Heart Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The heart and mind are in some ways theoretical constructs. Though both can be located within physical space—the chest and cranial cavities respectively—they have deeper significance in metaphysical discourse. The heart is not just a vital organ pumping blood around the body. In Western and some non-Western cultures, it is the seat of passion, empathy, love, conviction, intuition and emotional impulses. The mind is not just the locus of high-level cognitive activity—consciousness, perception, memory, etc. It is viewed as somehow separate from the brain (and physical existence in general). In popular usage, the mind represents self-awareness and intellect, which are considered distinct from the emotion-based attributes assigned to the heart.

Whether rational and emotional states can truly be separated is a subject of ongoing debate. Judgments, convictions, sensations and decision-making derive from a mixture of thoughts and sentiments. Feelings inform cognition; cognition informs feelings. Nevertheless, the heart and mind remain useful (and inescapable) metaphors for a complex entanglement of functions and traits.

A case in point comes from Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), an influential twentieth-century composer, ethnomusicologist and educator. Kodály spent his early career on the Hungarian countryside collecting phonograph cylinder recordings. From that experience, he concluded that human beings have two native tongues. One is the language spoken at home. The other is folk music. Verbal communication is the language of the mind: the principle medium of thought and sensory processing. Folk music is the vocabulary of the heart: a storehouse of emotions and longings.

Rather than getting bogged down in ambiguities surrounding what is and what is not folk music, we can broaden Kodály’s comment to include all music that is “indigenous” to an individual. Most of us possess an assortment of musical selections that are folk-like: they capture our spirit, embody our history and encapsulate our identities. Hearing or performing them helps ground us in our pasts, situate us in our surroundings and remind us of who we are. To use a symbolic term somewhat analogous to the heart, a personal soundtrack is the record of one’s soul. In a pre-rational yet undeniable way, it puts us in contact with our interior selves.

Of course, the impact of such music is not purely emotional or otherwise ineffable. It stirs memories, images and ideas—things usually ascribed to the mind. This demonstrates the difficulty of demarcating between feelings and thoughts (heart and mind). The notions, imagery and recollections aroused by our favorite music tend to be feeling-laden: they are attached to sentimental moments in our lives, and inspire emotionally infused concepts and mental pictures.

This brings us back to Kodály’s observation. Whatever standards are used to identify music as “folk,” the qualifying sounds typically evoke regional and/or ethnic pride, rich communal associations, and the shared sentiments and experiences of a specific population. All of this constitutes a multi-layered heart—one comprised of nuanced and particularistic feelings. It is not an unthinking seat of emotions; it has an identity. These aspects are easily adapted to individual playlists. Like the “people’s music” of a culture or subculture, personally meaningful pieces forge a connecting line to one’s inner life. They speak the language of the heart.

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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