This essay was written for a church project, and is modeled after the Edward R. Murrow and NPR “This I Believe” essay series.
I was a government and Native American studies major in college — but the best course I ever took was called “Beethoven in Context.”
When no one’s around, there are few things I love more than putting on headphones, turning off the lights, and freaking. out. to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Not the opening notes of the famous First Movement, but the crescendo between the third and fourth movements, the sudden shifts, the way all the instruments weave together, and the way it absolutely drives forward, pushing every limit.
But Beethoven didn’t hear it the same way. By the time he finished this symphony — a process that took him four years — he was two-thirds along the way to becoming entirely deaf. He could still feel the music’s power, though — they say he sawed the legs off his piano and sat on the floor, experiencing the vibrations of each and every note.
Even Beethoven could experience music. Music has a way of reaching literally everyone.
And so, I believe in the power of music. We all know what it’s like to hear a favorite song come on the radio and be whisked away to an old memory or special place. When I hear Bela Fleck’s “Big Country,” it’s like a door opens in my soul and I’m really back in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
If someone doesn’t love music, maybe it’s only because they haven’t heard the right song with the right voice or the right instrumentation yet. This is where my Native American studies professors come back in: Some tribes say that the most special thing you can ever receive or share is your singular song, the one that belongs only to you.
Music may not be my core belief or my mission in life, but it is what makes me who I am. It is how I best connect to God — taking in a brass concert at Christmastime, chanting psalms at a Boston monastery, or singing my favorite hymns on Easter Sunday. Why, even an atheist can say that I connect to my creator through music. My birthmother played the flute when she was pregnant, and I’m told that for years after my birth, anytime I heard a flute, I stopped what I was doing and cocked my ear towards the radio.
In a more secular sense, I most feel like myself through music, whether that’s identifying with the realistic poetry of a new Americana favorite, feeling like I’m finally home during a Steep Canyon Rangers concert, working up a sweat just watching Springsteen videos and DVDs, or ending the day with a favorite mellow playlist of Alison Krauss and Billy Joe Shaver just before bed.
I even believe that certain songs saved my life during my angsty, most-depressed teenage years, holding me back from suicide by reminding me of a better future in grace.
Music makes us all equal. The worst singer can be the most grateful audience member; the worst guitar player the best poet. A Specter-esque wall of sound greets a hedge fund manager the same way a vocal chord can lift up an African farmer. Math may be the universal foundation, but music, with its inherent power and depth and as something to be experienced rather than simply heard, is the universal language.