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What is music for?

What is music for? We listen to it because we like it. But why do we like it? There’s no one good solid answer to this. We just like it because we like it. It’s the same with all of the arts.

But “How is music used” is a different question altogether. Music is used to sell products, to soften the heart of someone special, to fill the room with some noise. It’s used to remember, to take us back to when we were in high school, college, first in love, first drove a car. It’s all of those things.

A few weeks ago I got to play for some friends while we were in California. Ten of us, plus or minus, gathered around a piano we found in an empty conference room after a long day of business and a few drinks. I pulled up some lyrics on my phone, sat down, and started to play and sing to my friends gathered around.

This is unusual for me. Generally when I play I am in my studio playing things that no one else will ever hear. You would be grateful for that if you heard some of it. Occasionally I’ll post something on Soundcloud or Bandcamp, but it is by and large a solitary pursuit. It’s just me in my studio with headphones, lights blinking in the dark silence.

Every now and then someone listens to one of those songs, and most likely that person was on her phone or laptop, alone within her headphones. Silent and solitary to the outside world. Someone was searching for something that resonates with her soul in the vast darkness of internet space and for a moment, she found it in one of my songs.

I get a little digital blip that someone liked it. Someone shared. Someone commented. Someone downloaded. Like Morse code signals from far away there is something affirming about that. We have a connection of sorts.

But that night in Half Moon Bay, the piano was our campfire. As I sang I was the tribal poet telling the familiar stories of love and heartache. And as I sang the last chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” I heard the voices of people I care for singing with me. We were all connected in that moment by something beautiful and as old as humanity itself.

That’s what music is for.

Philip Stephen Allen at the piano

2 thoughts on “What is music for?

  1. Yes, yes, and yes. A lot of the time music is a background to my day, and if I’m really experiencing it I tend to do so alone – whether alone in the flat or alone in a busy place with my headphones (as when I listened to your entire Soundcloud collection in the Natural History Museum cafe) – but as I read your words I was brought back to my wedding nearly two years ago.

    The part of that day that I remember with the most clarity and feeling was in the evening after everything had wound down and most of our guests had left. Our friends told us they had something for us and took us out to the dell at the end of the beautiful cottage garden, under the trees. They had prepared some songs for us, accompanied by guitar. It was hauntingly beautiful and the most perfect moment – after a day of chaos, it was when I knew that everything was as it should be – surrounded by close friends and family and so much love and contentment. My brother joined in with a couple spontaneous songs that everyone could sing along with, and everything just felt right, complete.

    After all our months of planning and preparation, it’s these moments that weren’t planned that bring tears to my eyes every time I think of them, everyone I love connected in the moment by the gift of music.

    1. What a beautiful experience, Eva. What a great experience to have – thank you for sharing it.

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