Listening to Ourselves

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Linguist Dwight L. Bolinger (1907-1992) included this observation in his classic book, The Symbolism of Music: “Repetition, or return to the familiar, to the learned, is more striking in music than elsewhere—a very good book may be read twice, a masterpiece of literature three or four times, a poem a dozen times; but in no other art-form could we expect the literally hundreds of repetitions to go on pleasing us.” Three things are especially striking about this statement. First is that it came from a professor of Romance languages—a man whose passion for linguistic form, function and meaning far surpassed the norm. Despite his personal and professional proclivities, Bolinger acknowledged the superiority of music in the crucial area of pleasure-making. Second, the type of music he refers to is the “favorite”: a song or piece that a person elevates above others and has a special attachment to. Third, Bolinger alludes to the essential contribution of musical favorites to the human experience. Favorites are valuable to us precisely because they are a reliable and potentially endless source of satisfaction.

It seems a human instinct to isolate, accumulate and curate a personal pantheon of greatest hits. The content of these customized collections is informed by interwoven forces, such as cultural conditioning, personality type, life experience, peer group, social station, education, exposure and heritage. Virtually everyone gravitates toward and snatches up favorites that (almost) never grow dull and often become more fulfilling with the passage of time. Counter to rational expectation and contrary to our relationship with literary works, musical favorites are heard (or performed) on countless occasions without the decrease in interest normally associated with repetition.

What accounts for this persistent gratification? The answer boils down to a simple proposition: when we listen to our favorites we are listening to ourselves. To understand this, it is best to think of music extra-musically—that is, in terms of what it does and stands for. Although certain and varied musical qualities make a piece attractive to certain and varied people, it is mainly what the music connotes that will make it a favorite.

Familiar music is a storehouse of personal information. It brings us into instant and powerful contact with emotional memories, nostalgic feelings, significant events, past and present relationships, group affiliations, intellectual leanings and other vivid reminders of who we are. To use an analogy from the computer age, musical favorites are data storage devices. They are a repository of cognitive and sentimental associations that flash into consciousness each time we hear them. They are, in short, externalized portals to our inner selves. And since identity and meaning derive largely from the data housed in this music, its repetition is a kind of self-reinforcement.

Among other things, this discussion helps us understand the affinity for recurring prayer-songs in worship services. Few ritual changes stir as much controversy as the introduction of new melodies. Musical innovations in church and synagogue have long encountered fervent objections from the people in the pews. This is conventionally attributed to factors like the religious impulse for preservation, the comfort of routine and the perceived holiness of long-established tunes. These are certainly important forces. However, if we apply the above analysis to the worship setting, we begin to appreciate that replacing cherished melodies with unfamiliar settings is, for many people, tantamount to an identity crisis. For this reason in particular, it must be handled with care.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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