I think it’s hard to overestimate the emotional power of music.
Not all music, mind you. And not all the time.
But given the right circumstance and frame of mind, a particular song or recording can really do a number on us.
It’s been on my mind since this morning. I was driving to work listening to Pandora on my iPhone. “The Coast of Marseilles,” a Keith Sykes tune recorded by Jimmy Buffett on his 1978 “Son of a Son of a Sailor” album came on. (If you’re not familiar with this song, check it out at the bottom of the page.)
I’ve probably listened to “Marseilles” at least 100 times over the years. It’s a masterful recording of a wonderful song and I’ve always enjoyed it, but for some inexplicable reason, it just nailed me today. The stars, the song, and my emotions happen to align. This is what makes music singularly unique. It was the mood and the memory invoked by the music that did me in. As I sat in line in the Starbuck’s drive-thru, I was nearly overcome with unexpected emotion and was barely able to croak out the words, “Venti latte, please.”
Now, I’m no psychologist, but here’s my theory: When we listen to music — particularly stuff from our past — our brains instantaneously sift through the “files” to find a memory associated with the song. If that document is colorful and vibrant enough, our emotions are fooled and manipulated into reacting. The chord changes, the harmonies, the lyrics, the vocal performance, and even the instrumentation find a way to dig past our consciousness to reveal some emotional nugget we thought was discarded long ago.
“The Coast of Marseilles” is a wistful song, but not particularly sad, nor do I have any profound memory attached to it. But when I heard it this morning, I was back in college again, experiencing the same general sense of youth and possibility and laughter and adventure that often swirls around us during those crazy years. For each cinematic recollection of past times, there is a soundtrack that can never be removed.
Just now, I began to compare the music from the decades of my youth — the ’70s and ’80s — with the shallow drivel found on top 40 radio today, but thought better of it. Sure, a lot of today’s image-driven, über-processed stuff is crap, but even the goofier music from my growing up years evokes an emotional response. “Chica-boom, Chica-boom,” “Da Doo Run Run,” and “Disco Duck” will never be confused with Tchaikovsky and probably won’t have me verklempt at Starbuck’s, but they still contain the power of time travel. On my 11th birthday in 1977, some jokester (probably my brother, Greg) called into the local AM station and had them play “Disco Duck” in my honor. A bunch of my classmates were listening, and I was mortified. I heard that song a couple of weeks ago for the first time in years, and — no surprise — I still don’t care for it.
But the positive feelings associated with music are always more intense. Those rare days when the musical cogs roll into place as they did this morning are priceless, like glancing up to witness the perfect shooting star. It’s a moment that’s hard to hang onto, much like Sykes’ description in the first line of “Marseilles.”
I sat there on the coast of Marseilles/My thoughts came by like wind through my hand
It’s my belief that God wants us to be happy, and music is evidence of this. Because you can never convince me that the gift of music isn’t a gift directly from God.