Music is powerful; I can feel my blood pressure drop at the first few notes of a favorite song. Music is nearly universal in how it impacts us, yet it is still inexplicable in why it does. Probably the closest I’ve gotten to understanding it was reading the fascinating book Musicophilia, by neurologist Oliver Sachs. There are also the sociological theories that music binds us together and provides a vehicle to pass down our histories. But none of the theories fully explain its power.
Today it’s easy to take music for granted. It’s been less than 15 years since Steve Jobs profoundly changed how we interact with music. Before 2001, music was bulky, inconvenient, and not very mobile. It was expensive, too: you had to buy a full album to get that one favorite song. The iPod replaced CD’s, which had a dynasty of just more than a decade and which in turn replaced cassette tapes with a heyday of less than 20 years. While our children don’t remember a time when music wasn’t instantly accessible and mobile, those of us over 40 remember music choice as something special. I could only afford the radio, with no choice in song selection, only genre, and I had to suffer through commercials. I’m still in awe that today I can own any song I take a fancy to for a buck and listen to it an infinite number of times, anywhere that I am.
Specific songs are a powerful time machine, taking me back to a certain moment in time and place. One song reminds me of Geneva (I had a terrible cold when I visited the Matterhorn), another to Liverpool (we bought our lunch at the nearby Asda every day for two weeks), and another reminds me of my first few weeks commuting to work in Minneapolis (it was bitter cold, and I was missing my friends). I love the term “ear worm”, for when a song gets stuck in your head until you listen to it enough times for it to release its hold on your mind. Only in the last 50 years have we had that luxury; for the first 10,000 years of human history, only those who had the means and leisure time to learn to perform music could scratch that itch.
I’ve sometimes pondered the irrelevant question about which sense I’d give up if I had to. Watching a friend with macular degeneration lose her sight tells me that’s not the one. But hearing is right up there as well, solely because I can’t imagine living without music. I don’t know why it’s so important to me, but it is. I’m just grateful to live in a time and a place that it can be.
“Music expresses that which cannot be said, and on which it is impossible to be silent.” –Victor Hugo