Musical Musings

When you get to know people, there are some very typical steps: You can ask them where they come from, what their family is like, do they have any hobbies, do they have any talents—and so on. The question that intrigues me the most these days is about peoples’ favorite music, artist, or genre. Music speaks to our emotions, but also deeper to a place in our will that we can’t express in words. As Pieper discusses the depth of music to the human person’s existence in his book Only the Lover Sings, he quotes Schopenhauer: “…music does not speak of things, but tells of weal and woe.” [1] By “weal and woe,” he means the will and emotions, and these things we can’t always express in words.

When I was in high school, I got my first iPod, which provided a huge improvement in technology for listening to music. Before then, we had CD players, and so you were limited to buying albums of artists and had a CD collection if you were lucky. The iPod allowed you to store music in a manner much more compact, and also gave you the freedom to choose a few songs from different albums and make playlists of different songs. Being a teenager, a few of my playlists were grouped as “Love Songs,” “Anger Music,” “Classical” and “Disney.” Each of these playlists corresponded to emotions I felt most often, or things I desired so deeply at that time. As time had passed, I have added several songs and new playlists that also correspond to new emotions or desires I was experiencing. I always observed that music heightened and/or soothed the emotions I was experiencing, more so than any other way I could find to express them.

When other people would try to get to know me, I would tell them that they could look through my iPod. They would find a range of different artists and genres of music, and each one had a significance to it. Maybe some song corresponded to that time my best friends and I created a music video to Miley Cyrus’ song “The Climb,” or that time I choreographed my first ballet—and even that time I went through deep sorrow following a traumatic event. I could continue to express myself and understand my feelings through all of these songs by the way they took me out of my initial situation and helped me find contemplation and peace. There was peace even when listening to punk rock when I was angry, and that was because I was able to feel. No matter what, I knew that listening to music always gave me a place to express myself in a way that is hard to explain in words.

This is not to say that one’s identity is found in listening to music. Something very deep connected my self-understanding to the music I listened to. Pieper describes this reality as a “wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey towards ethical personhood, as the manifestation of the man’s will in all its aspects, as love.” [2] There is something so striking about this statement: that the human person is so complex and beautiful that human expression is found in all the senses to varying degrees. Plato understood this well and describes music as that which “imitates the impulses of the soul.” [3]  Even Nietzsche understood this deep relationship, saying that “music allows us to hear nature transformed into love.” [4] This is not to say that music can’t be used for less than these lofty goods I’ve described, but Pieper ends his writing on music with a warning, and this warning I will leave you with to ponder: “We observe this all with great alarm, aware that music lays bare man’s inner existential condition, removing veil and facade (and it cannot be otherwise), while this same inner condition receives from music the most direct impulses, for better or worse.” [5]

Written by Rebecca Bruch, a current intern at the WYA North America office.

[1] Pieper, Josef. Only The Lover Sings. World Youth Alliance Certified Training Program. p. 176-181. p.178.

[2] Ibid. p.179.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p.181.