Student Chapters

The Meaning of Music

Logan Williams

From a young age there have only been a few constant presences in my life: school, sports, and music. The importance of school was instilled in me at a very young age, and while I hope to graduate one day and make a career out of something I love, the reality is that school is more of a job than it is an interest. What about sports? I have participated in and watched sporting events all of my life, however, now that I am no longer playing in officially organized sports, the love for them has shifted more to spectating rather than participating. So what is left, music? Music is weird, where all other things have seemingly lost some significance or taken on more serious responsibility, music is just as interesting now as it was when I was younger. Having become far more interested in self-evaluation and exploration as of late, I have taken a serious interest in attempting to understand why music has not only remained important in my life but is actually becoming more and more so. Music has been around for roughly fifty thousand years, so it is no wonder that it has become almost a universal language of the world. Music has the ability to connect totally different cultures, it does not matter how old you are, what your religion is, or what color your skin is, music has the ability to rise above it all. While there may be countless different genres of music around the world, there is one common theme throughout all music. Music makes you feel, it evokes emotion, it forms connections, it answers the questions that all of us face in life. It was in this realization that I truly understood, I do not just really like music, it is through the culmination of countless experiences that I have found a substantial connection between music and my own spirituality. To truly understand this, I had to think as far back as I could, to the beginning.

One of my earliest memories from childhood revolves around music. I vividly remember a warm summer afternoon, bright but overcast. The kind of overcast that makes the colors of everything around you seem to burst as if you were seeing the world through a set of polarized lenses. My family was heading to my grandparents’ house. I remember looking up out of the backseat window and passing the old moose lodge before the signature sharp turn on Route 9 when my favorite song at the time came on. The song was “Red Dirt Road” by Brooks & Dunn. I remember singing along to every word, and once the song had run its course, I made a bold declaration, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. The first thing I ever wanted to be was country music star. While I still fantasize about the limelight and continue to sing and attempt to learn to play the guitar (rather unsuccessfully albeit), it is easy to see how this one memory began to shape my reverence for music at a very young age. Years later I rediscovered the song, and the memory along with it, but this time I looked deeper into the song. The gist of the song details a set of important moments in the singer’s life and how they all revolved around one, “Red Dirt Road.” It turns out that I connect to this song resoundingly well; coming from a rural area, many of my memories, some significant, all started on some road that I have been on a million times. As I grew up, music continued to play an important role in my life and provided what I believe was my first “spiritual” connection to music.

An overcast day on the farm I work on. The overcast sky made the colors around me burst with vibrance.

 

The first thing I wanted to be may have been a country music star, but the first music I fell in love with was classic rock. This is because all my Dad ever listens to is classic rock; from the first generation through the eighties, I dare say what he considers his vast array of “useless knowledge” is unmatched. For years, and even sometimes now, if we are riding in the car together, he will quiz me on the name of the artist of a particular song, insisting that I know it and he has taught me it before. I genuinely believe that part of my love for music stems from this. You take interest in the things that the people you care about love, so spending so much time with my Dad listening to classic rock has not only instilled a love for the music, but an appreciation for it because of the love that I have for him. I think this idea is best encapsulated by Stanley Hauerwas (1981) in his commentary on Iris Murdoch, when he says, “interpersonal love is love in its most intense, profound, and difficult form” (p. 39). With that idea in mind, because of the love that I have for my Dad, and the love every father and son should have for each other, I associate those feelings with music, deepening the significance for me.

Another application of classic rock came with something I spoke about earlier, sports. Multiple days a week, year-round it seemed, I was participating in sports, and it was my dad who was driving me to and from them. From a young age I started to develop nerves when it came to sports, often times feeling sick and more often than not getting sick before the start of a game. While I luckily grew out of that, for a long time it was a real problem. However, there was one sure fire way to suppress those nerves: sing along to music. One song that was common place in these situations is my second favorite song, “Feels Like the First Time” by Foreigner. Simply by singing the song and ultimately getting my mind off of the game alleviated the nerves, but the upbeat sound and effortless vocals are enough to put a smile on my face every time.

The song itself is about the feelings the singer has for his love and details all of the things he has done and is willing to do for her. But what is so spiritual about it? I could draw more connections to Hauerwas and Murdoch about how putting love into something or someone greater than yourself “transcends us” (p. 39), allowing us to reach a higher plain of happiness, but that is not what stands out to me. What stands out is that in times of distress and worry, music has the ability to calm me down, to put me at ease, which is an idea that I believe is at the heart of spirituality itself. Thinking back it is clear to see that music has really been an influential part of my life since childhood, however I truly believe it has had a far greater effect on shaping where I am now.

Only a couple years ago I was still in high school. For me, high school was easy, concepts came quick, workload was minimal, and sports were the most important part of day to day life. It was easy to get by doing the least I could and still be able to be successful. However, something was happening that I could not see, something that has had a remarkable effect on the person that I am today. Without even realizing it, I was falling into the mold. I shaped myself and my personality into a cast that was going to help me best fit in. I did not worry about being the most popular kid, but I wanted friends, I wanted to be involved with the people who seemed to be important, and in doing so I was not Logan, I was just the generic casting of the stereotypical smart jock. There was nothing about me that made me different, nothing that set me apart. I unknowingly worked out all of the things that made me who I am to fit the mold of someone that would only last four short years. I did not realize this until the beginning of senior year. This realization did not just occur one day out of the blue, instead it came when I was listening to a song, a song I had listened to a hundred times before. That song was “Cudi Zone” by Kid Cudi. I have never been the biggest fan of hip-hop, but there was something about the song that drew me in, that spoke to me. The song told me that I can and will only ever be myself, so I should start acting like it. The song details the life of Kid Cudi. Each new verse starts with a question to the status quo like, “Soarin’ is this allowed?” or “ballin’ is this allowed?” In the verses, Cudi challenges this status quo. In the first verse he details how he got to where he is now and that the person he might have been has nothing to do with the person that he plans to be. The second verse challenges the ideas of expectations and he concludes that the expectations of other people have no bearing on him. He says, “I feel perfect though they think it’s worthless,” and, “everyone wanna be a critic, I have my life and I will live it.” The song truly met me on a spiritual level, I had been living in a way that other people wanted me to, the way they expected me to, and because of that I was no longer myself. At that moment in my life, little by little, I began to chip away at the mold of a person I had become.

I live in a small town, the seat of the county. The courthouse is a local landmark and a symbol for my hometown. Just like many small towns, everyone knows each other, and it revolves around high school sports.

 

Slowly but surely, I was beginning to shape the person that I am now, but it was not always easy. A short time after graduating, I was taking the next large step in life preparing for college and I experienced the theme of countless songs, heartbreak. It was my first time dealing with heartbreak and I did not know quite what to do with myself, so I leaned on something I already knew had the ability to calm me and take my mind off of things. I spent almost all of my time exploring music. It was at this time I grew an appreciation for songs that could affect the emotion of the listener, not just with lyrics but with the sounds as well. While I love music that raises your heartbeat and puts a smile on your face, I found that it was sad songs that affect the listener on a far deeper level. Now I know what that sounds like, heartbreak and sad music, you are just making it worse on yourself, but actually it was the opposite that happened. I came across a song called “All I’ve Ever Known” by the Bahamas. Now this is a sad song, the swooping slow melodies and pace make you almost want to hold your breath when it plays. The singer sings in a breathy hushed tone that makes you feel like his voice will crescendo at any moment, but it never does. The lyrics depict a hopeless man that has just lost the love of his life. He is seemingly sleepwalking through life trying to find meaning in the world around him but to no avail. He does this for two versus, but on the third verse he is gone, the instruments take his place and his voice is nowhere to be heard. It would seem that when dealing with a heartbreak this would be a total detriment to wellbeing, but for me it opened my eyes to the world around me. The first time I had heard the song it was like a religious experience; I was outside at one of my favorite spots to find peace and quiet and it was a perfectly clear starry night. As I took deep cool breaths, my heart seemed to synchronize with the music as I listened to the lyrics that anyone who has experienced heartbreak can relate to. At that point everything around me seemed to slow down, I felt completely connected to the world around me. I felt connected to the stars in the sky all the way down to the trees swaying in the wind around me. I felt like just another tiny piece of an unfathomably infinite universe.

It is often in places like this, places of natural beauty, that I feel most connected to the world around me. I forget about my troubles and am at peace with myself. Photo credit: Abby Miller

That is a grand statement but at that moment I really felt a connection to the world around me and this feeling totally changed my perspective, I was content. This was a truly spiritual experience that resonates in a grander picture, an almost Buddhist picture. David Loy explains a Buddhist idea that concerns humans and our anxieties. He described us as living in an endless cycle of suffering and death because of how much emphasis we put on ourselves. He says that unselfing or getting rid of the delusive idea of a self, “frees me to live the way I choose,” and “contributes to the well-being of the whole” (Loy, 2010, p. 257). That sounds very familiar, when I listened to the song, my anxiety went away, I felt a greater connection to the whole, and I was now free to move on and live as I wanted with an overall greater well-being than I had before. After coming to this realization the song took on a whole new meaning, and specifically the third verse had completely changed. There are no words sung in the verse, instead the music grows louder to take their place. I began to interpret it as if the singer had finally moved on. He left the place that he felt trapped in behind, letting go of the pity he had for himself and in its place the world or music around him seemed to grow and he was now a part of it, not a voice separate from it. He let go of the anxieties that kept him from seeing the bigger picture around him, and when he did it all changed for the better, an idea that resonates perfectly with myself and my first experience with heartbreak.

During this time in my life I was not really chipping away at that mold of who I was anymore, but after moving on I started back at it with renewed confidence and goals for myself. Being away at college, learning and experiencing new things with new people has been the most influential in shaping who I am. I can attribute this with certainty to two things, the friends that I have made, and Zaba. Making new lifelong friends is enough to change anyone’s life, but what is a Zaba and how could it possibly be so significant? Zaba is the debut album of British alternative group Glass Animals. It taught me an important lesson in life that is especially important to remember in college. The album taught me to relax. It helped me realize that not everything is some serious make or break moment that will impact the rest of my life. The album itself is eleven songs long, and of those eleven songs, no more than three can be taken for anything more than a wacky, fun assortment of sounds and rhythm, in fact, most of the songs can even be considered nonsense. As a member of a perfectionist society like the one we live in today, where every moment is often viewed as make it or break it, it is an important idea to relax and not take life so seriously all of the time. This also helped me garner a greater appreciation for the world around me and music alike because it showed me that not everything has to have a meaning. Not every bad thing that happens in life occurs because of something I did, just as a song does not have to have any specific meaning or theme to be enjoyed or listened to.

One of those few songs on the album that is a little more than just an assortment of sounds and rhythm is “Cocoa Hooves”. The song itself is my favorite on the album and was my first introduction to Glass Animals. The song is an eerie cacophony of hypnotic melody paired with high pitched clashing sounds and an incessant pounding guitar riff. When I first listened to the song, the vocals seemed to be just another set of nonsense perfectly paired as a soft, breathy, high pitched narration to set an eerie mood for the song. It was not until I sat and listened closely to the lyrics that I realized it was far more than that, the song holds a deep message that resonated within me.

The verses of the song speak of a conservative life, a safe life lived quietly conforming to those around you. However, the choruses of the song are a challenge to that way of life. They ask why we are so comfortable sitting back and letting life pass us by, never breaking out and living it. I find the actual lyrics of the chorus quite provocative, “Come on you hermit you never fight back, why don’t you play with bows and arrows? Why don’t you dance like you’re sick in your mind? Why don’t you set your wings on fire?” (Bayley, 2014). The chorus really resonates with me because I, and society as a whole, have been taught that you are supposed to get in line, to go to college, get a job, get married, retire, and die. We are expected to conform to society’s standards because it is the right, safe, or smart thing to do. A couple years ago I would have fit perfectly into that expectation, taking the smart route to be “successful”, but as I have learned more about myself, I have found that it is those things that set you apart, the not “safe” decisions, that lead you into a far more fulfilling life. This idea was reinforced within me after reading the work of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the world around you, to feel trapped or boxed in. It can be as easy as looking up to realize that it is a big world and you are only as boxed in as you allow yourself to be. Photo credit: Abby Miller

Niebuhr believes that because of man’s finitude, we sin in an attempt to find a sense of security to relieve our anxieties. Niebuhr (1964) says that, “he (man) seeks to overcome his insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness.” (p. 178). This “will-to-power” is in the form of pride and is used to achieve greater power, knowledge, morality, and spirituality. In a sense, the song actually corresponds with this idea. For example, the verses speak about how we are happy to conform and give up certain things in order to be safe and successful. I believe Niebuhr would say that our self-assertion in trying to live that safe, sheltered, successful life is our attempt to remedy those insecurities and anxiety we feel because we may die tomorrow. Furthermore, if we were to let go of those tendencies to combat our finitude, we would be much happier and less likely to sin. While I would be inclined to agree with Niebuhr on that interpretation of the song, I would not agree entirely. Niebuhr believes that it is our insecurities that lead us to sin, and I would argue that is not always the case. Instead I would argue that by embracing our insecurities for what they are, we gain the ability to experience a much fuller life in regard to our truest selves. I believe that idea is expressed in the song, by embracing your insecurities and leaving your comfort zone whether that be through dancing like a crazy person or metaphorically setting your wings on fire. By doing these things and expressing the most honest form of yourself, you are more inclined to live a happier, more fulfilling life. While it is not always easy to do this, I have found that in my experience in order to find out who you really are, you have to listen to yourself and not be afraid to be that person.

Looking back it is difficult to imagine how different of a person I may be if it were not for these lessons that I have learned from these songs. It makes me think back to Dr. Hitzhusen’s article where he speaks on types of divine intervention like when he finds an axe on a trail because he was compelled by a “small inner voice” (p.10) and that axe helps to make wood for a fire that serves his waterlogged group. Just as he happens upon the axe he needed to help his group, I have just happened to find these particular songs at influential times in my life that have helped shape me into the person that I am today. While the idea of right song, right time may be nothing more than a coincidence, it is difficult to not think that maybe I found these songs for a reason and somewhere there is something greater looking out for me. As I reflect more on my experiences and the compounding spiritual significance of music in my life, the idea that something larger was at work admittedly appears to gain more and more traction.

What are the odds that on a campus of 50,000 students that you walk out of the library to an empty campus with the sun shining down on you through the trees? It makes me smile thinking maybe someone was looking down at me.

While music has been important in my life since a young age, and it has been significant in shaping me to be the person I am today, I can only assume that music will keep me on the path to becoming the man that I want to be. When I think about this idea, I like to envision a song that I have loved through my time as a child up through today, a song that has been a constant light on dark days throughout my life, my favorite song. Many people will tell you that they do not have a favorite song, they just like too much music and it is too hard to pick one, but not me. My favorite song is “Good Directions” by Billy Currington. This song has been a mainstay in my life for more than half of the time I have spent on this Earth. “Good directions” is a song that I never skip, it is a song that no matter where I am if it comes on I will sing every word every time, it is a song that I am so comfortable with, it will push me to take on uncomfortable situations. By that I mean that while I love to sing, I rarely sing in front of people, but if that song comes on, I can guarantee you will hear me twanging away. The song itself describes a man selling some turnips roadside when the woman of his dreams stops and asks him for directions. He tells her everything she needs to know and sends her on her way. He realizes the opportunity that he missed and just as he becomes hopeless, he sees her driving right back to him. The significance of the song is the idea that throughout life you will be presented with countless opportunities and that sometimes they just do not work out. However, if something is truly good and meant to be, then it is never really gone, it will come back to you in one form or another down the line. This is an important idea when thinking about the man that I want to be. I hope to live my life kind and honest, true to myself and those I care about. I hope to enjoy the good times and learn from the bad. Most importantly, just like the man in the song, I hope to take advantage of the opportunities that I am lucky enough to have but when they do not work out, to remember that if it is truly good then it will never be that far gone not to come back again.

All throughout my life music has not only been a mainstay but it has influenced the person I am down to my core at a truly spiritual level. From one of my very first childhood memories, to the person that I am today, and to the person I hope to become, music will continue to guide and shape my life. Songs have come to me in times that I have needed them most and have taught me invaluable lessons about who I am and why I am that way. More importantly, music has touched me down to my spirit. Music teaches me lessons that leave me a better person, it brings me peace and understanding in times of anxiousness and insecurity, and it makes me feel a connection to not only the world around me but to my truest self. The true meaning of music may be different for everyone, but to me, the meaning of music is to help understand yourself and your place in the world around you.

Music Appendix

 

Bibliography

Bayley, David. (2014). Cocoa Hooves [Recorded by Glass Animals]. On Zaba [CD]. London, United Kingdom: Wolf Tone.

Brooks, Kix. Dunn, Ronnie. (2003). Red Dirt Road [Recorded by Brooks & Dunn]. On Red Dirt Road [CD]. Nashville, Tn: Arista Nashville.

Bryan, L. & Thibodeau, R. (2006). Good Directions [Recorded by Billy Currington]. On Doin’ Somethin’ Right [CD]. Nashville, Tn: Mercury Nashville.

Hauerwas, S. (1981). The Significance of Vision: Toward an Aesthetic Value. In Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection. University of Notre Dame Press.

Hitzhusen, G. (2007). Biblical Wilderness Theology: Spiritual Roots for Environmental Education. Taproot, 17.1, 9–13.

Jones, Mick. (1977). Feels Like the First Time [Recorded by Foreigner]. On Foreigner [7-inch single]. Atlantic Records.

Jurvanen, Afie. (2014). All I’ve Ever Known [Recorded by Bahamas]. On Bahamas Is Afie [CD]. Bushfire Records.

Loy, D. R. (2010). Healing Ecology. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 17, 253–267.

Mescudi, Scott. (2009). Cudi Zone [Recorded by Kid Cudi]. On Man on the Moon: The End of Day [CD]. New York City, New York: The Borski Room and Chung King.

Niebuhr, R. (1964). Man as Sinner. In The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian

Interpretation (Vol. 1). Charles Scribner’s Sons.

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