Why do we listen to music?

I was taking the time this past week to learn a new song on the guitar, and it got me thinking about the impact music can have on our lives. A lot of that can be impacted from your parents’ tastes and what you listen to as you are growing up. My parents were already in their 40s and 50s while I was growing, so the music that played in the house was generally stuff that they had listened to as teenagers and when they were in their 20s. For the first twelve years of my life, I listened to a mix of my parents’ favourite music and what was on the charts. I was very into Busted as a younger kid, for example. Then I went to a Mark Knopfler gig and it all changed for me.

But it was how music can make you feel that got me thinking. Be it whatever music you listen to, classical, pop, rock, jazz, whatever; it can make you feel so much. Joy, sorrow, anger, happiness. Music can inspire all those emotions. The combination of the right lyrics and music can be used for so much. Songwriters have often used their writing as a way to help themcome to terms with events in their life; unfortunately these events are often tragic. For example, Eric Clapton wrote the beautiful Tears in Heaven after the tragic death of his son. He could have relapsed into his various addictions and ended up killing himself. Instead, he played his emotions out until he could cope. And in so doing, gave a song of heartbreak for a life with all the potential in the world that was cruelly cut short.

Other songs evoke a time and place. Some of my favourite songs are almost stories. Be it of the writer’s personal life or of another time and place entirely. Mark Knopfler’s song Done with Bonaparte is from the viewpoint of a soldier in the French Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars.  Guns ‘n’ Roses’ song Mr Brownstone, meanwhile, is a semi autobiographical take on the various band members’ drug addictions, particularly to heroin. These two songs are obviously very different in tone, subject matter and musical style but both perfectly capture what they’re going for. They perfectly evoke early 19th-century war under one of the finest military leaders of all time and the struggle against one of the most addictive substances and the turmoil it brings into your life in 1980s L.A. Through the quality of the musicianship and lyrical thought, you are brought to the time and place and the events even if, like me, you weren’t even born yet.

Sometimes, you don’t even need any words at all, simply the instrumental piece itself can be enough to have your feelings and emotions rise to the surface; sometimes even become over-powering. Movie soundtracks are particularly good at that, as they have to sell the emotion of a story through music. The music has to fit the scene otherwise it will be distracting and take you out of the experience. It would not be appropriate to have the scene in the rain from Four Weddings and a Funeral accompanied by the Imperial March from Star Wars. A film score is of crucial importance. It can give you the emotional cues that you have otherwise missed. It can also set the time and place. You don’t want a techno drum and bass score for a Victorian period piece. It wouldn’t fit.

Some pieces of music can almost call you back to your home. My mum’s entire side of the family are Scottish, and I’m extremely proud of that. And there are pieces of music that I feel call me back to Scotland. Especially if I’m driving to or from Scotland through the borders. That is some of the most beautiful countryside in the British Isles. Songs like Loch Lomond and their ancient melodies or Border Reiver by Mark Knopfler instantly make me think of Scotland. I’ve even been listening to Scottish music on pipes and drums and have been almost driven to tears.

That is the most magnificent thing about music, about any art. You can find yourself swept up in a story or another person’s pain or anger and frustration. Music is often one of the best ways to communicate emotion. Sometimes, it’s even better than speaking out loud or reading the written word. There’s a reason it’s been kept going for thousands o years. Because it can move and inspire you. And long may it continue.

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