Do You Think the Arts Affect Us Because of Vibrations?

Popular opinion says we’re simply a collection of stimulus-response and that our response to art is caused by effects of sound vibrations and light waves on our sense organs. Such thinking used to be avant-garde (remember the Skinner box?). Now it seems passe.

Here’s where I’m coming from. There’s a certain piece of music that has hold on me, no matter who performs it. We always take at least one of our several versions on road trips but I don’t typically play any of them at home. That’s because something compels me to listen to the entire thing. Even if it comes onto one of the classical radio stations, I’m transfixed and don’t budge until the final chord is played, which takes twenty minutes start to finish. I suppose such a weakness could be used to shake me down – fortunately my children weren’t wise to it.

It started when my grandmother arranged for the whole family to go to a concert that turned out to be one that no other concert has ever eclipsed. On an overcast July evening we went to an orchestra concert at Ravinia Park north of Chicago. The electric small of a storm floated with us into the covered pavilion’s open sides. We took our seats not far from the stage where I saw a grand piano and musicians dressed in black, tuning up their instruments. After a while, the conductor entered to applause, then the soloist sauntered in, shook hands with the conductor, bowed to the audience and sat on the piano bench.

The orchestra started playing with a rush and the piano joined in. Watching breathlessly, I wondered that people could make their fingers do such amazing things. The music seemed like a game of tag between the piano and the other instruments. When it stopped between sections, I could hear the wind picking up outside. By the time a sadly sweet melody appeared, I saw rain starting to fall.

The music moved from being angry, calm, sad, scary and arrived at a twinkly magical place that was so quiet I could hear the wind and rain in full force, like it was arguing with the music about how we should be feeling. When horns blared I knew the happy side was winning, except now it was accompanied by rumbling thunder. Then a pause and the most beautiful melody played as the thunder and lightning reached full force. It was so overwhelming I felt like my little heart would break. As thunder crashed, my eyes welled and then the music came back faster than before, sounding like thunder itself. Afterward when my grandmother asked if I’d liked the concert, I simply said, “Yes.” I had no words.

Much music criticism looks through an intellectual lens to focus on technical aspects like chord progression and performance. Much commercial music is meant to elicit a positive feeling between us and a product. Few people even talk about how music can carry you on a spiritual journey where you feel it connect you with thunderstorms the way this piece has knit with thunderstorms with my soul – I’m transported whenever I hear it.

I listen to music promiscuously and have very eclectic taste. In fact I studied jazz piano with a teacher whose background is hip-hop. So I’m not saying that only 19th century European classical orchestral music has this ability to the exclusion of all others. But I do think that was a period when people worldwide were beginning to unshackle themselves from a power structure that has oppressed human consciousness for eons.

As we look at the march of history, we’re taught to focus on technological advances. But we should be looking at how we’re  progressively liberating ourselves from a restricted view of  reality.

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6 thoughts on “Do You Think the Arts Affect Us Because of Vibrations?”

  1. Deb, Wow! I loved your writing anout that magical, transformative Ravinia concert for so many reasons. First, because I haven’t heard the name of that very special place in many years. Our family had wonder-filled experiences there throughout my childhood.
    Secondly, as a teaching-artist of elementary aged kids for decades, I have been priveleged to both facilitate & witness the kind of awe & wonder possible through connection to greater mysteries through the arts. It’s true; people don’t often speak about spiritual moments that children experience. Your writing here guides me to re-committ my attention & energies to a life-long passion, Deb. I am not working in public schools due to Covid at this moment, but I am still teaching via Zoom offering workshops for kids & seniors. I feel absolutely called to serve the need for visual arts immersion, especially for children.
    Thanks for this provocative story, My Dear! Happy Renewal Day; Happy Easter!

    1. Carolyn — I’m really pleased that you related to this on so month. It’s been a shame to see how US schools have drastically cut art and music programs over the past decades. It’s pretty obvious the affect that’s had on our national character. Science and math are important but I think they’re fueled by our connection to spirit that’s so palpable via the arts. Happy Easter to you too!!

  2. Okay, let us in on the piece of music to which you are referring. I have twenty minutes coming up. No thunderstorm in sight, but I can use my imagination.

    1. Well, that evening it was Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini. But it gets complicated because my parents had a record of Arthur Rubinstein playing that as well as Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto (“Rachy II”) which they’d play for me. Because I was a little kid, over time I conflated the two so that now they both have that effect.

    1. Dave — I did like that song. The theramin has always cracked me up. Some guy brought one to my son’s elementary school, claiming that at the time there existed only 6 — I suppose he meant of the original ones, because now they’re everywhere. Because the theramin is so bizarre, I got a kick out of a feature-length film featuring Clara Rockman (it was a Russian woman who also came to live in the States for a while) playing it. Now I can’t find it.

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