03 August 2009


When we are one

While researchers continue to study it, no one is yet sure why music moves us—how we can be affected emotionally by timed sequences of sounds. But we are. And while I play rock drums and love me some guitar, in my life, the most affecting music has been live, vocal, and collective.

Here's what I mean. One of the most astonishing things I've ever heard was the student choir at Magee, the high school where my wife teaches. Years ago I attended one of their concerts. They are, and have long been, an excellent choir. You can get a tiny sense of it from this video, but the sound doesn't do it justice (plus, Christmas carols in August sound weird):

That's a pale simulation of the true experience, though. At that concert years ago, held in the school's old auditorium, the singing was enveloping, and overpowering, from a full-size choir onstage. I almost cried from the sound alone.

Here's another example that had me getting teary for no good reason:

Thanks to Darren for the link.

Those of us who were around in the '80s best remember Bobby McFerrin from his annoying novelty song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." But he is a powerful and innovative jazz singer, who is at his best when co-opting audiences. When he does that, when the audience sings along as a mass of voices, I lose it. I nearly cried right now as I listened to the audience come in on "Ave Maria" at the link I just posted—and again at the end:

So beautiful. There's no way I could have held it in if I had been there.

I can think of other instances: Celso Machado and the crowd I was in at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre more than 15 years ago, or a packed-full B.C. Place Stadium singing the end of U2's "40" ("How long/To sing this song...") long after the band had left the stage in 1987. You get the idea.

Whatever the reasons we evolved to love music, one of its benefits is how it joins us. When you sing with a group, or even if you're just there when one is singing well, you become part of that group in a way that's almost impossible by any other means. You could be singing "Ave Maria" with McFerrin, or chanting "Die! Die! Die!" with Metallica, but when it happens, you're all one. We're all one.

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There are a number of songs that have that effect on me, including "Over and Over" by Wilson Philips, "Forbidden Colours" by Ryiuchi Sakamoto and David Sylvian, and "Sola Sistim" by Underworld.

I remain as puzzled as you as to the reason why I cry with the above mentioned songs.
I was walking home from work tonight thinking about this exact thing. What is it that draws me to certain types of music? I generally decide within seconds of hearing a new song whether I like it or not and nothing can change my mind.

Most of the songs that make me cry are because of the lyrics though.
I think it's an interesting bit of convergent evolution in the sense that we are the only primate who seems to have an emotional affinity for complex harmonics, as opposed to the cacophonic choruses of howler monkeys, canines, or frogs. So many birds on the other hand, sharing only a pre-dinosaur ancestor with us, have a vocal sophistication that we are not naturally equipped to even fully recognize. What was the environment where our ancestors bred more effectively by being able to sing and appreciate singing?
And then there are whales, whose singing often goes both higher and lower than we can even detect.
I got tears in my eyes while singing soprano in "Cantique de Jean Racine" by Fauré. It's somewhat stupid to get all teary eyed while singing.

There's a lot of religious music that does me in. That's rather strange when you're not religious at all. But then again that music was made to have that effect on people.
Forgot to add: Faithless' "We come one" refers to this feeling of course.
When human voices unite, its like a punch in the head (but a good one). It demands attention. It speaks directly to something primal.

And Francis, you say "Faithless", and *boom* I'm right there, teary eyed and choked up. They do it to me a lot. "God is a DJ", especially.