Sounds and Selfhood

It is perhaps an understatement to say that music is important to a lot of people. Some of the best times of my life were spent playing, and some of the best conversations I have with students are about bands that they love. Like other art forms, music provides a way for artists to express themselves and listeners to experience another world, the world of the artist.  But it has an immediacy and power that can make even the most formal music feel intimate—and make a live rock show into a raw emotional experience for performer and audience alike.  It’s no wonder that some of the longest running battles in the digital world are about downloading music.

Even outside the live experience, music shapes our emotional lives. In their 1981 book The Meaning of Things, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton talked about the way in which recorded music is used modulate our emotions.  Sometimes, we do it to ourselves, as when we put on upbeat music before we go out in the evening.  Other times, other people try to get us in the mood, for instance in restaurants and shopping malls. But, for the most part, I think of these as innocuous—if at times tacky—uses.

Melissa Kagan, a doctoral student at Stanford, has been investigating what must be the worst, most coercive musical environment imaginable, namely the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As it turns out, music pervaded the concentration camps. Using testimonies and records, Kagan mapped the musical landscape of the camp, showing where people would have heard “forced” music and “voluntary” sound (covered at PhysOrg). A small number of guards could extend their control by blanketing the camp in music, and shaping the personal experiences of prisoners.

“The prisoners wished to die in peace, which is to say, they wanted the barest hint of autonomy over the space in which they die,” said Kagen. “But the melodies of Bach, Beethoven and Horst Wessel, along with jazz songs, wrested every last bit of space away from them.”

Kagen’s  visualizations also illustrate that so-called “voluntary music,” played by inmates and marked in blue on the maps, provided inmates with some measure of personal space and, by extension, a means for resistance…

For brief moments of time, while the “voluntarily” played music filled the air, prisoners could close their eyes and feel a certain sense of personal space restored by the familiar – if fleeting – melodies of their own choosing.

Fascinating research. And scary.

We like to think of ourselves as autonomous beings, able to make abstract ourselves from the world and determine our own destinies. Yet, we are profoundly influenced by our material surroundings. We are physical and social beings to the core, both held back and thrust forward by our surroundings.  We may end up pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, but we usually don’t make our own boots.   That’s why having some control—any control—over our surroundings is so important.

Good tools —and ready access to them—is not some side issue in human life.  It is fundamental to how we experience the world and who we can become.

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1 Comment

  1. Very awesome blog you have here! We definitely had to follow this :)
    Great post!!!


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