soul. Music, if we bother to listen intently and purposefully and with an open heart, reaches us in places that mere words cannot reach or touch, most of the time. It reaches what some would call the ‘affective’ as opposed to the ‘cognitive’ side of things, which is not to say music is a no-brainer, but you catch my drift. Without question you can lose yourself in music, even forget your troubles for a while by listening carefully.

Music can make you sad, happy, elated, depressed, joyful, angry… it can stir up lots of emotions. For the patriotic, hearing the national anthem, especially if they have been in the military, served over seas, and come back, stirs up powerful and deep feelings of longing and belonging that can hardly be articulated.

But of course there are many other things music can do… such as stir up protest, like a song like ‘Ohio’ by Neil Young did over forty years ago when students were shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State University. Yes that really happened! And when the song came out… there were both protests against the song, and stirred up by the song against the governing officials involved. Neil’s friend Stephen Stills had already written about this very sort of matter…..

“For What It’s Worth”

“There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking’ their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, “hooray for our side”

It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away

We better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

We better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

We better stop
Now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

We better stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?”

Graduation marches stir up pride in parents, wedding marches stir up tears in happy parents, old favorite songs stir up memories of days long past. It is especially interesting how memories of the past are tied to, linked to, specific songs which conjure up the past in ways other things can’t. For example, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the Beatles sing ‘I Want to Hold your Hand’, and whenever I hear that song now, I’m back at 602 West Lexington Avenue in High Point N.C. asking myself— what in the world am I listening to? This was so not Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!

Bob Marley did some pretty deep reflecting about such matters. Here is one of his sayings…

Music can prompt people to feel freer, to lose their inhibitions, to feel inspired, wanting to write their own songs, and music can also do other things, especially funeral music. When our daughter Christy died suddenly, I just couldn’t listen to joyful music for a good long while. I had to swear off such music. It seemed at the time a form of blasphemy, a way of trivializing her death. It seemed contradictory to my grieving and my mood.

My heart seemed to be saying– of course you can’t dance now, of course you can’t be elated now, of course you can’t celebrate now. You’re sad… and you’re grieving… and it’s o.k. I could listen to Beethoven’s ‘Marche Funebre’ or say Barber’s Adagio for Strings…. but nothing glib or too upbeat. It took a long while before I was ready for upbeat again.

Music can create a mood, dampen a mood, ruin a moment, enhance a moment, transform a moment. It can do a lot of things, if one let’s it. This is one reason some people have mistakenly said things like ‘music is life’ or ‘I couldn’t live without my music’ or even ‘sacred music is what most easily brings me close to God’.

I would like to hear from you, your stories about how music has affected or changed your lives. Even very short anecdotes are fine. Have a go……

  • Julie Walsh

    Thank you for your blog, Dr Witherington. It’s fun to read what you’re daily considering. I don’t do “short” anecdotes very well, so I wrote a blog post on the topic covering various experiences with friends. I kinda came to the idea that for me music may be like reading for CS Lewis–we read to know that we are not alone. (fwiw: juliemwalsh.blogspot.com)

    Thanks again for taking the time to blog.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I am already an overly overtly passionate person. I can’t listen to music at all anymore. Life is already so full of passion that I become inconsolable when I hear music that moves me to my memories.

  • pastordt

    My dad played the piano beautifully – all the time. Classical, hymns, popular (not rock and roll – but Webber and Sondheim). Once when he was in the hospital, seriously ill with adult-onset asthma, I took my kids to an ice show. One of the set pieces had “Malaguena” as the music – a song dad often played. I began to weep, just hearing the melody. I also sang in choirs for the first 50 years of my life and to this day, hearing Brahms’ “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place” can take me back to my first high school choir. Powerful stuff. Durufle’s “Sanctus” gets me every time, too.


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