Music and Fiction

I’ve heard people rant and rave and bellow That we’re done and we might as well be dead, But I’m only a cockeyed optimist, And I can’t get it into my head.

~ Rogers and Hammerstein, South Pacific 1949

Anybody remember that tune? I do. I can still "hear" it.

What is music? I know what the dictionary says:

The art of arranging sounds in time so as to produce a continuous, unified, and evocative composition, as through melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre.

Fine. But what is it? Other animals make sounds, vocalize, but only humans make music. Some folks say that whales, wolves, and birds sing. Okay, but that begs the question of what singing is. A whale warble is not the same as Mitzi Gaynor singing, "I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair," in South Pacific. That song, by the way, became quite popular amongst housewives during the ’50s; maybe they weren’t entirely happy with their husbands who returned from war. In any event, we might agree that human music is distinct from the sounds of other animals.

I must have heard music during my earliest childhood. My mom sang along with music on the radio, and she sang in the choir at church. She had a stack of 78-rpm records that I played over and over (’30s swing music), and she had me begin piano lessons when I was five (I wouldn’t call that music). My dad tolerated most music, and he came to especially like musicals. He had played the cornet when he was young, but he only used it to fetch me home for dinner when I was a kid.

One Christmas when I was about twelve, dad bought a new Hi-Fi that would play 33 and 45 rpm records, and my big brother gave him two LP records. One was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the other was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. Mom and dad didn’t particularly like them, but oh boy, I was crazy about them. I never heard such music, I never imagined such music. I played those records so often that dad put the Hi-Fi in the basement so he couldn’t hear it. I wore out those records.

That’s the curious thing. If I had never heard that kind of music, why did it instantly appeal to me? Although I still like the old swing music, and I earned some decent money playing it in a dance band during the ’50s, I’ve been hooked on classical music since first I heard it. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Copeland, Hansen, you name it, I love it all. It plays 24/7 in my house, in my car, and in my head.

I don’t remember when I realized that music was playing in my mind — maybe thirty years ago, maybe forty. It isn’t an auditory hallucination, like when you believe somebody called your name, it’s something different. Other people who experience this will be nodding agreement right now, people who don’t will be shaking their heads. I worked with a doctor once who would unexpectedly burst into aria from some opera; he didn’t seem to notice that he was singing out loud. That’s it.

So what is it? I don’t know. We can’t eat it, we can’t wear it, we can’t burn it, we can’t even see it, yet music is there, and some of us wouldn’t care to live without it.

Fiction, on the other hand, is something different. Or is it? My dictionary says:

An imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.

One could say the same about music. Music and fiction are creations of the mind that need have nothing to do with perceived reality. Yet both are important to us.

As kids we played "let’s pretend" all the time, constantly modifying the stories we knew to produce ever more fantastic adventures, some of which were actually dangerous. When somebody did get hurt, like broke an arm, we’d immediately huddle around the injured one and invent a story to cover us. Why? I don’t know, it seemed the natural thing to do.

As I watched my own kids growing up — without television — I noticed that they did the same thing. Where did they learn that? I didn’t teach them. Could it be that creating a fictional world, and acting out in it, is part of human nature? Like music, perhaps?

What would a rousing action-adventure movie be without music? Blah. A romantic movie? Blah. Here the two imaginative arts reinforce each other, first recreated in Western Europe by opera, though practiced in ancient times, and in many other cultures as well.

One presumes that adults have learned the difference between reality and fiction. After all, rain is wet, snow is cold, fire is hot, and an empty stomach isn’t funny. Fiction and music are fine in their place, but there are real bills to pay, and real work to be done. Or so we say as we consume multiple fictions, often set to music, in television programs, in advertising, and in the so-called news.

Of course the most fantastic fiction of all comes from DC, where lies and delusion are more precious than fortune or blood, and it is not usually accompanied by music, unless it be a martial march or a funeral dirge, but I will not attempt to repeat the excellent expos of that subject by Tom Engelhardt. Enough to add that even children know the difference between fiction and reality; they are still sane.

For myself, I think I’ll stick to classical music. It makes more sense than political fiction any day.

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