There is something about music that resonates with our hearts; that sears icily through our spines, and make us whole. It is that thing that captivates us in the throbs of the drums, and in the rhythms of the ticking clock—a poetry that is felt in the marrow. There is something about music that comes to our aid when everything else fails—the hymn of our universe which answers those vague and persistent questions of life that haunt our souls. It is that something—that still voice that courses through the face of the waters—the one that brings us the mildest relief as it pours into our parched souls, ‘like the drops of frozen rain that melts on the dry palate of the panting earth’, to use Achebe’s imagery in Things Fall Apart.
It is in that song that triggers a cascade of involuntary reactions—the one that propels us to move with it in time, tapping our toes and humming along to the song. And as the music loops in pitch and pace, in colour and in texture, with smooth-sounding consonantal intervals, we lose grip of our bodies. Stimulated by that something, we move our feet gracefully, or disgracefully; dancing, singing, and leaping for joy, we sink into a room full of laughter and happiness; we join other dancers in the clapping of hands and the stomping of feet. And as the happy notes ascend the sky and inspire heavenly joy, that something becomes the chords of our escape, sending us to our peak as the feeling of the beat vibrates our nerves and make us twirl around on the floor. It is that something that puts us in the mood: of joy and of sorrow, of pain and of happiness—and of every other experience ineffable.
Drum crashes…cornet razzes…
We stop playing or listening and go to bed…but that something still makes the music echo in our heads.
It is the power and influence of music to keep us in control—or make us lose it.
The power of music to influence every facet of human life and activities is not to be underestimated. The power of music is in its capacity to influence our minds, our bodies, our culture, our religion and our politics. But music’s power transcends its impact on humans alone. The entire universe attests to the presence of rhythm and harmony that forms part of the matrix of the power of music!
Music tends to be so meaningful to us because of its relationship to our minds (memory). Sometimes we hear a song play and be like, “Hey! That’s my song!” or we hear a song and feel like, “this sounds familiar, I can hum along!” Sometimes we may even find ourselves singing, to our own bemusement, a song we used to dislike (even before we realise it). Simply put, that’s because the song has created a listening pattern (surges of synapses) in your brain that you have a particular chemistry with. (You may wish to read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits to understand how our basal ganglia stores and generates our listening habits, such that we do not even need to decide to sing along before we had started doing so. It’s automatic!). It is this chemistry caused by the familiar sounds of the music you like to provoke an emotional response. Thus when we listen to a “happy” music, the reward centres of our brain are stimulated, which, in turn, secretes dopamine—the ‘I-feel-good!’ chemical which our bodies secrete after treating ourselves to a great meal, or after having sex.
The power of music is especially evident amongst people in trying circumstances. I happened to visit a police station in Lagos one day. Actually, I was arrested and taken there for questionings over an offence I never committed. It was nice I went with them anyway. And while I will probably not remember much of what happened that day, I will always remember this poor officer who sang out his joy. I couldn’t help but empathise with the poor officer; I’m quite sure he had seen too much of the tougher side of life. It was only his uniform that made him a little better than some of the inmates I saw at the station. As he continued to sing out this soulful tune that I came to recognise much later was his customised version of one of the hit songs of the late veteran reggae artiste Lucky Dube of South Africa, I caught into the meaning of the song; and, thus, its significance in his life. He used to be an inmate and has been so for some 12 years, before he was set free and finally, in a twist of plot, became a police officer himself.
Except you have been into, or have seen, what people experience daily in Nigerian prisons first-hand, or hear the stories some will probably not live to tell, you may not fully appreciate the essence of the poor officer’s song. And yet there are other numerous well-known examples of how music became a source of hope for the downtrodden (the 2010 Haiti earthquake survivors’ case being a particular point of reference). Suffice it to say that the power of music can give us the strength to trudge on in the battle of life.
The power and influence of music can also be seen in its impacts on cultural conventions. The national anthems of most nations convey their origins in the struggle for freedom. We often tend to identify with music that represents, in content, if not form, the values we believe in. Popular music, then, is usually said to represent the prevalent value system of its society. The tendency of many popular artistes in Nigeria, for instance, to produce sick music is only a symptom of the open sore of decadence in the nation itself. Meanwhile, most popular western music, in encouraging a laissez-faire lifestyle characterised by moral decadence reflects the ‘live your life’ and ‘you only live once’ spirit of the west. To be sure, most popular music in contemporary society, apart from being an anathema to classical principles of good music, encourages a crude system of materialism and greed, self-adulation and highly graphic occult and sexual images which debase both the performers and the listeners (viewers).
More than the culture of a society, the power of music also influences political struggles, such that while activist and ideologist use it to galvanise popular support, the oppressors do all in their power to censor these. In this sense music becomes “not a mirror held up to reality but [like other art forms], a hammer with which to shape it”, to use the words of Bertolt Brecht, one of the greatest modernist dramatist in Europe. To my mind, the closest example of music as a weapon of political struggle is that of the musician, human rights activists and political maverick, Fela Anikulapokuti. His songs spoke his brave inner political thoughts, which amounted to harsh criticisms and insults, on especially the then military president, Muhammad Buhari. I like using the description of Fela by Blanche Clarke in Herald Sun, February 2011, to sum his music-activist personality: “Imagine Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person and you get a sense of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.” And I should quickly add that a dangerous cousin to the power and influence of music as a political weapon of struggle is the misuse of it as a weapon of violence. Much has been written on this by Martin Cleoman and Bruce Johnson in their book, The Dark Side of the Tune. Do well to read it.
Music has the power to heal. Using music as therapy—that is, as the medicine of the soul—has the power to improve our health and well-being. It can be used to treat children and adults with illnesses and disabilities. I believe one way in which music does this is in its capacity to help us relieve our emotions and memories. I have read of cases where, after words have failed, music was able to reach patients with Alzheimer’s disease—bringing back memories associated with the time the patient had a previous relationship to the sounds. Another way is in the power of music to regulate our tensions. As we listen to music, it influences the level of our heartbeat, blood pressure and respiration. Soothing music can calm our spirits as we experience a catharsis—a cleansing effect. Music can liberate us of negative energies. I could still recall, not quite long ago, the special easing effect I had during a musical performance by some creative art students of the University of Lagos in the Main Auditorium after a stressful day at work. By the time I left the hall, I had experienced a lightness—a great sense of relief, like a heavy load had been lifted off me in that hall.
The power of music is such that it resonates with our stories. Music understands the language of our hearts, our struggles and strife; it is what can lift you off your feet and you begin to fly away from sorrow and pain, knowing that your mind is free again; the power of music can light up your days and spark up your nights. It is even in the fragile lullaby that makes the child fall asleep. The power of music is like the force in the ocean that pulls us to its shore; it is in the rhythm of the universe that moves us to the core. The power of music is the chords of our escape from the grim realities of this world.
What’s more? There is music for everyone! Whether your taste lies in Rock, Jazz, R&B, Praise and Worship, Hip Hop, Afro Pop, Juju, and you name the rest, there is music for you. So the next time you hear that rhythm and slide at once onto the dance floor, gyrating to the beats; or you hear your favourite song on the radio and, without even thinking, sing along at the top of your voice, never minding the bemusement coming from onlookers, remember that it is the power of music that influences you and puts you in the mood.