Victor Hugo once wrote, “Music expresses that which cannot be said but cannot remain silent.”
Indeed, when setting up my Facebook profile all the way back in 2007, when asked to list my favourite quotes, I immediately went and googled “Quotes about music” and Hugo’s ended up being my first quote. I have a very strong, powerful relationship with music.
I know I’m not unique in that regard, given how many of my friends are musicians (most of them better than I). But where I do feel I am slightly rarer as a specimen is the way I think and the way I approach the world. Put simply, I’m not what you’d call ‘normal’. Nobody is, of course, but I seem to have strayed from the path of accepted ‘normality’ a little more than most. It’s plain for me to see that I don’t make friends in the same way as other people, nor do I form relationships the same way. I try, but I think I ultimately have a slightly different approach. Equally, in my mental state: I’ve been suffering from some form of depression or other pretty much since I was about 12. My circumstances haven’t enough to provoke that, nor have they been constant enough to count as a factor, and so it must be something intrinsic to me. I overthink things. I resent and obsess over things I shouldn’t.* My assessment of how my own mind works could probably fill volumes, and that’s not the point of this post, so I’ll leave that to suffice.
*And before you think, “oh, everyone thinks that about themselves,” believe me, there’s some pretty solid empirical evidence in my own life that does set me sadly apart.
My point is that, while I’m far from unique in connecting to music, I think I’m uncommon in how much value I put in the music that I listen to. It’s worth more to me than anything. I often used to come across as thin-skinned and sensitive when people would talk smack about the music I listened to, and the only response I could give, to my family, to my friends, to my bullies, was, “you don’t know what it’s done for me.” That often didn’t suffice, because they didn’t know, nor understand – and indeed, it’s very hard to explain.
Music (especially listening, but also playing) gives a sense of meaning to my life that I simply cannot find anywhere else. Indeed, as Henry David Thoreau said (my other first ever Facebook quote about music): “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe.” Music – and so in some way, the voices of Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson, James Hetfield et al, and the lilting guitars of Ritchie Blackmore and Randy Rhoads – has carried me through my darkest moments, in a sense that not even my best friends and parents can compare to. When my school peers started a Facebook page to bully me online (that still exists), I sat and listened to ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Fear of the Dark’ until I fell asleep. When I couldn’t continue with the Cambridge Water Polo team, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ was there for me. During a particularly heavy bout of loneliness and relationship issues, Tom Petty was telling me “You don’t have to live like a refugee”. Equally, during the best times of my life, the music is what has been there, where people haven’t, necessarily.* After my final A-level exam, I can’t even tell you whether I went home, celebrated with friends immediately afterwards, or what, but I do know that I immediately went and listened to Dio’s ‘Invisible’. My 18th birthday was probably the best day of my life, and I know that I started it with Anthrax’s cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘I’m Eighteen’, and have listened to that every year on my birthday ever since. Indeed, I have pages and pages’ worth of playlists detailing what I was listening to at which point in my life. Music is not only how I recreate these experiences and memories, but it was part of what made them so special in the first place.
*I’m not at all saying this is a failing on the part of the people, but simply that music is on another level entirely.
And when I say that music provides “meaning”, I don’t mean that the artists’ lyrics in particular are what speak to me – in fact, almost the opposite. Indeed, Ronnie James Dio, the artist I ‘connect’ to most of all, is famous for his “word-soup” – that is, forming songs out of pretty nonsensical lyrics that sound like they might mean something. Take a few examples:
“We don’t come alone
We are fire, we are stone
We’re the hand that writes and quickly moves away
We’ll know for the first time
If we’re evil or divine,
We’re the last in line”
(The Last In Line)
“Yell with the wind, though the wind won’t help you fly at all
Your back’s to the wall
Chain the sun, and it tears away and it breaks you as you run,
You run, you run”
And, most famously:
“Holy diver, you’ve been down too long in the midnight sea,
Oh what’s becoming of me?
Ride the tiger, you can see his stripes but you know he’s clean
Oh don’t you see what I mean?”
These don’t exactly have a strong political or moral message. But I feel, really strongly, that they speak to me nevertheless. Where there’s no clear meaning, I still find a way to draw meaning out of it, because, at the very least, someone is speaking to me and it’s clear they’ve got something to say. I still do love music with a strong political/social message – Bad Religion is my hot topic at the moment (see Kyoto Now! for an example) – but at the same time I will still find equal purpose in Megadeth, even though Dave Mustaine’s now a Born-Again conservative who refuses to play festivals with bands whose names offend him.
This is because it’s not just the lyrics that provide the meaning, whether clear or inferred: it’s the music itself. As Hugo said, the music is saying something. I don’t know what, but it’s saying it loud and clear. This is why I feel it applies to more than just my own relationship with heavy metal and hard rock, but to listening to any music really, provided you can build a rapport with it.* Hence why I will still listen to Megadeth despite Mustaine’s political stance, and why, provided you’re focused on the inherent value of the music rather than the people playing it, you can probably justify still listening to Lostprophets. For me, Megadeth in particular stands out as an example, as Dave Mustaine is just so clever as a guitarist and songwriter (example). If you actually sit down and listen to exactly what the guitars are doing, and how they interact with the bass and drums to create an overall picture far beyond any single instrument, it feels exactly like someone telling me a story with fully-formed sentences. Mustaine himself wrote in his autobiography that speaking with another musician creates another level of relationships between two people; it’s a completely new language, a new form of communication entirely. You both share the same understanding of something that can’t be put into words, but which can’t remain silent. I feel equally inspired when listening to a Sondheim song about chrysanthemum tea as when listening to Anthrax about Judge Dredd; they both have this intrinsic connection and shared understanding of this thing called ‘Music’.
This is how I feel when I listen to the music I love. Every power chord, every choice to add in a 9th, every time the vocalist chooses to bite down on his words or ring them out, it says something to me. It means something to me.
*There are, unfortunately, some types of music that I just can’t build a rapport with. That is to say, I think they suck, but I’ll readily acknowledge that they mean a hell of a lot to other people. Still, sorry modern pop and dubstep; you’ve got nothing to offer me.
And here’s the real clincher: the music’s not going to go away, and there’s lifetimes’ worth of music out there to go and listen to. This means that, even though it’s entirely possible, and reasonable, to get bored of listening to For Whom The Bell Tolls every day, no matter how good it is (sorry to my old carpool schoolmate), there’s doubtless new music that you can discover that is equally inspiring and will tell the same unspoken truths. That’s why I’ve called this post ‘A New Lease Of Life’: the phrase struck me today as I was listening to Bad Religion, my new favourite band. Despite being a heavy rocker for years, it took me until 2014 to discover them, and 2015 to get really up to date on their discography. (This always happens: I listened to Black Sabbath for about 2 years before I could really get into their third album, ‘Master of Reality’, but when I did…) I’m really into BR right now, and just like all the music I’ve engaged with before, I’m feeling a deep, powerful connection. I’m finding truth, and purpose, in their music, and it’s a feeling I had been short on for a bit until I discovered them.
That’s not to say that all music eventually exhausts its purpose if you listen to it too much. I find I’m going back and revisiting songs I was listening to in 2009 now, and they come across just as powerful; perhaps even more so thanks to the memories I now have that are interwoven with the music. There is just a specific joy in falling in love with new bands in particular: music may bring me willpower in general, but it’s particularly reinvigorating to find that there exists yet more music to connect to.
What I’ve basically been getting at throughout this post is how valuable music really is to me. I don’t mean to compare it to my relationships with people, as they are two very different entities, but I’ve found that I can engage with music at a core level that I find much harder to do with people. Every piece of music, if I can build a rapport with it, provides me with inspiration, a deep and indescribable purpose and unspoken truths. Music can banish the darkest thoughts and enhance the best memories. Whether it’s simply a new song that I’m connecting to or a new band that I can fully ally myself to, every musical experience really does provide a new lease of life. And there’ll always be music, so I’ll always find meaning.