Set You Free

What is it about music, anyhow? Why does it affect us like it does? What are we looking for when we listen to it?

I tried reading Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music, hoping for some insight, but I got halfway through it and gave up. My pet theory has always been that the old stuff reminds us of where we were and what we were doing when we were first listening to it, and being reminded of those places and times can serve as a refuge from our current reality. But that doesn’t explain the attraction of new music, or why people of a relatively advanced age (say 40s going on 50) get into music that was recorded before they were born (say Kind of Blue).

So on a macro level, I don’t know why we love it like we do. On a micro level, I have yet another theory: I think we seek moments of transcendence. We might get them from an album, a song, or even a moment within a song—that experience of being taken beyond wherever we are to someplace else entirely. (I guess that makes it akin to the “refuge from our current reality” theory, if largely by accident.) These are the moments that make you grab for the volume control or hit the repeat button. They send a chill down your spine, or make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. When all is properly aligned, these are the moments that can move you to tears.

We’ve all got our favorites moments of transcendence (and I’d like to hear yours in the comments). Not long ago, I was reminded of the first one I ever experienced.

It’s the fall of 1970, and everything on WLS is new to me. Diana Ross is just a name. I don’t know anything about the Supremes, or how she was Berry Gordy’s personal project. I don’t know anything about Motown either, how the label is beginning to struggle as its superstars seek freedom from the creative assembly line and it fails to find a second generation of stars other than the Jackson Five. For all I know, it’s normal for hit records to have long spoken verses.

But I think I could have told you that there was something special about “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. I could not have explained, however, that what I was experiencing toward the end, while this Diana Ross person is talking and the orchestra is playing behind her, is a masterful cranking-up of tension followed by a release that’s almost sexual.

I know you must follow the sun wherever it leads
But if you should fall short of your desire
Remember, life holds for you one guarantee
You’ll always have me
And if you should miss my lovin’ one of these old days
If you should miss the arms that used to hold you so close
Or the lips that used to touch yours so tenderly
Just remember what I told you the day I set you free

And then the backup singers zoom in like angels and the orchestra takes a few more strokes before they all gallop off into the distance together for a smoke, and I’m sitting out there riveted by the whole spectacle. In later years, I will learn that there’s a six-minute version of the song that gives me even more of what I came in the door for—but the money shot is still right at the end. And today, a few days shy of 40 years since “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” hit Number One on the Hot 100, it still is.

5 responses

  1. A lot of the transcendent stuff that hits me works on a visceral level. There’s something sonic about it that makes my hair stand up but I don’t know what it is.

    The second verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (when Artie really leans into the phrase “and pain is all around”) is like that; he just leaves the ground for a second.
    It renders the third verse anticlimactic, unfortunately.

  2. I remember reading someplace that Paul Simon hated the third verse—I forget the circumstances, but he was asked to write it by a producer, or somebody, because that person felt the song sounded incomplete with the two verses Simon had originally written.

    FWIW, the ending of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” always gets me—that long note.

  3. I really don’t know how to respond to this but everything you say is true and you said it very well.

    I don’t know why we love music so much either but more than any other art form it seems to affect millions of people in ways other art forms can not. Look at the whole Woodstock nation thing. It’s been said that music even brought a whole generation together. Maybe it’s because mass media allows so many more people to hear a particular piece of music at the same moment. If you want to get the full impact of the painting “The Last Supper” you have to travel to Rome to see the real thing. How many people can see the Mona Lisa in a single day (a few of hundred on a good day, maybe) compared to a radio station playing a hit record to thousands of people in a single metro area at one time. Then multiply that by many radio stations all over the world playing the same song. Music transcend cultures and class boundaries with it’s ability to be brought into your home via records, CDs, and now itunes. It makes music more real to the masses than any other art form.

  4. Good points, Charie. One of my relatives recently told me of an evening without electricity. The family sang songs they all knew, with a piano accompanying them. Music as performance is vastly different from music as product. When we perform, I’m guessing, we’re looking for validation in our communities. When we’re listening to others performances, we’re looking for the transcendent, something beyond what we can do ourselves, perhaps. And we find some: Not long ago, I wrote about Shawn Phillips’ falsetto soaring above the rest of the production on his 1972 single “We.” I’d also add the introduction by The Band of “LIke a Rolling Stone” on the “Before the Flood” album; Robbie and the boys ease into it with a runs and then all hell breaks looss, and everytime I hear it, I get goosebumps,

  5. Try reading his other book, “The World In Six Songs”. Fantastic insight into what different categories of songs do to/for us!

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