The Healing Power of Music

It's not just a luxury

One of my parents’ deepest fears was that as a musician I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had excellent grades in high school, was good in science and math, and they imagined me as a doctor or research chemist or engineer. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school: “You’re wasting your SAT scores!” I think my parents were not sure what the value of music was.

And they have lots of company. We live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper. Serious music, though, has nothing to do with entertainment. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things.

The “Quartet for the End of Time” is a musical composition written by French composer Olivier Messiaen while he was in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. A sympathetic guard gave him paper and a place to compose. His musician colleagues in the camp included a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, so Messiaen wrote his piece for those players. It was performed in January 1941 for 4,000 prisoners and guards, and today it is a masterwork in the repertoire.

Why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy in a Nazi camp writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why bother with music? Yet even from concentration camps we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art created by many people. In a place where people are focused only on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, I sat down at the piano at 10 a.m. to practice, as was my daily routine. I lifted the cover and opened my music. I put my hands on the keyboard. Then I took my hands off the keys. I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems pointless, absurd, irreverent. Who needs a piano player right now?

Along with the rest of New York, I went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that first day after the attacks, and I contemplated briefly whether I wanted to ever play the piano again. And then I observed how we were all managing the trauma.

In my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble, we didn’t deal cards or watch TV shows or shop. The first collective voluntary activity I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang around fire houses. People sang “We Shall Overcome.” Lots of people sang “America the Beautiful.”

The first organized public event I remember was the Brahms “Requiem,” played later that week at Lincoln Center by the New York Philharmonic. It was a concert that marked the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The U.S. military secured the airspace. But our recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular.

In these ways I have come to understand that music is not a luxury, an amusement or pastime, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds. In this way it helps us survive.

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Spontaneous music-making was one of the first ways Americans sought solace after the 9/11 attacks.

Samuel Barber’s heart-wrenching “Adagio for Strings” has the ability to crack you open like a walnut, to make you cry with sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us—the way a good therapist does.

I have played a thousand concerts in my life. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important, music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my life, though, took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano” that he wrote during World War II and dedicated to a friend who was shot down during the conflict. Midway through the piece, a square-jawed elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep.

After we finished playing I described the circumstances in which Copland dedicated that piece to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed he had to leave the auditorium. I figured we would never see him again, but he came backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

“During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial-combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot. I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during your playing this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I knew nothing about that piece of music, and didn’t understand why that was happening. But then you explained where the music came from, and it was more than I could handle. How does music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

To help this old airman, and other people, connect to lost memories, and remember, and mourn—that is my work. That is why music matters. When I welcome your sons and daughters to this year’s freshman class in a few days, I will give them a charge of responsibility. Here’s what I will tell them:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously. Because you would imagine that some night at 2 a.m. someone is going to be carried into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save a life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 p.m. someone is going to slip into your concert hall, bringing a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether he or she goes out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer. Being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product. Your work will be closer to that of a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor or physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they can get things to line up, to pull us into harmony with ourselves and our world. To make listeners healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music, I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness, of peace, of mutual understanding, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force, or a corporation. To understand how invisible, important, internal things should fit together, we need the help of musicians.