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Emotional Music

November 10, 2013

Earlier today I went out to dinner with family to celebrate my aunt’s birthday.  We all went to a restaurant that’s about an hour-long drive away.  On the ride back to town I was talking with my mother about emotion in music.  She finds Chinese meditation music very peaceful and has always been amazed how music has emotion embedded within it.  As you listen to it, it can change your own emotional state.  I’ve experienced this many times, but it only happens with certain songs and melodies.  Not everything evokes strong emotion from me, but I want to share some things that do.

This first song is by The Maine – I Must Be Dreaming.  The lyrics and melody both remind me of a girl I liked in high school.  It’s almost like it takes me back to that time.  It’s innocent teenage love, a feeling you had toward your first big crush or girlfriend.  A very warm and fuzzy song.  I just sort of smile and say, “That was nice.”

A lot of music revolves love and passion.  This next song’s lyrics are about a man who misses a woman who’s broken contact with him due to unrequited love, but I think the emotion within the song’s melody is more generally about missing a dear friend or loved one.  Longing.  I could easily see the lyrics rewritten around a mother lamenting her lost son, asking him to come home.  I find it really moving.

I’ve always loved this next song.  Anyone who’s ever broken off the main path and attempted something of their own knows what this song is about.  Life is a difficult place and things don’t always work out the way you want them to.  Many of us (myself included), have spent time on projects and other endeavors which never amounted to much.  You can learn a lot from failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, especially if you worked really hard on something, yet, everything fails in the end.  You get the Highway 40 Blues.

Well, these Highway Forty blues,
I’ve walked holes in both my shoes.
Counted the days since I’ve been gone,
And I’d love to see the lights of home.
Wasted time and money too;
Squandered youth in search of truth.
But in the end I had to lose,
Lord above, I’ve paid my dues.
Got the Highway Forty blues. 

The highway called when I was young,
Told me lies of things to come.
Fame and fortune lies ahead! 
That’s what the billboard lights had said.
Shattered dreams, my mind is numb, 
My money’s gone, stick out my thumb.
My eyes are filled with bitter tears, 
Lord, I ain’t been home in years.
Got the Highway Forty blues.

The song seems to be specifically geared toward musicians.  We live in a world where the lights and billboards tell us about success and the American Dream.  Television is full of stars and celebrities showing off their big homes and wealth.  We hear their success stories, and how they had to stick to it.  I heard Michael Bolton had to keep singing for nearly twenty years before ever had any real success.  In the meantime, they struggled in poverty.

What they don’t mention is that any success at all is rare.  Many of my family members are musicians and they’ve pursued their dreams of making a living as music artists.  They slowly acquire music equipment, even record their own cds.  They go out and play gig after gig, but nothing really comes of it.  For a long time, they believe fame and fortune lies ahead, but in the end they had to lose.  Now their mind is numb, they’re sticking out their thumb, eyes filled with bitter tears.

This next song is by Chet Atkins – I Still Can’t Say Goodbye.  The emotion comes primarily from the lyrics.  I’ve had tears roll down my face listening to this song.  It embodies a man’s love for his father and grandfather, if he had a loving family.  All of the lyrics remind me of my Dad and grandpa.  It starts off, “When I was young, my Dad would say, come on son let’s go out and play.  Sometimes it seems like yesterday.”  I remember my father grabbing my football and he’d get on our back deck and throw me long bombs way off into the back yard.  The deck was high off the ground and I was probably fifty yards away.  He’d throw them as high as he could in the air and and I’d run after them, like punt returns.   Then I’d throw the ball back up to him and we’d do it again and again.

Other times I remember my grandfather coming over when I was a kid.  He worked at the power plant and always seemed to have a different hat on his head.  He’d take them off, adjust the strap in the back and say, “Hey Jay-man”, and put them on my head.  Always smiling.

“He always took care of Mom and me … We all all cut down a Christmas tree.  He always had some time for me.”  Dad always looked out for all of us.  The song’s about your father dying, and you looking back.  I admire art like this.  It’s simple yet brings out strong emotion.  It also reminds you what’s important.

A lot of video games have powerful soundtracks.  I’ve loved the Final Fantasy video game series since I was a young kid, though I haven’t been a huge fan of the FF-XIII games.  This next song, ironically, is from FF-XIII.  I’m not sure what word to put on this feeling, as it’s not a simple emotion.  I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t feel the emotion in this next song.  I’ve actually had discussions with people about this track in particular and they don’t feel anything at all.  It has no lyrics, so all of the emotion is in the melody.

Maybe they lack experiences in their life which would allow them to understand or feel this emotion?  I can try to describe the sorts of situations in which it would arise.  Imagine returning to a place from your childhood, a place where you have really fond memories, but everything’s run down.  It could happen while visiting a parent’s grave after they’ve been dead and gone a long time.  Or imagine seeing something precious to you completely destroyed, yet there’s nothing you could’ve done to stop it.  I think the event has to be “distant” in time for this emotion to happen.

This particular track deeply resonates with experiences I’ve had.   Notice how it drags just like sadness, yet the background vocals are very beautiful and powerful.  It’s lonely but not weak.  It’s not warm.  It’s cold and austere.  It’s not despair.  It’s more of a pressing through adversity in a really dark time.

If you need contrast, this last song is one a deep despair.  It was sent to me by a younger woman I met many years ago when she was really depressed.  I’ve never experienced despair of this level.  I don’t think I’m able to relate to this level of depression and I can’t understand all of the lyrics.  It’s obvious it’s about suffering and pain, but take this section of the song.

And you don’t seem the lying kind 
A shame then I can read your mind 
And all the things that I read there 
Candle lit smile that we both share 
and you know I don’t mean to hurt you 
But you know that it means so much 
And you don’t even feel a thing 

All I can come up with is it’s about some form of rejection.  Two people get together and one person is far more emotionally involved than the other.  I’m not sure.

All of the other music I’ve shared resonates with me in some way, or brings out emotions I’ve personally experienced.  This is too dark.  I hear it and imagine myself in a dark, dirty room, and glass shards slowly cut my hands and blood rolls down my arms.  It’s too dark.  It’s lonely, confusing, and really bleak.  It comes from a soundtrack to a really strange Japanese anime called Serial Experiments Lain.  I watched the whole series out of curiosity.  Very bizarre.  It’s about some young girl who turns out to be a strange god in her own created cyber-universe, but she slowly comes to realize it.

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