“Where words fail, music speaks.” This quote is attributed to Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th century author of fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “Thumbelina.” He’s saying that for all its precision and utility, language has its limits. There are times when words are not enough, when what seems inexpressible in words alone can only be expressed in song. That’s a very humbling thing for a writer to admit. You might think Andersen would privilege the written word above all else. But you don’t have to call yourself a musician to understand the truth in his statement.
We know that we need music. I once heard a public talk about pseudoscience and mental health from a psychiatrist at university. His whole lecture was basically an attack on things like anti-stress colouring books, fidget spinners, and other products that people push while claiming they have mental health benefits, even if there is little evidence to back up their claims. Having thrown out nearly everything under the sun, the psychiatrist concluded that science does back the importance of at least two activities which contribute to our mental well-being. Exercise was one of them. The other was hearing music. (Personally, I would add a few things to that list, like reading, writing, community, and service, but then again I’m not an intensely skeptical psychiatrist, so what do I know?)
When I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring movie and heard the opening seven notes of the Shire theme, composed by Howard Shore, I was transported. It wasn’t the visual effects that brought me to director Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth. It was that score. I was there with Sam as he lamented the departure of the elves into the far west, with Arwen and Frodo on the desperate gallop to escape the hooded Ringwraiths, and with the nine members of the Fellowship as they rested in the hallowed woodland of Lothlórien. The Lord of the Rings movies are indeed wonderful adaptations, though they don’t measure up to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. And yet I’ve often thought that for all the changes the filmmakers made, it was worth it to have these films made if only because we got that musical score.
There's something about music which speaks to our soul. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, a teary-eyed Professor Dumbledore describes music as “a magic beyond all we do here!” We know that words have power. After all, you cast a spell by saying the magic words. But music has its own power too. It has the power to move us, to stir our hearts. Music can create things within us that weren’t there before. Maybe that’s why in Narnia’s creation story author C.S. Lewis has the lion Aslan sing the world into being. In the prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, titled The Magician’s Nephew, the boy Digory arrives in what seems like a totally empty world. But then something wonderful happens.
They all listened. In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard.
As the lion’s song swells, the blackness overhead suddenly comes ablaze with stars. And the stars have voices too and join in the song. Soon the first day of Narnia finally dawns and grass and trees and animals spring up. And all the while the voice of Aslan continues to sing, bringing life to the world. J.R.R. Tolkien does something similar in The Silmarillion where the supreme deity Ilúvatar creates Middle-earth out of a symphony of “endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony.” But then the created being Melkor weaves in a dark melody of his own, seeking to increase his own power and corrupting the world in the process. Not all music, apparently, is created equal. It can be used for evil as well as good. Though, Tolkien suggests that evil cannot create anything new, but can only twist and distort the good creation that already exists.
If music is powerful, it follows that it can also be dangerous. The Sirens of Greek mythology attract sailors with their song and lure them to a watery grave. The villain in the animated film Tangled has to sing her spell for it to take effect and the 2005 version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has the faun Mr. Tumnus play his pan flute to enchant and ensnare his guest, the unsuspecting girl named Lucy. Music affects us and transports us to somewhere new. But what if it takes us somewhere we don’t want to go? Just as words have the power to either uplift or discourage, to bring comfort or distress, different pieces of music can have vastly different affects. The often discordant music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg can be a chore to listen to. But there is also plenty of catchy music out there that isn’t worth our time either. In the short story "Each in His Own Tongue," author Lucy Maud Montgomery writes that those who play music have the responsibility to use their gift well and to "never debase it to unworthy ends." Both the makers of music and its listeners must tread carefully. Not all music is the best for our well-being.
But we shouldn’t let that truth destroy our appreciation of music altogether. Sigmund Freud, famous for attributing much of human activity to the workings of the unconscious mind, looked upon music with great suspicion. He recognized that works of art have a “powerful effect” on people, and so when contemplating literature or sculpture he would focus on analyzing how they produced such an effect. But he could not do the same with music. Freud knew that music affected him to the core, but he was at a loss when it came to explaining why. He writes, “Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.” And so he set music aside. I have a feeling that Dr. Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, would have found fault with our university psychiatrist’s lecture on exercise and music.
I once went to a play called Dr. Freud’s Last Session. The play is a fictionalized meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis in which these two intellectual giants engage in a friendly battle of wits, debating topics such as human suffering, mortality, and the existence of God. Lewis appeals to beauty and the imagination, while Freud dismisses his thinking as pure fantasy. The two are repeatedly interrupted by radio reports of the impending clash between England and Germany which would become World War II. But whenever music comes on the radio, Freud is quick to turn it off. He doesn’t care to have his mind affected by such things. I will always remember the ending of the play when Freud and Lewis have finished bringing forth their best arguments and they go their separate ways. Freud is left alone in his study, listening to the radio. Except this time when the music comes on he doesn’t turn it off. He waits. He listens. The audience is invited to listen too. Invited, I think, to be swept away by a thing more beautiful than can be put into words.
We need the magic of music in our lives. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare writes how music is embedded in the fabric of the universe. The character Lorenzo describes how the stars and planets above sing and make “sweet harmony” as they move across the golden “floor of heaven.” Though we cannot hear this heavenly music with our ears, nevertheless “such harmony is in immortal souls.” We need music because it speaks to a part of our inner being. It's hard to imagine life without it. Charles Darwin writes of a significant regret in his autobiography. Nearing the end of his life, he laments how he can no longer find pleasure in works of art such as Shakespeare and music in general. He says that “if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.” Is it because there are some truths that only music can express? Perhaps we, like the elderly woman in Lucy Maud Montgomery's short story, cannot grasp certain truths we've heard all our lives until we allow their music to sink deep down into ourselves.
We live in a world of discord. A place plagued by suffering and death. At some level we recognize that the world is out of tune. As Tolkien understood it, the good creation has been corrupted. Melkor’s theme has infiltrated every area of our lives, obscuring the beauty of the world. And yet, not all is lost. In The Silmarillion Melkor’s great effort to drown out the music of Ilúvatar is of no avail. Because in the end Ilúvatar takes Melkor’s discordant music and reshapes it back into his own melody, resulting in a piece of music “more wonderful” than ever before. What Melkor means for evil, Ilúvatar uses for good.
Think of the way a line of music works. It is full of different notes and chords moving us from dissonance towards resolution. On its own a dissonant note sounds wrong. But then the next note comes and suddenly it sounds right. In the context of the song as a whole it fits perfectly. We know that a piece of music will keep going because its unresolved notes hold us in suspense. And we can hear when a song ends not just because the notes come to a stop, but because that dissonance gets resolved in the final notes.
Tolkien's writings often have a bittersweet quality to them, but that does not make them any less beautiful. What could be more beautiful than broken people carrying on in the midst of sorrow, wounded and yet persevering together? If we find things sounding discordant and out of tune now, perhaps that means we’re still in the middle of the song. What comes next may yet catch us unawares as the symphony unfolds its magic. For now we wait, listening for when the discord in our world will finally be healed.
David Raphael Hilder
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