Music and Emotion

 

As I’ve mentioned here before I am a struggling musician. Oh, not struggling financially, struggling with my instrument, the violin. I took up the instrument late in life. If you want to ever have any kind of musical career in classical music you need to start very young like three, four, or five, which in itself is ridiculous because five-year-olds want to be cowgirls or firemen, so it’s foisted upon them by their parents.

 Side note: Many amazing players who were prodigies gave up playing professionally at ages 18-21 because they became bored of playing and the entire scene of concert playing and the pressure. Can you imagine at 21 how dull and boring it must be if you are used to being celebrated amongst the classical cognoscenti and elderly bejeweled fuddy-duddies, and all you ever seemed to do was practice?

I started fiddle at 34. But I was playing Irish and Scottish folk tunes which are more forgiving, you learn tunes by ear, and I already played guitar and mandolin. But I began to branch out into other folk and also rock and learned some classical technique.

What’s the difference between the violin and the fiddle? The spelling. That’s my joke. Other jokes are, it’s a violin when you’re selling it and a fiddle when you’re buying. But really it’s more a style/genre thing. It’s like violin is ballet, and fiddle is folk-dance, hip-hop or other less disciplined and codified forms of dance.

At one time I was a side-man for a guy who specialized in singing Irish tearjerker ballads. He found some real doozies in the gut-wrenching bawl-yer-eyes out stories. They were fine songs, but learning them took an emotional toll. Here I was, just trying to learn the repertoire playing along with recordings, and wondering why I felt like an emotional wreck after 45 minutes!

The beautiful composition Schindler’s List is among many songs I’m learning.

I can’t help but feel the immense pain and suffering of the Holocaust as I’m playing. I have played along with several versions on YouTube,  getting better positions and deciding on nuances. It’s a great song for violin. But it’s difficult for me to separate out the feelings. I probably think more about the Holocaust than many actual Jews…  But the music is the feeling, and I don’t want to lose it however uncomfortable.

Does feeling create music, or music create feeling? Both. It’s a cycle.

I’ve come to believe vibration and resonance has it’s own ‘code’ that’s directly connected to our emotions we are entirely unconscious of. This deserves its own post. But watch any film with a good score on mute and you will lose most of the ‘feeling’.

So learning comes along at a slower pace, because I can only take so much emotionally. I wonder if child prodigies have the luxury of not knowing tragedy and profound distress. Then later they can apply the needed emotion while playing.  I’ve learned the lesson to have lots of songs in the learning phase, rather than focus intently on a few, so I can manage my emotions. It’s good to have a mix.

Then there are the Irish rebel songs, which call up anger. I took it upon myself to sing the Pogues Young Ned of the Hill in one Irish band. It doesn’t require a great voice, just the ability to sing passionately. The Irish contempt for authority and irreverence for English rule make the singer angry.

But I really can’t muster the real contempt for the English ingrained in some Irishmen, which I have seen in Ireland some times. I never liked the hard-core ethnic Irish-Americans here who feigned allegiance with the IRA. Nothing wrong with celebrating Irish heritage (yeah, I’m about 100% Irish myself) but do you have to import all the grievances? Nope, I have my own modern issues and we are Americans now, thanks.

But learning Zombie was rough. It could be the best and/or worst of Irish rebel songs.  The contempt, the squealing angst, the cold, cutting lyrics…I’m trying to get the arrangement and copping that simple lick and know when it arrives in the song. But my very soul is in shambles by the end. What was I doing, again? Thank God I didn’t have to sing it.

I happen to like “Downton Abbey,” and not only for the beautiful daughters for whom I have a schoolboy crush. The music is captivating, so I’m learning that. The theme plays with expectations. Really an interesting soundtrack.

I took a 30-year break from the blues. It wasn’t planned, I just got tired of it.

In my youth, I saw Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, and Paul Butterfield. I had the first Led Zeppelin album before anybody. I had a Jeff Beck album, Mike Bloomfield/Al Cooper album, Cream, and Electric Ladyland. And then the southern blues of the Allman Brothers came along while the Rolling Stones continued to get deeper into the blues.

All that stuff is ingrained in me. But music has a fashion element. The public tires of a certain approach, it gets overdone and overused. Then something breaks out that’s fresh and new, which is why we get these swings. A good example was how we went from hair-band metal to Kurt Cobain grunge practically overnight in the early ’90s.

Through this period I wasn’t keeping up with the new styles and trends, although I eventually discovered a lot of it later. I missed out on the entire grunge thing and a lot of other new bands, but that was because I got tired of the whole pop-rock regurgitation of the old stuff and went to learn fiddle and Celtic music as a reprieve. Those same songs I listened to or just heard in the early ’70s kept coming back just about everywhere all the time. Tired of Steve Miller (yuck), the Doobie Brothers, CSNY — even the Beatles and Stones.

Now I’m back to the blues. While I wasn’t technically good, I ‘got’ the blues and could express it on a guitar. Now my instrument is a violin and somehow I can feel the blues pretty naturally on it. I jam to this every once in a while.

I’m also trying to pick up Duane Allman slide guitar licks on my differently tuned but very slide-like instrument. This is a song I listened to as a teenager, 45 years later able to recreate on my violin. It brings me back to those days. Memories that were like another life that was lived by someone else. That’s how far I’ve come through all that time.

Another song I’m learning for a band is dark and difficult emotionally, “Fell on Black Days” the cello part on violin (going through a pedal that can drop octaves). The hard part is not feeling those feelings.

And then there’s the staggering talent that sometimes makes it seem ridiculous that I’m even doing this. I’m almost 69 years old! So I have to remind myself that this is my version of building a model train village in my basement to keep from being epically discouraged.

I notice that I can intuit songs that I heard in my childhood quite well. If you have a song deeply embedded in your mind, you are more than halfway there. This is probably why musicians who start early are more adept. It’s not just technical training, it’s having music deeply embedded in your mind and soul.

From La Boheme, my parents played this song often at dinnertime. Now I can practically play it by ear (having learned some classical technique) without even thinking.

Recently our own Mark Alexander posted something about this song, “Never Enough.” I had seen the film but reminded by Mark, I set out to learn it. Thanks, Mark, but it hits me every time – even without the lyrics – so I’m blaming you also!

Then there’s this: “Oblivion.” Puts me in a very odd sentimental mood.

I’ll leave y’all with this…

Another tumultuously beautiful stirring of chaotic emotions with delicacy and power. Walking around with this in your headphones will bring a new meaning to your life. Try it!

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  1. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Heh.  There are from time to time tiny little snippets which seem to suggest a specific emotion.  In Bach’s Prelude in C (the barbaric way that I play it), there’s a moment (I use &x to show x in the bass regardless of inversion):

    D/A &D
    D/A &C
    G/B &B
    C

    … which for some reason sounds like Forgiveness to me.  No clue why.

    HOWEVER, isolating it just now, I realize that this is EXACTLY the outro loop to Procol Harum’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, which I sought and could not find for some time.  Dang — it’s even the same key.

    Yup, they loved them some Bach.

     

    • #1
  2. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Franco: I’ve come to believe vibration and resonance has it’s own ‘code’ that’s directly connected to our emotions we are entirely unconscious of.

    You’re absolutely on to something here. Why is it that a minor key instinctively sounds mournful? Why do some songs just convey joy even if you don’t understand the language, while others can bring one to tears? Hell, words aren’t even necessary, as you note.

    I personally think that there is something in music that connects us to eternal truths, “deep lore” if you will, whether we know it or not. No way to prove it, of course.

    • #2
  3. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    And it’s in 3, the most stirring, disturbing and melancholy of all meters.  

    “The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.” Shakespeare – Lorenzo in “Merchant of Venice.” 

    I don’t see how you can even do music, real music, without engaging your emotions.  Or finding yourself engaged – taken in.  

    Some years ago I sang in a small a cappella group, for a special event.  The house was packed with active military and veterans.  We did “God Bless The U.S.A.”  The effect it had on the audience was something I’ll never forget.  

    But it was back in the green room that the ten of us talked about the experience.  It’s a good thing that we had every part doubled, because at some point every one of us had to drop out, to regain our composure, and get control of our voices.  Every one of us remembers that like it was yesterday.  Even today I have to really concentrate to get through that song, even in rehearsal.  

     

    • #3
  4. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    I’m not nearly as serious a musician as you are, Franco, but I do like to play around with the guitar and ukulele. I can identify with what you have written. Even the little uke can draw out some unexpected emotions.

    • #4
  5. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    I can be clinical when learning a song, mostly because I’m not very good and my clumsiness breaks the spell… so I divorced emotion from the initial learning phase. I’ll play phrases to get them perfect and then I turn off the precision part of my brain and let the emotion flow through fingers that “get” it now.

    • #5
  6. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Stina (View Comment):

    I can be clinical when learning a song, mostly because I’m not very good and my clumsiness breaks the spell… so I divorced emotion from the initial learning phase. I’ll play phrases to get them perfect and then I turn off the precision part of my brain and let the emotion flow through fingers that “get” it now.

    All good, Stina.  I’ve never been strong on the theory side – when necessary, all these years I’ve asked Mrs. Quietpi.  My chorus director is spending some rehearsal time every week to theory, and it is adding a lot.  And mechanically, of you can’t play a phrase the way it’s supposed to be played, then you probably won’t get the emotion, either.  But then, past the mechanics, you can let the music speak.

    Remember the Moog Synthesizer? And the album, “Switched On Bach?” A totally mechanical rendering of a few of his best – known pieces.  It’s amazing and revealing as you hear in detail how everything flows together, even without human input, but makes you appreciate even more the human input.  And it also reveals something else:  Bach was a genius.

    • #6
  7. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):

    I can be clinical when learning a song, mostly because I’m not very good and my clumsiness breaks the spell… so I divorced emotion from the initial learning phase. I’ll play phrases to get them perfect and then I turn off the precision part of my brain and let the emotion flow through fingers that “get” it now.

    All good, Stina. I’ve never been strong on the theory side – when necessary, all these years I’ve asked Mrs. Quietpi. My chorus director is spending some rehearsal time every week to theory, and it is adding a lot. And mechanically, of you can’t play a phrase the way it’s supposed to be played, then you probably won’t get the emotion, either. But then, past the mechanics, you can let the music speak.

    Remember the Moog Synthesizer? And the album, “Switched On Bach?” A totally mechanical rendering of a few of his best – known pieces. It’s amazing and revealing as you hear in detail how everything flows together, even without human input, but makes you appreciate even more the human input. And it also reveals something else: Bach was a genius.

    I have an old cassette of Walter Carlos, yes.

    • #7
  8. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    BDB (View Comment):
    I have an old cassette of Walter Carlos, yes.

    That’s like having a box of Wheaties with Bruce Jenner on the front!

    #earlytransjengas

    • #8
  9. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    I haven’t read all of it, but will finish soon as I can. 

    Once upon a time, I was a reasonably serviceable baritone, and might have made a decent living as a vocal artist. Those days are long gone.

    Of late I have been learning ukulele, a remarkably versatile and adaptive instrument. Perhaps someday I might actually play in front of people other than family. 

    • #9
  10. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    BDB (View Comment):

    HOWEVER, isolating it just now, I realize that this is EXACTLY the outro loop to Procol Harum’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, which I sought and could not find for some time.  Dang — it’s even the same key.

    Yup, they loved them some Bach.

    I think I mentioned  this before, but I saw Procol Harum at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia circa 1969/70. There was this older kid 18 or so ( I was 15 or 16) who was staying at our house for the summer,  he was the son of my father’s boss. He and his twin brother were pianists and they performed classical pieces with two grand pianos. Very straight kids ( straight in those days meant non-hippies) and the Factory was very counterculture. Anyway he enjoyed the concert, and asked if Gary Brooker was classically trained. I said I didn’t know, but after a while he said, “Yeah he’s classically trained” LOL

    • #10
  11. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    BDB (View Comment):

    In Bach’s Prelude in C (the barbaric way that I play it), there’s a moment (I use &x to show x in the bass regardless of inversion):

     

    I had to check it out and found this. The interesting part starts around 3 min in. I confess I’m lacking the theory module in my brian so I really don’t grasp a lot of this, but I recognize the ‘forgiveness’  reference to this prelude. 

    • #11
  12. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Quietpi (View Comment):
    But it was back in the green room that the ten of us talked about the experience.  It’s a good thing that we had every part doubled, because at some point every one of us had to drop out, to regain our composure, and get control of our voices.  Every one of us remembers that like it was yesterday.  Even today I have to really concentrate to get through that song, even in rehearsal.  

    I have that trouble myself. I sing a song about a crew returning from sea who tell the tale to a waiting woman of how her bethrothed, ‘Jack’ was enticed into the sea by a Mermaid, asked the crew to beg her to allow him to “marry the mermaid who lives in the sea”.

    One of the first times I sang that song was at a Renaissance festival in Michigan on September 16th, 2001. As I was singing I reflected upon those who died in New York City.  People who went to work and never came back, and someone has to inform their loved ones, who were so full of hope for the future. I still choke up a little, because when I sing that song I think of 9/11 and people jumping out of the building.  

    • #12
  13. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Put those headphones on, walk around town…you feel like you’re in a movie…or a music video.

    • #13
  14. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Franco (View Comment):

    I have that trouble myself. I sing a song about a crew returning from sea who tell the tale to a waiting woman of how her bethrothed, ‘Jack’ was enticed into the sea by a Mermaid, asked the crew to beg her to allow him to “marry the mermaid who lives in the sea”.

    One of the first times I sang that song was at a Renaissance festival in Michigan on September 16th, 2001. As I was singing I reflected upon those who died in New York City.  People who went to work and never came back, and someone has to inform their loved ones, who were so full of hope for the future. I still choke up a little, because when I sing that song I think of 9/11 and people jumping out of the building.  

    Wow.  Yeah.  

    One of Sammy Davis Jr.’s top hits was of course Mr. Bojangles.  I’m told that eventually he dropped it from his regular package, because once he sang it, he could never get the audience back.  

    Wanna know a single piece that can evoke so many emotions, depending on the circumstances?  Taps.  Working at a Scout camp, I loved to play it in the evening.  When staying on an Army post, they still play the regular bugle calls at their proper time, over their loudspeakers.  It’s just relaxing, reassuring.  On the other hand, I’ve been to too many funerals for too many friends.  It can make me cry.  

    I only have one request for my own funeral – a real bugler, not that *#!&% fiberglass monstrosity. 

    • #14
  15. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    we went from hair-band metal to Kurt Cobain grunge practically overnight

    I want to say, “I remember that night!” but I cannot.

    Really liked the Duane Allman cover.  What secondarily impresses me about that Statesboro Blues work is the guitarist’s apparent use of a scintillation vial as a slide. Biochemistry was never that interesting when I was in it! Anyway, I myself like to pick out Little Martha, because even though I’m not at all good at it, the joy of the tune comes through.

    • #15
  16. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Franco: Another tumultuously beautiful stirring of chaotic emotions with delicacy and power. Walking around with this in your headphones will bring a new meaning to your life. Try it!

    Thanks! Doing it now, and appreciating the recommendation.

    • #16
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