Musical Interlude

September 25, 2015

Humans are capable of creating works of astounding beauty. One expression of this beauty is through music. In James Cameron's film Titanic (1997), the band members choose to play music while the rest of the people panic, run for lifeboats or reconcile themselves to the fate of the ship. Their performance speaks of selflessness, of a search for beauty, of a connection with something larger than ourselves. Do impromptu performances help to remind us of beauty and culture at moments when we least expect, and perhaps most need it?

Maria Popova of has recently discussed the transcendence of music on a number of blogs. She often cites Oliver Sacks who also felt music's power in times of need. We would like to reinforce this idea through some contemporary, literary and film references. Not only can music affect an individual and create a perfectly transcendent moment, but it also has the power to move entire communities.

A literary depiction of the power of music comes from The Iliad. In Book 18, Thetis asks Hephaestas to form a shield for Achilles. On it, he places a variety of images that encompass society, some images of trouble and some of celebration. The final scene of the shield, however, is very telling. It reads,

On it the renowned lame god embellished
A dancing ground, like the one Daedalus
Made for ringleted Ariadne in wide Cnossus.
Young men and girls in the prime of their beauty
Were dancing there, hands clasped around wrists.
The girls wore delicate linens, and the men
Finespun tunics glistening softly with oil.
Flowers crowned the girls’ heads, and the men
Had golden knives hung from silver straps.
They ran on feet that knew how to run
With the greatest of ease, like a potter’s wheel
When he stoops to cup it in the palms of his hands
And gives it a spin to see how it runs. Then they
Would run in lines that weaved in and out.
A large crowd stood round the beguiling dance,
Enjoying themselves, and two acrobats
Somersaulted among them on cue to the music.

Times of war or disaster often create an atmosphere when humans need proof of something greater, of some hope. And music, in some ways, fills this gap. In recent months, a Syrian refugee, Ayham Ahmad salvaged a piano and brought music to many in his refugee camp. This video shows children singing with joy and emotion amid the destruction and devastation of their current situation.  Music's power inexplicably creates community at times of great need.

Why do we pause upon hearing an old hymn or a beloved song? Part of the beauty of music is that it transcends time, allows us to leap into the past, to see people and places that we have not seen in ages. Music transports people through ages and cultures. In this clip, the Opera Company of Philadelphia leads “A random act of culture” by singing “Hallelujah” in a Macy's department store during a busy holiday shopping day.  Look up any other flash mob and you will find that people's reactions are nearly always the same: confusion, awe and joy. Beauty is an essential element of the human psyche and allows us to connect with others. Music is only one, very powerful, avenue on the path to beauty.


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