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Music is essential to self-knowledge

Peter H. Wolf Guest Columnist

I recently read an article on effective liberal arts education. It emphasized the need to be familiar with the great books of literature in order to truly know oneself.

I thought it couldn’t just be books. what about music Isn’t music more original? I am moved to comment, in words so inadequate for such a task, what music means to me personally. Who am I to add? On the other hand, maybe I’m too immodest not to try.

There is almost no major exposure to stunning music during the holiday season any year. Christmas carols are deep, melodious, gorgeous, plentiful – to the point where their familiarity makes your eyes water. This intimacy comes, I believe, from childhood pre-recollections of Christmas and Santa Claus.

Rhythm and music are so old! They come from the primitive roots of mankind. Is it innate? older than that?

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As a former resident of the Chesapeake Bay area, I’m well acquainted with the steady, throbbing rhythm of all too many summer stinging jellyfish. This is how one of the earliest evolutionary incarnations of multicellular life moves and feeds.

We progress to the rhythm of life of the heartbeat and breathing of higher animals. Even insects that circulate air directly through their bodies rather than through a heart-pumping blood supply must breathe rhythmically with their abdomens.

There is the slower rhythm of vegetation imposed on much of it by annual seasonal changes.

The rhythm flows easily into dance, song and communication. Many participate together – not just one at a time as when reading a book, even if the literature is ‘essential’. Maybe that’s why music wasn’t mentioned in the article I read – because, unlike writing or reading, it’s innate.

Sound octaves are innate because each higher octave is exactly twice the frequency of the previous one. Humans have divided octaves into steps from pentatonic (corresponding to the five black keys on a piano) to heptatonic, diatonic, chromatic; with whole steps, half steps, major and minor – pretty technical stuff! However, music has easily understood components of pitch, harmony, texture, tempo, sequence, and volume.

Writing here as a participant in western civilization, I’m used to strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion – all the brilliant sounds of an orchestra. Orchestral ensembles date from the early 17th century. Who hasn’t heard of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms? Beethoven couldn’t grasp the symphonic form either when he added voices and a choir to the last movement of his ninth symphony. Camille Saint-Saëns did the same with an organ in his third symphony. Both let the heart race in windswept freedom of form.

Think of the music types: Voice, Singing, Choir, Choir, Solo Instrument, Chamber, Concert, Orchestra, Ballet, March, Opera, Operetta, Musical Theater, Country, Swing, Barber Shop, Jazz, Rock ‘n Roll, Go-Go, Hip hop. Unfortunately, I can’t understand the words of some modern pieces of music. But I don’t understand the words about the opera either! And yet I love it.

There is so much that thrives with music. It is so constant in films, for example, that its absence can give an emphasis to the plot. Even silent films were accompanied by a dedicated pianist at the local theater. Music is an intimate part of worship. There are military bands and drums.

Music can be therapeutic. I have a granddaughter who was educated in this field. In her words, “We have harnessed the power of music and combined it with modern medicine because it is the most universal language of cultures.” Music can bring a devastated brain to normal, if only temporarily.

It is a privilege that music is such an intimate and integral part of our lives. Composers live on in memory and performance until immortality. Thanks to them for resolving what is innate in us into lasting memory. Yes, just as familiarity with the great books of literature is necessary to truly know yourself, so, I believe, is musical appreciation.



Peter H. Wolf is a retired trial judge from the District of Columbia residing in Winston-Salem.

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