In these early months of 2016, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of grief, all over the world, at the news of the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and other important musicians. On the surface, this might seem odd; after all, the vast majority of us were not personally or even distantly acquainted with any of these musical artists. This vast grief goes way beyond mere empathy for the death of a fellow human being—this is really personal. But why do we, total strangers to these musicians and their families, feel this loss so deeply?
You are shaped by your music as surely as by your genes. A song imprints itself on you during the most traumatic, mundane, or blissful events of your life, and whatever happens afterward, that music will be a part of your personality forever. No matter how profound—or silly—that song might be.
Think about it. You hear the opening chord of a song from ten or fifteen years ago, and instantly you are Back There. You remember that first crush, or that graduation ceremony, or driving to the vet with your sick cat for the very last time (oh, “Bright Eyes”)—and you remember every sound, you feel the rain or see the glaring sunshine, and you feel again every intense emotion you felt at that exact moment. You are once again wearing those platform shoes and that big hair and those blazers with the huge shoulders—oh wait. Am I projecting again?
But it’s true that, in my case, the music of the eighties is indelibly linked to who I was then. My “Here Comes the Rain Again” depression in the spring of 1984 blossomed into a brilliant and wonderful summer (“Might as well jump. Jump!”). Early Queensryche and late Pink Floyd were my soundtrack for visits to southern California in the nineties. And The Prayer Cycle album by Jonathan Elias led me through two pre-2001 visits to Manhattan and soared through my mourning on 9/11.
There are probably many reasons why music accompanies and shapes our lives. Surely our attraction stems first from the rhythms of our mothers’ bodies when we were in the womb and then the rhythms of our own bodies. But I think we’ve got a symbiotic two-way relationship to music where it both affects how we feel and lets us express how we feel.
I remember when the evangelical church began railing against Jesus Rock music; anti-rock prophets assured everyone that rock rhythms altered people’s brains so much that they became literally incapable of choosing good over evil. The idea that music can remove free will is, of course, ridiculous—yet there’s no question it can influence our moods. In the past, sometimes the best cure for my gloomy mood was to play the anthemic “Never Give Up” by Boulevard, followed by “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.
On the other side of things, music lets us express ourselves. David Miller, a professor of mine at Syracuse University, once said that when you’re feeling sad, it can be good to play sad music. Happy music can force the sad feelings down, where they fester without being dealt with. But sad music helps you get those feelings out into the open so they can dissipate. (It’s true. During that tough Syracuse year, the sad “Cruising for Bruising” by Basia, together with “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, almost singlehandedly kept me alive.)
Everywhere on this planet, human beings make music. We can’t help ourselves. Music is our constant companion, our first impulse, and for most of us, our psychological necessity.
In 2004, after all my stuff had been in storage several hundred miles away for four and a half lonely years, at last I managed to get everything shipped to my new home. On a glorious, sunny Saturday, I finally got to open my hundred boxes—books and CDs first. Box after box, I found treasures I hadn’t heard in all that time. I hugged my Police CDs to my chest and cried. I played Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd. I played Loreena McKennitt and Tchaikovsky. I played The Prayer Cycle, and Officium by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek.
What I felt and actually think was true was that long lost pieces of my soul were whirling back into me and making me a whole person again. That music was me—and I was back! That’s what music does. That’s what music is.
And when we lose those musicians who had also become parts of our personality over the years, we have indeed lost a genuine part of ourselves.
(A version of this article previously appeared in the June 2013 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)