As a budding songwriter, my oldest daughter, teetering on 16, is playing and singing with a whole new level of passion and authenticity now that she has experienced her first micro-heartbreak. Seeing her this way saddens me and reminds me of my own (numerous) heartbreaks and the many times I have turned to music for comfort.
Music ministers to the sorrowing, although exactly how it does so is something that remains a mystery, even to experts. We talk about what music is ("the silence between the notes," according to Claude Debussy, the "electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, and invents" to Beethoven, the "shorthand of emotion" to Leo Tolstoy), what it does ("creates order out of chaos," according to violinist Yehudi Menuhin, can "name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable," said Leonard Bernstein), and what it should do ("go right through you, leave some of itself inside you, and take some of you with it when it leaves," according to composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill). Plato described it as "a moral law and the essence of order, [leading] to all that is just and good, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form."
Clear as pea soup.
Scientists throw in their emotion-free two-cents worth, divining music as atoms that harmonize with each other, molecules that vibrate on certain wavelengths, claiming that the universe is set to a particular "pitch." Music is compared to an architectural drawing set in motion, its lines rising and falling, twisting and turning, curving and merging. Pythagoras claimed there was "geometry in the humming of the strings," while Albert Einstein credited musical perception for his discovery of the theory of relativity, although how the one led to the other is, for a right-brained person, as hard to understand as his theory.
The lesson learned in the practice room, the grueling, grinding process of extricating black notes from a cold page and polishing them into something ethereal is this: Music's truest value is, as Bach said, to bring "glory to God and . . . refreshment to the soul." It does this by strumming the deepest chords, by unearthing emotion from the bedrock of our souls, by pulling from the core that which is inexpressible. Anyone who has been brought to tears by the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or caught their breath from the purity of Alison Krauss' voice, or trembled under the weight of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto knows: Music, like the Trinity, infinity, or heaven, remains enigmatic. The veil that separates the musician or the listener from its beauty is like the veil that, while we are on earth, separates us from fully seeing God.
But every once in awhile, when pounding away, or sawing away, or lost in a haunting melody, or in that glorious moment when thick dissonant chords slide into perfect harmony, God gives us a momentary glimpse through that veil.
And as my daughter is discovering, sometimes the hole through which we peek is music.