Music might be the thing that in the end helps me keep my faith.
I haven’t admitted this to my wife or kids, because I’ve made it abundantly clear that I don’t like the TV show Glee. I really don’t like it; most of the time it annoys the hell out of me. However, we have watched some episodes as a family, and more than once, watching a campy rendition of some pop song that was bad the first time around, the music has swept over my body and chilled me with pleasure.
Studies have found that certain people react this way to music much more easily than others.
I am one of those people.
It isn’t just watching a silly TV show. It happened the other day when my son came in and started playing his guitar, working his way through, of all things, his Pink Floyd songbook. I was in the kitchen cooking dinner, and he was in the den on the daybed with my wife’s classical acoustic guitar.
He started picking through the songs from their album The Wall, and I started singing along—once, very long ago, Pink Floyd was the background music to my flunking out of college—and we went through one song, then another, and when we were on the sad song “Nobody Home,” it happened to me.
It happens at least once every time I get time alone to listen to my all-time favorite piece of music, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor (my favorite recording so far is Abbey Simon on piano with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting).
I get the sensation regularly in the band I play with. We’re just five old guys who play—some covers, some originals. We meet in the drummer’s basement on Sunday afternoons for practice. I’m not sure why but it happens most often when we transition smoothly from the bridge into a guitar solo, and everyone is moving together, and the music seems to be playing itself, bearing us all along with it.
I am swept up into the music and sometimes lose myself entirely. It never lasts long, just a few seconds. Those few seconds I can only describe as orgasmic. Here’s the thing though: it isn’t just a physical sensation.
I think it would be appropriate to call it a soul orgasm. Our drummer’s wife calls our practice sessions “church for husbands.” She’s right. Sometimes when I think about what music does to me, I am astonished, I find myself looking into mystery. Why did such famous skeptics as Kurt Vonnegut and Albert Camus say that music is proof to them that God exists? What is going on?
Something is struck, or plucked or strummed. Vibrations are created that move air particles, which move more air particles, in waves of fluctuating pressure, across the room at varying frequencies. These waves are caught by the outer ear, directed down the ear canal where they cause the tympanic membrane to vibrate. Then those tiny bones, the hammer, anvil and stirrup, amplify the vibrations, change their movement from air to the fluid of the inner ear. The fluid in turn moves tiny hairs which translate the vibrations once more into electrical impulses that shoot to the brain.
What happens from there is the mystery.
Neuroscientists have mapped out music’s affect on the brain. They can watch what happens in there. Music has been used successfully for years to treat dyslexia, Alzheimer’s, stroke-related language problems, Parkinson’s symptoms, anxiety, depression—the list goes on. Mother’s play their babies Mozart to make them grow up smarter.
Music does all these things, but, after a discussion of music’s influence on the brain in National Geographic, neuroscientist Nina Kraus had something else to say about music: she said, “It’s just inherently wonderful.”
Inherently wonderful. With that we are back to mystery.
When Walter Pater famously said that all art constantly aspires to the condition of music, what was he saying? Music is the one art form that can bypass the cranking cogs and machinery of the logical mind and affect people in the same way, regardless of creed or origin. Yes, music has all these observed affects on the brain, but it also moves beyond that. It has the ability to shoot straight to the soul.
Even a silly pop song on Glee? I think of the scene in Orwell’s 1984 in which Winston Smith is standing at a window watching a poor washer woman hang up clothes in the garden below. She is singing a song. It is a song composed by a soulless machine over at the Ministry of Truth, but as he listens to this woman sing it—a simple melody sung in a human voice—he is moved, he has hope for humanity.
I struggle daily with issues of faith and doubt. I am resigned to this as my lot in life. When a silly song on a bad TV show gives me chills, though, when a fine guitar solo makes me soar, when the violins in Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto rise as one vast wave, lifting the piano part, I know it isn’t simply vibrations hitting my ears.
At those times—forgive me if the term makes you uncomfortable—I have a soul orgasm. At those times I know what Vonnegut and Camus are talking about. At those times Saint Cecilia comes to me, presses me to her breast and calms me.
Moving inside music, borne along by it, wholly and entirely, I believe.
Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Rock & Sling and elsewhere; he won the 28th New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction and has been a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Award. Sizemore teaches writing at Central Virginia Community College.