Most of us are incessantly playing music in our heads. Don’t take it from me – Oliver Sachs documented it in Musicophilia. Our brains are wired that way. It’s not just you – we’re all pretty musical. It drives us in interesting, sometimes profound ways.
This week the husband of a friend passed away, after a long struggle with cancer. Very ill, Jim Barringer had a last wish – to see Bob Dylan play one more time. His wife, writer Joyce Maynard, wrote about his insistence that he go to Berkeley’s Greek Theater for Dylan’s concert, and how he spoke his last words upon returning home. Along with his love for his wife, music was part of the life force that kept him going. (For Joyce’s account of the concert, see her Facebook page.)
Music drives us in ways we are barely aware of. It frames our moods, and can change them. A good beat keeps us exercising when we’re tiring, a catchy tune cheers us, and an upbeat anthem motivates us.
Try thinking about the civil rights marchers of the 1960s without hearing “We Shall Overcome.” The song was a key ingredient of the movement. The soundtrack of the antiwar movement was everywhere in the 1960s – people hummed Dylan’s protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “Get Together,” “All You Need is Love,” “Revolution” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Bill Clinton took office to a resounding, looping soundtrack of “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Rap and hip-hop have been expressing anger and outrage since the beginning, Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.”
We’re being manipulated by music all the time. Stores pick their soundtracks carefully – Starbucks has decided what music is most likely to get you to stay around and drink more coffee. Yoga, massage and meditation all use music to relax you. Movie and TV soundtracks are often masterful manipulators. A good soundtrack is invisible, yet it drives your emotions and tells you how to feel about the characters. You may leave a movie theater humming a song you don’t even remember hearing.
It’s personal. We each have our own soundtrack. Mine is based around the blues and rock I immersed myself in as a teenager, but it includes the jazz and classical music I came to love later. The jukebox in my head plays a strange brew of Beatles, Miles Davis, bluegrass, Muddy Waters and Bach. Songs seemingly come from nowhere, but upon reflection, they often come from a lyric association: hearing “foreign movie” might trigger Steely Dan’s “Peg.” The mind works in strange ways.
I’m a musician (so was Jim, a basssist), and the music might be more powerful for people who play it. (Think of Beethoven – he was still composing when he couldn’t even hear the sounds.) When I ask others about the music in their heads, they often say, sure, sometimes I get a song stuck in my head. But then they think about it, and usually realize that songs come and go through the day.
Our personal soundtracks connect us with our past: our experiences, our friends, and our selves. Joyce writes about how Jim went back to his Beatles collection in his last months, reveling in the exuberance, the energy and the memories. I get it…that’s probably exactly what I would go back to. It’s a way to reconnect with something that’s still there inside, still strong, young and fun. It connects us with our emotions, and strengthens us. I can only hope that the last song I hear is “Here Comes the Sun.”
We need music, until the end. It’s part of who we are.
Some Way Outa Here reveals how the music of a time, the late 1960s, permeates daily life. It’s a book with a soundtrack, an homage to one of the great eras in popular music.