by Peter Shirts:
I recently read Orson Scott Card's early novel Songmaster (1980). I wanted to read the book not only because I like much of Card's writing, but because I'm a musician and was curious how Card would use music in his book. The story follows Ansset, a gifted orphan who has been brought up in a singing school, one that is known throughout the galaxy for producing young singers whose talent is so powerful that people will spend fortunes to host these singers, called "Songbirds," for just a few years. Ansset ends up singing for a ruthless emperor, perhaps inspired by the biblical story of David and Saul. The book could probably be categorized as science fiction, as the story takes places in a future where Earth has become the capitol of a huge galactic empire, but Card's use of music is more like a magic system in a fantasy novel. This "magic" is based on touching people emotionally, sometimes reflecting or amplifying their own emotions, at other times changing them completely. And in the book, music changed the course of history.
Can Music Really Change People's Emotions?
In this book, music bought large swaths of lands, inspired riots and suicides, brought communities together, and changed the way people thought. But often fantasy magic is used to amplify traits that already exist in reality. Can music really do all those things? Music can certainly galvanize people, change people's moods and even hearts, and help people to accumulate wealth. I think it is possible that prolonged listening of certain music could bring someone suicidal thoughts, but only if those feelings are already present to a degree (which is what happens in Songmaster). I think that Card is right that powerful, well-performed music can amplify what someone is already feeling, letting a person swim in those heightened emotions.
What is the source of the music's power over emotions? Is it the words that accompany the music or the music itself? Music's power is often not in the words, though words can bring associations that change the interpretation of the music. It is interesting that in Card's story, words are often not the most important part of a Songbird's power. Card chooses as his highest form of music a human voice that can communicate words, so words are somewhat important, but instead of composing words for songs and presenting those as a text, as is more common in a literature (which is built on words), Card often gives a summary of the lyrics and then tries to explain how the music conveys the feeling of the words. To accomplish this musical description, he delves into more music-specific vocabulary than is usually done by novelists (music, it turns out, is hard to describe with words, and so some writers just skip this). I think Card's choice to describe rather than simply provide words was a good one—it assigns the music power, which I think it more indicative of the mostly inexplicable way music actually works. Music is a language that is often left to the interpretation of the hearer, though it gives some symbols and markers that can point the interpretation in certain ways.
Mormon Music: Something's Missing?
While Card doesn't speak specifically about Mormon music in Songmaster, I feel that the book illuminates one critique of Mormon music. The book ends with the conclusion that songs are greater and more powerful when singers can express what might be called the negative emotions: pain, heartbreak, and tough experience. While I think there are arguments against this (certainly there is plenty of room for happy, optimistic, positive music in the world), in my study of music, I feel that the greatest music is often an exploration of negative emotions. Yet, these "negative" feelings that are mostly absent in Mormon music. Another thread throughout Songmaster is the idea of a singer expressing their own voice and songs instead of just copying others, another trait that is not necessarily condoned by Mormon culture, which places a great amount of emphasis on a fixed body of hymns, and (even outside of hymns) certain musical styles. Should we as Mormons encourage more unique voices in music? Should we also encourage art that expresses negative emotions?
I had an experience recently that illustrates how music can 1) express negative emotions, 2) amplify emotions, and 3) reflect back emotions. I was conducting the congregational closing hymn after a fast and testimony meeting. The hymn was Come, Come Ye Saints. Someone in the congregation had just given a testimony in which she talked about a friend who had died unexpectedly that week. When we got to the 4th verse ("and should we die ...") she started crying, which in turn made me start to cry, too. Clearly, the negative emotion expressed in the words was amplified by the music, causing her to re-experience her negative emotions. Then, that emotion (again carried by the music) was amplified back to me. While I can't say it was a pleasant experience, it was a powerful and testimony-building experience. And isn't this a type of experience that we should encourage in our worship services, services whose main topic is the atonement-enabled healing of negative emotions?
Peter Shirts has directed ward and stake choirs and has mastered the art of suggestion when he's not directing the church choir he's currently in. While at BYU, he co-founded an ensemble that played Klezmer (Eastern European Jewish music) and enjoyed teaching Mormons how to dance at Jewish weddings. After receiving 2.5 degrees in music and one degree in library science, he is currently gainfully employed as a music and audiovisual librarian in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he lives with his wife. He blogs weekly about musical things at www.signifyingsoundandfury.com.
Image credit: Scott Heffernan (used with permission).