Why do some songs merely entertain, where others penetrate to the depths of our souls? Why does one song leave us unmoved, where another evokes passion or joy or sorrow?
We might find an answer by framing the question differently:
What is harmony?
Any thoughtful combination of notes can produce a pleasing sound. But not all composition is inspired, not all orchestration sublime. And even then, only once in a long while does the coalescence of notes and instrumental arrangement produces a true symphonic masterpiece, one that carries us to new heights of exultation.
Add to that the poetry of artful lyrics seasoned with shrewd insight into the human condition, and you will experience the fusion of heart and mind in a glorious oneness of divine synchronicity.
There is a single word to describe this. In biblical Hebrew, it is shir.
There are three words in Hebrew that translate approximately as “music.” The first is niggun, referring to the actual production of notes and sounds in the form of melody. The second is zemer, which describes the power of musical composition to tap into the emotions and stir the heart, thereby becoming the existential chariot that carries the verbal message of inspired lyrics beyond mere intellectual understanding. This ultimate level is called shir, where words carried by melody, in turn, transport us themselves to a place where the intellect and the emotions blend into seamless unification.
This is true harmony – the resolution of the innate dissonance between the head and the heart, between thoughts and feelings, achieving a perfect synthesis of those conflicting human faculties by forging them into a sympathetic union. It is the power of song that returns us to the source of universal peace and truth, empowering us to reconnect with our essential selves and eliminating all conflict by bringing disparate parts together in absolute oneness.
Over 2000 years ago, during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was the priestly tribe of Levi who were the master musicians, putting to music the eternal words of King David’s Psalms as a backdrop to the otherworldly experience of the Temple service.
In the classical age, it was the brilliant variations on a single theme that held listeners transfixed by choral and symphonic performances set to words of theological profundity.
And although it is common for classicists to dismiss the work of moderns in comparison with the mastery of the ancients, it is ever the job of artists to discover the medium that resonates with the times and circumstances in which they find themselves. Art is communication, and both art and artists are inseparable from their audiences.
Some art is poor. Some art is good. Some art is inspired. And, occasionally, through the felicitous alignment of the stars, a creation of perfect harmony rises above the mundane and the merely beautiful. When it does, it captures the hearts and minds of those sufficiently in tune to recognize and experience the transcendence of intellect and emotion.
Wizard: You know what’s out there? A series of higher tones, arranged by nature and governed by the laws of physics. And it’s a whole universe. It’s an energy, it’s an overtone, it’s a wavelength, and if you’re not riding it, good-lordy, you’ll never hear it.
Evan: Where do you think it comes from, what I hear?
Wizard: I think it comes from all around you, really. I mean, it comes through us – some of us. It’s invisible, but you feel it.
Evan: So only some of us can hear it?
Wizard: Only some of us are listening.
Some megahits are like fireworks, lighting up the sky and vanishing as quickly. Others establish themselves as classics, played over and over for decades. But occasionally, certain snatches of lyrics etch themselves into the bedrock of cultural consciousness and summon us to revisit them again and again and again.
Here are just a few memorable examples of lyrical genius woven together in verbal tapestries of poignant beauty and timeless wisdom that should bring a flicker of recognition and, for those who can truly hear, joyful exhilaration.
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted; she got the Mercedes Benz;
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends.
Consistently voted one of the greatest songs of all time, the Eagles’ “Hotel California” keenly lays bare the vacuousness of popular culture and the utter cluelessness of those who worship at the altar of superficiality. In this way, the band was far ahead of its time, frequently skewering the glitter culture of which it was a part with songs like “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Get Over It,” “Life’s Been Good” and this, its undisputed masterpiece.
All lies and jest, still, a man he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
Simon and Garfunkel’s tragic ballad “The Boxer” plucks the heartstrings of anyone who has ever fought against the odds for a distant dream. We can’t always be sensible, can’t always heed the voice of reason. And the fighter within us that makes us tilt at windmills may end up cut and bruised, but the next dream and then the next forces him back into the ring. Eventually, he may find his way to the fight from which he emerges victorious.
Then one day you find, ten years have got behind you;
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
Every song on Pink Floyd’s classic album Dark Side of the Moon is itself a classic and “Time” is no exception. The theme of impaired perception takes center stage in this couplet, which expresses the very human failings of indecision, lack of foresight, and irresponsibility, together with the bitterness of recrimination when it’s too late to do anything but mourn opportunities lost.
And freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talkin’;
Your prison is walking through this world all alone.
In the same vein, these lines from the Eagles’ “Desperado” describe the way that fear of commitment masquerades as calculated independence, with similarly tragic results.
And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.
Possibly the most beautiful musical composition in the last half-century, The Beatles’ “Let it Be” makes its own case for quiet resignation to all that lies beyond our control with its musical and lyrical simplicity. With far more subtlety and nuance than the giddy Utopianism of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” this single line evokes all the hope and pain of the human condition while forcing each of us to ponder our own role in finding the elusive “answer” to human suffering and injustice.
‘Cause every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser;
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.
Kenny Roger’s country crossover classic “The Gambler” made a huge splash when it was released in 1978, with its compelling back-story and ingenious gleaning of life-lessons from the game of poker. In response to the feeling so many of us indulge that life has dealt us a bad hand, the gambler casually posits that there are no winning or losing hands – success or failure depends entirely on how we play the hand we are dealt. That being said, life is a dangerous game, and to come out even may ultimately prove a greater victory than raking in the pot.
Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
With its lament over sold-out and compromised ideals, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” sums up the title track in this one line. On the battlefield of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and personal integrity versus the pressure of social status, most engagements are skirmishes little noticed by others and invisible to the rest of the world. Ingratiating oneself on the stage of public opinion is indeed imprisoning oneself in a cage, no matter how gilded that cage may be. The true heroes of the world are little-heralded, frequently anonymous, but absolutely critical to stemming the erosion of such vanishing values as character, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.
And I remember what she said to me, how she swore that it never would end.
I remember how she held me oh-so-tight; wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.
Although ballads often devolve into melancholy and self-pity, Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” wafts back and forth through the branches of nostalgic memory, lost love, and the maturity that brings at least partial redemption. Bob Dylan struck a similar chord, concluding each stanza of rebellious introspection with the refrain, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. But where Dylan’s reflection is clever and contrived, Seger’s resonates with authenticity, longing for the passion and promise of youth while acknowledging the inevitable loss of innocence that accompanies the wisdom of experience.
The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence.
The haunting harmonies and disquieting images of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic remain every bit as contemporary after half a century, evoking the plague of social ills, the indifference of society, the ineffectiveness of government, and the helplessness of those who want to make a difference. The image of graffiti not only as a symptom of urban blight but as a symbol of unheeded divine rebuke forces the song and its message to linger on and on, echoed in the interior rhyming scheme that adds urgency and melancholy.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Virtually the last line the Beatles ever recorded, the simple but often forgotten truism contained in 15 words asserts that takers come away with nothing, while givers reap the rewards of giving. How easily we forget that putting the interests of others before our own is the infallible recipe for success in all our relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or familial.
Similarly insightful is this line from the Eagles’ “Take it to the Limit:” You can spend all your time making money; you can spend all your love making time. No matter how much we manage to grab in the short run, when our entire focus is ourselves we end up with nothing at all.
Before you cross the street take my hand;
Life is just what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
In “Beautiful Boy,” one of his final compositions before his tragic death, John Lennon penned his most insightful line. How easy is it for us to miss what we have because we are trying desperately to get something more, be somewhere else, or become something better. There’s nothing wrong with having goals and dreams, as long as they don’t cause us to miss life in the process of pursuing them.
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around.
Does Pink Floyd really deserve another honorable mention? Truth to tell, we could easily find more. But this line from “Dogs” outshines them all. It is completely unexpected, and it balances power and restraint depicting the outcome of a life devoted to excessive self-indulgence at the expense of others.
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolor in the rain.
Don’t bother asking for explanations; she’ll just tell you that she came – in the year of the cat.
Al Stewart was more than a one-hit wonder, although he never achieved super-stardom. His lyrics were a bit too cerebral for his audience, but this line from his greatest hit “Year of the Cat” has no equal for sheer poetic genius. You never see it coming, and its brilliant encapsulation of the blinding but fleeting passion of romantic infatuation in a single phrase leaves us caught between our own wistful imaginings and the cautionary whisper that the fantasies we create for ourselves can never last.
There is an evolution to music, and artists push the boundaries of convention, often with less than harmonic results. But only through the cacophony of experimentation do we eventually find our way to new melodic strains. And so it is with life itself, as we labor to filter out discordant messages from true poetry and lyric cleverness from timeless inspiration.
When we do, then music becomes for us what it is meant to be:
God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe, a harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars.