Why Music Still Matters

It’s easy at a time like this to start viewing music as trivial, as inessential, as disposable; as something we can cancel and forget. The last few months have been tough. They’ve delayed tours, eliminated annual festivals from the calendar, and left artists unable even to play bars for half-attentive audiences—let alone arenas for hordes of fans. They’ve cleared concert halls, halted opera and symphony seasons, and shut the lights down on Broadway. They’ve made album release days feel almost frivolous, because how can we spend our days talking about or digesting new music when the world seems to be falling apart around us? They’ve caused music writers in my Twitter feed to ponder out loud whether their jobs have meaning or relevance at a time like this. Amazon indirectly labeled books and music as inessential by calling a temporary halt to shipments of physical media like vinyl and CDs.

And yet, in other ways, the past four months have underlined why music matters so much. People in countries like Italy and Spain were quarantined and locked down, unable to interact with one another or even leave their homes. They found solace, connection, and communal emotion by playing or singing together from their balconies. We’ve perhaps never been so cognizant of the physical distances between us. I certainly can’t recall another situation where keeping apart from others was not just a personal choice but a mandate. And yet, music has been forging invisible bridges across those gaps in the air, allowing hearts and voices and melodies to join even in a year where “social distancing” has become a part of our collective vocabulary.

When I was in music school, one of the most oft-shared links on Facebook by my fellow students was a speech given by Karl Paulnack (then director of music at Boston Conservatory) to the parents of an incoming freshman class. It’s a document I have returned to repeatedly in the years since, even as my own dreams of becoming a professional musician ended and my days in music school drew to a close. I read it every year or so, and cry every time. In the speech, Paulnack talks about the mistaken assumptions that many people make about music: that it is just “arts and entertainment”; that pursuing it as a career is a waste of good SAT scores and great potential; that music is a “luxury” or a “plaything” that we “fund from leftovers in our budgets.” In his speech, though, Paulnack asserts that music is something much more: a “basic need of human survival.” It is in times like the one we are living in that we prove him right.

One of several anecdotes that Paulnack discusses in his address is about the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who lived from 1908 to 1992. Messiaen was drafted into the French army during World War II and ended up being captured and sent to a POW camp by the Germans. It was in the camp that Messiaen crafted his most famous composition, fittingly titled “Quartet for the End of Time.” The debut performance of this vaunted masterwork was for an audience of guards and fellow prisoners, with Messiaen on piano and the only other three musicians in the camp handling the parts he’d written for them, on clarinet, violin, and cello. The fact that this music even exists is remarkable. How is it possible that we were given this transmission from one of the deepest pits of human cruelty and suffering?

”Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music?” Paulnack asks of Messiaen’s story. “There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture. Why would anyone bother with music? And yet, from the camps, we have poetry; we have music; we have visual art. It wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen. Many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival. Art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, ‘I am alive, and my life has meaning.'”

Music has been one of the most important things in my life since I was 12 years old. I doubt a day has gone by since then when I haven’t thought about it, or listened to it, or sang it, or played it. It has been a constant companion in times good and bad, but it’s telling that the moments in my life where music has meant the most—where its presence has felt most vital—were the same moments where it felt like almost everything else was spinning out of control. It was in my times of fear and doubt and regret and heartbreak and sadness and grief that music reminded me that my heart was still beating; that I wasn’t alone; that the sun would shine again. On certain occasions, like in the days after my grandfather passed away, music even felt like it was playing a supernatural role – like it was reaching through the limits of time and space, and life and death, and bringing me peace from a place that no physical being can visit or see.

Right now, we are facing a tremendous test – a hurdle bigger, I would imagine, than anything most of us have experienced in our lives. Despair is the easiest emotion to feel right now. I myself have succumbed to it several times in the past few months, as the fear, uncertainty, and constant cloud of bad news surrounding the people I love began to seem insurmountable. As always tends to happen in bad times, the minutes and hours have appeared to elongate, each bringing a new form of punishment. Music has been a salve for me throughout this period. Songs I know like the back of my hand have been there to calm me—to remind me of better times and to assure me that those better times aren’t gone forever. New music has been there to engage me and to take my mind off of the storm clouds outside my window. A mix of both has provided the soundtrack to my long runs, as I pushed my heart rate higher and higher in some crazy attempt to outrun the darkness on the edge of town. Most of all, music has rescued me from my own despair and reminded me to be resilient.

Toward the end of his address, Paulnack proclaims that musicians aren’t entertainers; not really. More often, they’re like rescue workers, or maybe “therapists for the human soul.” “If we were a medical school,” he says, “and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2am, someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8pm, someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.”

And so, to artists, I say this: don’t disappear; don’t stop the livestreams or the AMAs or the social media engagement; don’t delay your album releases, even though now might seem like the worst possible time to promote something. We need you right now. We need you to be there to help us make sense of the world, and of the lives we are living. We need your songs to offer reminders that this too shall pass, or welcoming shoulders to cry on at the end of the bad days. We need to be able to hear a lyric or verse and ask, “How did this person know that about my life?” It’s in times like these that music really saves people; reminds them that they aren’t alone; brings them together, even if it’s from afar. Someday soon, we’ll see each other again—in a bar or a club or an arena or a stadium—and we’ll all sing together, loudly. Until then, know we’re still out here, and we’re still listening.