The tune within

I have a cousin who doesn’t listen to music.

At all. Seriously.

I have a cousin who doesn’t listen to music.

At all. Seriously.

Presumably he’s not alone. But do you know anyone who doesn’t have any CDs or MP3s? Never listens to the radio? Never goes to a musical gig? Ever?

It’s hard to imagine, right?

It’s hard for me to imagine, at least, because I listen to music every day. And it’s not like I’m some hardcore superfan. I figure I’m straight-up-the-middle average when it comes to music appreciation. What’s more, I’m the last person you’ll find actually creating music – as a child, my mom had to bribe me with a weekly pack of hockey cards to get me to practice my violin. Still, looking back, it’s so overwhelmingly clear that music has made my life richer in countless ways.

For example, soaking in the goosebumps that arise when bellowing out the national anthem with 20,000 compatriots before a hockey game. Or my most moving church experience ever – in rural Cote d’Ivoire where I arrived late for the service and ducked in through a side door into the only available seat, immediately behind the choir and beside the drumming crew. Wow. Or even my slightly embarrassing though thoroughly awesome undergrad days passing the bong around in my buddy’s dorm room and nodding approvingly to the latest Kyuss album. Or singing Johnny Cash tunes with Anishnaabe friends around a campfire at a blockade in Northern Ontario to mark the passing of the Man in Black. Or sifting through my folks’ old vinyl collection and finding a record of my grandpa singing German hymns a cappella – turns out his impromptu forays into song during his weekly radio sermon were such a hit with listeners that the station got him to cut a few records. How cool a memento is that for a grandchild?

Anyway, presumably you can come up with your own list of rich musical experiences. Which to me speaks to how universal music appreciation is. Everybody, everywhere, enjoys a good tune – except, of course, my aforementioned cousin, whose insistence that he never listens to music caused dropped jaws at the dinner table.

Beyond simple “appreciation,” however, music is one of those things that gets at the heart of what it means to be human. Consider these two examples. Back in my university days, I went to a lot of shows, mainly of the punk variety. This weekly ritual often consisted of sweaty 19-year-olds enthusiastically and violently slamming into each other, comforted by the evening’s affirmation that others hate society as much as they do.

Then, immediately following my graduation, to mix it up a bit, I finessed my way into an Amish community for a few months, where I participated in a weekly ritual called – you guessed it – church. In those services, the congregants piously and ceremoniously recited the dirge-like, centuries-old German hymns of their ancestors with no accompaniment.

At face value, the two experiences were profoundly dissimilar. But the differences of context do not obscure the fact that in both cases, the participants were engaged in one of the most common expressions of our spirituality.

That’s right, punkers slamdancing are engaged in a spiritual act. Hear me out. Now, first off, trying to define spirituality is tricky business. On a deep level it would seem to defy categorization. Spirituality means different things for different people in different contexts and different eras. That said, it would seem to me that spirituality is the aspect of the human journey that gives it its “humanness.” It’s the quest for meaning and purpose, for connectedness with others and the world. It’s the moments when we’re awash with transcendence, and it’s our desire to make sense of the world around us, and our meaning and place within it. For some, that’s associated with the capital ‘H’ Holy. For others, not.

Ultimately, spirituality hinges on elements of life that are difficult to put a finger on: awe, creativity, inspiration and transcendence.
Music captures all of this. And if you need convincing, look at an infant listening to their favourite song. Watch their face light up.

Of course, infants are also quick to move to music, which brings us back to the slamdancers of my youth. While I wouldn’t necessarily have characterized it as such at the time, looking back, it’s clear my fellow concert goers and I were engaged in a spiritual act. It gave us, among other things, purpose, connectedness and transcendence.

These days I understand it all better, and am able to place those experiences alongside all the other transcendent moments that have contributed to my spiritual development. And for that I am extremely grateful.

Now, if I could just figure out a way to share that feeling with my musically disinclined cousin. Hmm … I wonder if he’d like Kyuss.

Nicholas Klassen is a principal at Biro Creative and a former senior editor at Adbusters magazine.

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