Music Medicine

Over the past year, I watched Mike, one of my best friends, die of a brain tumor. In the midst of this misery, I came to think about things that make life worth living. Foremost is love, of course, but after that comes music.

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Music is a nondiscursive joy, like a view of mountains on a clear-blue day, that pulls one into the moment. To experience music is to forget everything else, to be here now.

I say “experience” music rather than “listen to” music. Like most people, I enjoy listening to music; it provides a tempo and background melody to daily life. Familiar music reminds me of moments in my life, some sweet and some bitter. Certain songs remind me of what it was like to be in love. Other songs recall catharses. But to experience music is to get inside of it, to be consumed by its passion, to live and die with its notes and the spaces between them, to be oblivious to everything else.

To be consumed this way, I need to enlarge the music, to make it so big that I can’t escape it, and this requires volume. I need to hear only the music – not the refrigerator, not the traffic outside, not even the stray thoughts that flash across my brain like meteorites.images (3)

If the music is familiar and loved, I can move around in it, anticipating the next note or rest or melody. If the music is new to me, I let it carry me along, delighting in the journey, marveling at the course it takes and the joy it brings.

Here’s an example: there’s a moment in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, after the first chorus, as the echoes of the voices fade, the bass viols begin a low rhythm and then, gradually, the violins begin a motif. In this short passage, the only percussion is a triangle. Behind the delicate sound of that one triangle, I sense the huge potential power of the full orchestra and chorus, waiting for their cue.



Another example I love is in Leo Kottke’s “Morning Is the Long Way Home.” As his fingers move up and down the frets of his 12-string guitar at superhuman speed, there’s a one-beat pause before he glissandos down the neck; it’s like getting just to the top of the roller-coaster ride: almost stopped, but anticipating the reckless descent that’s about to begin.images (4)


And when it’s over, for one moment I can bask in its last echoing notes as I remember the beauty that has passed through me. Gradually, in a sort of liebestod, I return to the world, to my worries and cares, but refreshed by the joy of those moments when I surrendered to the music, when I was along for the ride.


My friend Mike loved music in much the same way. And when I listen to a piece we both loved, I experience it for both of us, for the joy and wonder that transcends the pain.


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–David Roach

David Roach lives in Faber, Virginia, where he experiences music, reads, and works part-time as a computer systems analyst. He grew up (and old) in Silver Spring, Maryland, and was educated at Washington College and The American University. He recently moved to Virginia to be closer to his extended family.

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