Music: for Good or Ill

Dr Doug Wilson – 20/08/2021

There are few people who don’t have happy or sad memories based around music. It appears to be a fundamental, almost primeval emotion. Primitive tribes, unsullied by exposure to the choruses of great music from other civilisations, each have their own music and dances, based on rhythms, drums and singing. We interpret the sounds of whales as songs, even if they might be communication vehicles. Old people remember hit songs of their youth far better than hot music of today. Patients with dementia frequently are roused by musical memories, and temporarily break from their locked in shells.

The power of music. At its best it uncovers deep, honest emotions, even many years after an event often recalled in curdling clarity. In June 1968 Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. After the death of his brother Jack it seemed the world desperately needed a new leader of hope, and maybe that was Bobby. I’d recently met some American Rhodes scholars based at Oxford University. Bobby had just visited them and they were converts. Two day later we had tickets to a concert by the great African American soprano Leontyne Price in the 10,000 seat Albert Hall in London. She was booked to sing with one the great London orchestras. An opening announcement said she was a close friend of Senator Bobby Kennedy, and wished to honour his memory by singing, unaccompanied, 3 spirituals. She asked that there be no applause. As the huge audience sat on their hands and sniffed tearfully this great opera singer filled the historic hall with her peerless voice. She sang from the very bottom of her soul, tears streaming down her face, the orchestra still and silent behind her, heads bowed, many crying. Ten thousand captured by the intertwined magic, drama and tragedy of the event ached to stand and clap. But silence was a far more powerful conclusion. The power of music.

For those of us able to recall the 1960s, there were the phenomena of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Rock music burst from the steady jolly beat of 1950s pop music, into the wonderful 1960s wild world of rock, and the extraordinary creativity of 4 guys from Liverpool. The impact was global for these overlapping influences. TV, radio and film built them into musical, almost religious cults. From then and since the popular music world has found its stars and super stars. Longevity is reserved for the very few, like Elton John, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen. Others on records, movies, TV clips and you tube have outlived their lead singer, like AIDS victim Freddie Mercury of Queen, and their visit to Wembley stadium. Some of these older musicians are now star turns as they reprise their great days of decades before. I have friends, 60 years and plus friends, who are Rolling Stone groupies, and try and attend as many international concerts as they can, and love it. Those were their days.

The power of music to bless. It converts most everybody to happy and warm emotions, when the stars align. For the older community these memories don’t disappear; they may fade but play their favourites and the memory banks light up, and smiles and glowing harmony abound. Play for the poor sufferers with dementia and see how they respond. Amazing are the stories of individuals suddenly emerging from the dementia fog, to reprise a tiny view of themselves decades before. Glen Campbell was one of those; he could play and sing, but not recognise close friends, causality from his Alzheimer’s. Play for those who struggle with vision and support their hearing, their major alternative sense.

Various countries’ national anthems can stir the blood, even of their opponents at large sporting events. The French La Marseillaise, and Wales Land of my Fathers sung by 70,000 locals is are classic calls for patriotism, tears and country.

At my high school it was tradition for the entire school to sing the Messiah, the great oratorio of Handel, with the Hallelujah chorus as the star. Five hundred boys, as loud as each was able, a few wonderful voices, many shrill sopranos, the crackling of pubescent voices, the newly minted basses and tenors, the blazing roar of the organ at full blast, and we glowed and loved this thrilling event, boys enthralled and captured with 18 Century religious music. That must have brought in the faithful in the mid-1750s. It certainly still does today around the world.

Once, in the 1990s my wife and I attended a great restaurant in Paris. The maître d, learning we were from New Zealand declared he was a rugby aficionado. Zey recently had ze All blacks to dine. They sang these Mori songs, fabulous. Can u sing? My wife Adele, with her great voice, sang unaccompanied the Maori Po Kare. The restaurant was silent, the boss directing them to hush. Then they customers stood up hollering, cheering with joyful French élan. We were friends of the city. The maître d, with tears in his eyes kissed my wife and thanked her and presented a fine cognac. Who ever suggested the Parisians were not friendly.

The power of music over the generations builds communities of certain ages where they gather and share their emotions, learnt with the common love of music which had burgeoned in their time, their musical highlights, genres and performers. Behind that are the great music of the classical and operatic traditions. Even today an aria like Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Tosca, and Beethoven symphony 9, the great choral symphony, can attract thousand even hundreds of thousands together to share, love and enjoy.

But the power of music is not always reserved for the good and the joyous. The Nazis in Germany were masters of the huge assemblies, big bands and Wagnerian tributes to supremacy of the Fatherland. William Sargant, a 1960s English psychiatrist, author of a book on brain washing: Struggle for the Mind, proposed that many robust religious groups, laudable music events, but also evil assemblies were brought together by various contrived musical performances and rhythms. He showed films of such disparate groups as Mayfair drug parties, fundamental Christian church services with wailing and speaking in tongues, voodoo rites in Haiti, Nazi rallies and rock bands. Rhythms were a major common factor, but all could engender similar states of ecstasy and escape and, if needed, unsavoury objectives. Ah the power of music.

Music is for everyone, just about. Treasure its power to entertain, to lift spirits when they are low, to move, and to give visible face to deep emotions, and as haunting accompaniment for permanent farewells, where the shared music and emotions tie close friends and loves together for ever.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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