“God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true.”
Music is Freedom
“Literature is freedom,” as Susan Sontag brilliantly expressed. This freedom is not one of a careless nature, or an escape into a fantasy world where there isn’t such a thing as responsibility. Rather, as Sontag put it, literature liberates us from our immediate limitations by harboring us into a “larger reality”. We are freed from the confines of our own thinking and worldviews, as we gain a more wholesome view of the world around us. A passport to a larger life, literature “can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.”
The domain in which literature dwells is in our human drive to appreciate beauty. The writer Edgar Allan Poe argued that “An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight.”
He also said, “The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.”
Poe acknowledged that the poetic sentiment can manifest itself in different forms than poetry, such as sculpture, dance, and architecture. He especially pointed out that music is a stellar representation of the Poetic Principle.
He said, “It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.”
Poe judged that “A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul”. We could say the same about music, that the value of a song is in its elevating excitement, in how much it inspires.
Music is powerful not only in the lyrics sung, but in the instrumentals themselves. Like a liberating voyage into another dimension, a musician could be engaged in the rhythm and lost in his notes, living in the limitless present — Inspiring her listeners to exchange in this unspoken conversation, a wordlessly eloquent communication of inner feelings.
Even if the music is purely instrumental, it feels as though a lot is being said — Perhaps they are emotions too deep to be expressed in words. It’s never enough that the musician merely plays her song. She has to live her notes.
Contemplating on music’s power over the human spirit, Oliver Sacks wrote, “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
Maybe music’s place in literature couldn’t be compared to that of poems and books. To contemplate on the value of music solely based on lyrics would be a limited view. It deserves its own outlet as lyrics and melody go hand-in-hand to give rise to a unique form of experience.
From this experience that it gives us, the same freedom can be found.
A Personal Revisit
I got into the car and started the engine, with my brother sitting next to me in the passenger’s seat. Before I drove off, I played Avenged Sevenfold’s “City of Evil” album. As the machine gun drums and the Drop-D tuned guitars blasted in the opening track “Beast and the Harlot”, my brother said, “I see you’ve been listening to them a lot again. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It just feels really good to reconnect with yourself. I almost forgot just how much I loved this band. Back when we were in school I remember saving my pocket money to buy all their albums.”
Other than the childish pranks and all the mischief, my teenage years are best remembered by two things : Avenged Sevenfold’s music, and literature, especially John Steinbeck’s works and war poems.
For me, music and reading have always been closely related. As easily as I could get lost in the groove when I played the guitar, reading (and writing) was no different. Probably being a disappointment to my parents, my leisure time was spent attentively listening to Avenged Sevenfold and analyzing their lyrics, and reading books as well as writing short stories. As far as reading went, I even copied down Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” word by word in handwriting, to have a glimpse into his mind and know what it felt like to write such a great story.
Most of the stories I wrote were based on the songs I listened to. What I could remember best, I wrote a story about losing the people who were once dear to you, based on the song “The Kids Aren’t Alright” by The Offspring. And I wrote another story about the horrors of war, inspired by Guns N’ Roses’s “Civil War” and Avenged Sevenfold’s “M.I.A.”
The conversation with my brother escalated into sharing our thoughts on Avenged Sevenfold’s incredible lyrics and storytelling. We were just kids when we first heard the band, me probably being 10 years old and him 11 — Our eldest brother played their self-titled album in the car, and the first song we heard was “Afterlife”.
The song tells the story of a young man who finds himself in the afterlife, as he begs for another chance to live because he has so many things left to do for his loved ones. Other than being amazingly catchy, the song triggered all kinds of cinematic narratives in my mind. Little did I know, I was only beginning to scratch the surface of this new universe that I found myself in.
My life took a huge turn when I briefly attended Literature class in high school. Learning about the great war poems such as Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, and The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy, I was madly in love with this newly gained perspective on life. It was like seeing the world with a new pair of eyes, as you could discern the underlying human truths in everything, and empathize with the backstories of the people you meet.
And without a doubt, when you’re in love with something, you can’t help yourself from seeing it wherever you go.
“So you saw Avenged Sevenfold’s songs as poetry?,” my brother asked.
In some way, I did.
The City of Evil album, for example, is packed with imaginative songs. “Beast and the Harlot” is literally about the Fall of Babylon. “Bat Country” is based on Hunter S. Thompson’s story, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Personally, I believe the most striking songs on the album are “M.I.A” and “Betrayed”.
M.I.A is a war song, but not of its glory. The song doesn’t talk about achieving victory in the battlefield, rather, it talks about what it feels like to kill a human being. All your life, you’ve been told that murder is a huge sin, but here you are in the war zone, with a gun in your hand, taking the lives of others so that they won’t take yours. Some of your comrades are scared, but some take pleasure in the killing. Confused yourself, murder’s all you know.
Betrayed, on the other hand, is written about the musician Dimebag Darrell, who was murdered in concert by a mentally-deranged fan. The song is sung in the perspectives of 3 individuals — Dimebag Darrell, his murderer, and Avenged Sevenfold’s singer, Matt who is grieving Dimebag’s death. We’re taken on a quest to understand what each individual is going through, as Matt guides us to empathize with each of them. We might even feel sorry for the mentally-deranged fan, as we hear the lyrics, “Someone hear me, someone stop me, someone listen, why aren’t you listening?”
To this day, City of Evil remains as my most meaningful Avenged Sevenfold album. It’s a reminder of just how powerful and life-changing music could be, if we’re willing to listen a little more carefully than just for our entertainment.
Well, that’s about enough of what music has meant to me. How has music been a huge part of your life? I’m sure you have a great story to tell.