By Sophie Williams
“Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song is a thought you can feel.” E. Y. Harburg
Recently I told someone that I didn’t listen to any music for over a year because I didn’t want to feel anything.
I said it to make them laugh, which did happen. And it wasn’t meant to be that deep of a confession. The circumstances weren’t that deep, exactly. I was taking a few leave terms from college, and I started spending the majority of my listening time on audiobooks and podcasts. Without schoolwork and readings, I was looking for information. I had been reading, and when I started listening, it was exciting — even irresistible — to be learning so much so effortlessly. (And to be developing parasocial relationships with podcast hosts. Nima Shirazi, for example.)
I still listened to the Spare Rib playlists; I still played the guitar and started albums sometimes, and I went to church for the organ and the choir.
Still, maybe it was a truer exposé than I should’ve been speaking so lightly about. I was at home; I spent a lot of time by myself. And the times I did turn to music, instead of talking, would put me in an odd space. There is much to learn and think about, and it felt better to fill my head with new concepts and history, directly offered from others’ speaking voices, than to return to sounds I knew. (I think I considered music an experience, but not an education.) Podcasts deal with the world and other people. Music offered more space to have a self.
And there certainly were things I was avoiding feeling.
I did listen to music a few times. I’d be in the car, alone. A song would play. And I would try to think of how to describe it. The same idea kept coming to me, then and now —
Something like being submerged in a bath saturated with epsom salt, where the water’s lifting all these tiny rocks out of your skin. Something purgative.
An obvious thing that I find incredible is that everyone can listen to the same music. It sounds so personal, and yet it’s produced by someone else, and can be consumed by almost anyone. Instrumental and verbal lines resonate at different frequencies, at different times and for different people — but there’s a common perception, too. Some music is widely recognized for its emotional impact — and almost everyone has some music that means more to them than others, and certain music that means the most. As life goes on and we encounter new trials and go through new things, lyrical and musical phrases suddenly make more sense (or make sense differently).
“Making sense” — It’s an interesting construction, referring to when something is in a state of being clearly understood. Sensations don't really have explanations; they can only be described. There is no choice in feeling; it is all automatic absorption and reception. In this way the senses are clear. The simplest words are made bitter, agonizing; the melodies are truly disturbing/moving.
Music’s not wicked, but it is manipulative. It pulls us through experiences, it draws out emotions and swirls them around. It creates coldness in our spines, empty spaces in our stomachs, sudden knots in our chests or throats. It compels us to sing, urges us to move, forces us into energy or peace. (There are chord progression for all those things.) It’s calculated phrasing, but it flows as if spontaneous.
These sounds we subject ourselves to get stuck in our heads, not only as earworms, but fully coded into our memories, songs and albums writing themselves in our heads as people and places that we want to — have to — return to. We mentally replay them, we hum them, we miss them, we listen again — and we constantly find new ones.
The songs in this list aren’t meticulously curated. Many of them mention feeling, affection, sensation, sense or sensitivity directly, and all of them allude to it, like all music does. It was a collaborative effect. Headphones music, party music, performance music… At the end of the day it’s all composition. I don’t know. If I had to write an explanation about what, if anything, is singular about human beings as a species, the thing called music would just about cover it. I would like to take a class in the spring that’s cross-listed in the music and linguistics departments (The Language-Music Connection); maybe after that I’ll have a more precise grasp on what I’m intuitively gesturing at now.
I could keep going down new lines and reflecting on the sensual impact of music for hours, but the general idea’s been given. The Harburg quote at the beginning reflects it concisely. I don’t really know what we'd do without music, even if for a year I didn’t know what to do with it.