7c08ca14e2742affb831acb0faf9e4d6The importance that music has for a lot of people is easy to see. Today in our consumerist society, it is evident how people’s affinity for music often becomes a tendency towards a sort of musical dependence. Ear-buds, headphones, iPods, cell phones, and mp3 players have become the daily companion of millions. The ever-expanding production of the music industry has grown into a complex myriad of pop music, sub-cultures and genres, lamentably often a powerful means of diffusion for messages imbedded with anti-values.

Given this, it seems worthwhile to examine our personal habits and experience of listening to music to reflect upon how music affects us and what influence it might have on how we live, see, and understand ourselves. In other words, what place does music hold in the context of what I am living?

The music-experience

Music touches fibers in our interior that go much deeper than the reaction of appeal or disinterest. We discover deep inside us a certain dimension of transcendence for which we all innately long to reach. Music often presents itself as a vehicle in the search to go beyond ourselves. Perhaps music is capable of this because, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it, music springs from the inexpressible and directs itself towards the infinite.

[pullquote]When we intonate words vocally in song, these become part of our effort to strive for transcendence. We often say that well-written lyrics are timeless because they speak of realities that don’t change with trends or decades.[/pullquote]

Music also has the capacity to unify individuals in symphonic communion, or synergy. Anyone who has sung along at a live concert, joined in rooting chants at a sporting event, or sung in the congregation at church has likely experienced this phenomenon. Music Neurologists have found that the act of singing in unison with others produces epinephrine, a hormone that facilitates mutual bonding and trust. The act of partaking in music not only feels like communion, it tends psychologically to build communion with those who are present.

Hunger for transcendence

the_music_of_the_spheres_iv__the_aethon_by_mrboltzmann-d5it9apThe inclination we have to transcend ourselves is part of our human nature. We can understand it on two planes. First, there is a horizontal transcendence that reaches out for human communion; friendship, acceptance, reputation, empathy, etc… Second, there is the yearning for a vertical transcendence that reaches out for communion with truth, goodness, beauty, and other absolute ideals. In reality, we are referring to God, the absolute perfection of these ideals, and the communion that we seek to establish with him.

Now, it could be argued that because we live in an individualist culture-of-self and of-the-immanent (self-centered and dissociated from God), people’s innate –and frustrated– hunger for transcendence perhaps is contributing to levels of elevated dependence on music, in which they seek out a fix for their lack of meaningful human communion and the experience of spiritual emptiness.

In fact, music offers a varied spectrum of transcendent-like experiences, a dynamic impulse that moves us with greater ease; a certain sympathy or ‘belonging’ with others who share similar musical tastes; a certain relaxing effect capable of diffusing unpleasant emotional states, or even provoking varied levels of euphoria. These, however, are no guarantee or establishment of authentic communion with anyone; especially if the music-experience is used to shut out or distort the world, isolating the listener to marinate with the ‘vibes’ generated by their choice of musical immersion. If the music-experience is used as an end to itself, as a sort of individual, cocooning-affirmation or escape, it can become a false-substitute for the transcendence sought after, generating only the experience or sensation of going beyond oneself. We might describe it as a sort of virtual and emotional journey into another world that is not accessible without the music.

Music and pseudo-identity

Music and self-discovery have always been intertwined. In the last decades, musical trends have formed specific sub-culture groups in which particular styles of ‘coolness’ were sought after; punks, metal-heads, gangster rappers, scenesters, ravers; just to name a few examples. The behavioral and dress codes which mark these groups can be described as: musically inspired masks. The pitfalls of becoming alienated from one’s authentic-self inside these environments warrant no further explanation. The emergence of a new code today may present a new face but in the end obeys the same underlying dynamic. The new code does not try to define itself by one group or style, but wants to taste everything, try everything, not be defined by stereotypes, but be original and in being original, encounter freedom. Driven by the excitement for change and novelty, here, music still may serve to form a “new face for each day”, or to leave behind a face that is no longer comfortable. In both cases, we are still speaking about musically inspired masks. It seems that whether being associating to a particular style, or running the buffet line for all of them, musical choice can become a sort of declaration of the free and original me before others. Still, we must ask how free and authentic is that declaration?

One’s musical-world easily becomes a safe-haven of subjective emotivity that can envelope and alienate them from reality. Music makes us feel like we are friends with the artists we admire because their music speaks to something we find deep inside us. However, this potentially positive experience of seeing deeper inside can be confused if not guided by objective criteria. The impulse to seek communion in this may also lead a listener to start assuming certain attitudes or viewpoints expressed by the artist that actually have nothing to do with their own life. This type of emulation is less common in those who find their needs for communion satisfied in what they already live, which may explain why it is also more frequent among teenagers, who are seeking to define themselves and be understood. Feeling they are understood by the music that ‘explains them’, they begin to emulate its expression as a pseudo-identity. Music becomes for them an indirect way, and sometimes the only way, of expressing what they find deeper inside themselves. Those who can’t relate with the nuances of this emotive experience are disqualified from having a common ground. On the other hand, those who represent this music-experience, like trendsetters, gain an influential position over the self-searcher, becoming easy advocates of anti-values, which thereafter are often assumed as a sort of ‘self-discovery.’

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[pullquote]The option for self-declaration by way of musically-inspired-masks becomes an obstacle for the process by which one matures in their own identity. It not only offers a substitute-security of a pseudo-identity but also a music-experience which becomes the environment and means by which one can flee from the difficulties of reality. In this way, the listener comes to depend on music as a vital comfort factor dissociated from any actual authentic personal communion.[/pullquote]

The context of music in life

noteThe relationship between music and reality confirms that there are positive and negative ways to use music. Music can be used for healthy or unhealthy forms of entertainment, for coping with situations, or for maintaining emotional balance. Music Therapy, for example, uses music as a tool to help persons connect with reality. This idea perhaps marks a North for discerning a correct use of music. Music, in its authentic place, helps us to connect with reality, in an objective way. It can enrich and uplift our interior experience of the world and open us up to new realities, which were previously unseen.

However, when music becomes a means for distorting reality, or a means by which we dissociate ourselves from reality, a re-evaluation of its usage is needed. The underlying problem here is not music in-and-of-itself, nor its capacity to affect us, but rather the vital attitude of the listener; the attitude with which one seeks to live. Many today follow an attitude of self-abandon before the impulses that reality places before them. They want to let themselves be carried by the flow of experiences, expressed by the phrase, “Don’t think. Feel.” Music becomes a perfect vehicle for this, which may explain why so many are constantly “tuned up”.

This situation may also lead to a continual churning up of unconscious emotions. Though our emotions are good, when they become dissociated or disproportionate with reality there is a problem. Music has the power to mix up the emotions that reality should be causing with those that a musical ambience provokes. Obviously, the effect of a song wears off as soon as we get back to the context of reality. However, when the music experience is prolonged, like in musical dependence, one has to ask, to what extent does it begin to have a distorting effect on my perception of reality? How much do I let my playlist determine the color of my world? Do I feel the need for music to maintain that color, or to fill the void? Why is it that when a continuous musical stimulus is taken away, reality starts to seem muddled, unbearable or even dull and empty? It seems that music has the power to decontextualize our place in reality, and oftentimes the emotional echo that it leaves can make it hard to find our way back to equilibrium and silence.


Musical dependence, as it is seen today, reveals a certain incapacity for silence. Silence can be uncomfortable, but it is the place where we encounter our inner-self and God. Silence is the true space of transcendence in reality and needs to be part of our reality if we seek to know our true identity, to have the capacity to center ourselves upon it, and to be able to encounter authentic and meaningful moments of transcendence with others and with God. This is the context in which God has created us; the context in which we are called to live.

Musical dependence can potentially turn this context towards the immanence of interior noise and stimulation, or as Joseph Ratzinger calls it, sensualized subjectivism, which dissolves both being and meaning in a disoriented search for pseudo-transcendence. In this way, much of today’s popular music expresses a trivialization of the real because it drags man to the inebriation of the senses, it oversteps reason and subjugates the spirit to the senses [of the flesh].

Certain musical genres do this more explicitly than others, so it is necessary to evaluate the objective content of our music, both in the lyrics and in the rhythm and tonality. This evaluation should be accompanied by a conscious look at our own musical experience.

Why does a song appeal to me? What is the context in which I listen to music? Am I conscious of the interior repercussions that the songs I like generate in me? Am I dependent upon my music? Does my music help me connect or disconnect with reality? Does music serve as a context in which to establish a superficial encounter with others, mediated by musically inspired masks? Does it replace the expression of authentic dialogue with my interior self, and with God; or does it cooperate with and enrich this expression? Has my use of music displaced the necessary spaces for silence in my life, filling me with noise; or am I capable of distancing myself from the stimulation music causes in me? The answers to these questions come in many levels and through many changing day to day circumstances, but their key lies in categorizing our vital attitude: we should seek to live within the context of reality and not, by way of headphones, escape from it.

© 2014 – Benjamin Oldani para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC

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