From cradle to passing, culturally we define certain music that brings us closer to experiences and passages. As we’ve recently re-inaugurated a President in the United States, I was struck by the celebration through lectures, poetry, and Music. In fact, music took more of the time than the President’s speech. We listen to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” because, religious message aside, we have chosen our soundtrack over generations of festivals and events. 

We’ve come to expect soul-stirring romps as a way to connect us patriotically, whether our allegiance is to a government, a school, or a summer camp. It stirs, unites, and aligns us in sound and lyric. Pep rallies, parades, political events, and revival tent meetings use music to stitch us together. 

We use lullabies to coo newborns, and Disney tunes to delight young ones. In fact, I think it would be a rare person having grown up in North America who couldn’t sing a few lines of “When you Wish Upon a Star,” or some other Magic Kingdom ditty.

Classical music elicits certain responses in its listener, particularly in the genre we’ve come to call “nationalism.” Aaron Copland, in his Appalachian Spring conjures feelings of American patriotism. As does Samuel Barber in his Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and its reverie of the American south.

People who otherwise know nothing of Mendelssohn, Wagner, or Elgar certainly recognize them from countless weddings or school graduations. We have Queen Victoria’s daughter, The Princess Royal, to thank for the use of Mendelssohn’s wedding march, as it was she who popularized its use in her own wedding to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858.

The “Bridal Chorus” or “Treulich Gefuhrt” comes from Wagner’s 1850 opera Lohengrin. Though there’s has been a trend away from these standards at weddings for some time, their recognizability remains unquestionable.

These evoke tradition and connection to the past, and can elicit tears as many a parent can attest when listening to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance at a child’s graduation. 

Music moves us as it can bypass reasoning, getting to our deepest memories and what we hold dear. While Rudolph, the Red-Nosed reindeer is gleeful; it doesn’t touch our hearts like Silent Night. The latter moves us and surfaces feelings of warmth, nostalgia, and perhaps a yearning for a simpler time.

Relationships and breakups reflected in many songs such as “Our Song,” or an entire genre of slow, lilting angst-filled songs meant to remind us that, not only do we hurt at times, but that we all hurt at times.

People generally consider that the best pop music comes from the decade when they were either their happiest, or when they were coming of age. A 50 year-old today rarely relates to current popular music. Music from the 60s and 70s was “much better.” We write our soundtrack during important developmental stages of life.

We use music to mourn. In fact, we associate quiet organ music with a gentle vibrato with funerals. “Closer my God to Thee” and “Rock of Ages” reflect gravity and loss.

Thomas Larson described Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as "American’s secular hymn for grieving the dead." It was played at the announcement of John F. Kennedy’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. It was played at the funerals of Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco. And it’s been used in countless films when a feeling of pathos or tragedy is required. We know how to feel when we hear the Adagio. We know our role to play when we hear it, and we play it beautifully.

What do we do with all this information? I think that for the adult learner, understanding that role of “shared” music brings us closer to what we want as practitioners of the craft. Why are we moved, and how can we move others? Do we need to move others, or, is sitting with your trumpet alone in your study enough excitement for one evening?

About the Author

Rictor Noren

Rictor Noren is a violinist and teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

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