The Power of Music

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So the past two days, being stuck inside and dealing with 28+ inches of snow, I had the opportunity to indulge myself by watching the U.S. Figure Skating championships. I loved watching figure skating growing up – In elementary school I had a crush on a girl what was a figure skater, and we even went and saw Dorothy Hamill on her national tour celebrating her Olympic win. Nancy Kerrigan, Kristy Yamaguchi, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Michelle Kwan – I followed all of them, and watching the figure skaters at the winter Olympics with my wife and kids is always great family fun.

Of course, like with movies, TV shows, anything with music, I can’t help but go into analytic mode – I am always evaluating, judging… – Those who know me are smirking right now, because they know much a part of my personality that is. I can’t help myself – I am always considering if the music is supporting the moment – it’s trying to manipulate me, why is it working, why are all the people around me crying…

I know the power music has to manipulate – said in a nicer way – to enhance and connect with the listener to heighten their experience. Just thinking about the latest Star Wars movie and the incredible effect John William’s score has on the viewer’s experience of the film is undeniable and worthy of a blog post unto itself – note to self…

Back to the figure skating – over these past two days, I was acutely aware of the power the music did or did not have on the audience, and I was frankly excited to hear the commentators talk about and recognize what an influential part of the performance the choice, and pacing of the music was in the success of the overall performance, and how the audience responded – falls or not.

There were some really beautiful and technically impressive performances. Those skaters/athletes/artists make it look so easy – I am in awe of what they do, for I can hardly even stand up on skates, let alone spin, jump or do a double combination triple lutz, triple toe-loop!

Music arouses emotions, feelings, and is more powerful that any language. Music is integral to every culture and is transcendent. Whether a solo voice or a full orchestra, music can be evocative, comforting, joyful, and overwhelming – “music stands halfway between thought and phenomenon (Heinrich Heine)

So how does it work? Daniel Levitin, in his book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession sums up music’s power this way:

“Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won’t. The thrills, the chills, and tears we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music” (pg. 111).

Bette Davis, in addition to being a tremendous actress, was acutely aware of the power of music. In the 1939 melodrama – Dark Victory, she played the part of a young, wealthy party girl, who dies of a brain tumor. At the climax of the movie, she ascends a staircase, to retire and ultimately die. – She knows it and the audience knows it. Bette Davis knew that this moment in the film would provide her the opportunity to be noticed for an Academy Award; it was her moment. She asked the director who would be scoring the movie. The answer came back – the great film score composer, Max Steiner – who, in 1933 changed movies forever by scoring King Kong, providing the first original full length score, and creating the opportunity for the audience empathize with the fate of a giant mechanical gorilla. She understood the power and value of a musical score, but feared its ability to outshine a performance.

“Well,” she declared, “either I am going up those stairs or Max Steiner is going up those stairs, but not the two of us together.”

Davis’ opinion was ignored… Ultimately, two Oscar nominations were earned in that scene – One for her and one for Steiner.

Such an outcome demonstrates the importance of music in film, and the power a soundtrack can have over audiences. I would take that farther and simply declare: the power of music to effect people’s emotions is incomparable.

Music is especially powerful when the audience experiencing it, WANTS to be moved. The audience at skating finals and watching them on television wants to connect – wants to be moved – and is thus willing, expecting, hoping to be manipulated.

Several of the skater’s musical choices were incredibly effective; some skated beautifully, but if the pacing and choices of music didn’t have an arch, a trajectory that connected with the audience, then the response to those performances was not as vigorous as those whose musical choices connected more effectively with the audience.

I know the power of music and as a composer, conductor and performer, I am always conscious about the arch and structure of every piece I compose, conduct or perform. I know how important this can be towards a successful connection with the audience. Some of the skaters, who have worked so hard to refine their skills and craft, should do the same – for all their hard work, supported by well chosen, paced and performed music could mean the different between silver or gold.

In the end, my son summed it all up in a simple question today – he asked, “Dad – why do they use so much music from Les Mis?!”



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