Music as a Metaphor for Life

by May 16, 2019Ramblings

As a once “know-it-all” audio engineer, I’m guilty of what this article talks about: the loudness wars. The few projects I got to mix and master benefitted from the best in digital tools and getting it loud was as much the goal as making it musical. This article, by Greg Milner, They Really Don’t Make Music Like They Used To, talks about the importance of dynamic range and how all the great recordings (determined by sales over their lifetime and overall longevity) have much more of it. To understand the rest of this post, you really should read that article first.

Not to wax poetic, but isn’t this similar in concept to what many of us have done with life? We don’t want the highs and lows to be too high or too low so we try to compress our own dynamic range and limit the risk of being hurt. We fear the hills and valleys, both, for different, but sometimes the same reasons. We try to live life loud, ignoring, or reducing, the dynamic range in hopes of avoiding heartbreak, suffering, or struggles. But isn’t it those things that create a dynamic that helps make life beautiful?

Whether C.S. Lewis uttered these exact words or not, I’m reminded of a line from the movie Shadowlands, which was about his life and his relationship with Joy Gresham who would become his wife. She also died not long after. The line was based on a line from his book, written after her death, A Grief Observed. Here it is as spoken in the movie:

C.S. Lewis: Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life, I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.

Yes! That’s the deal. You can’t truly have one without the other. And honestly, why would you want to? If music can be a metaphor for life, why wouldn’t you want to experience a higher dynamic range? It’s the valleys that make the hills all the more joyful, right?

Here are a couple of quotes from the article that inspired these thoughts and my writing this post.

“The most commercially important albums…featured lots of “high contrast” moments, when “the transient attacks of instruments” — very brief outbursts of high energy — were allowed to stand out against “the background space where the instruments are placed.”

And this one…

“Loudness has its place, but most of us like our music to have breathing room, so that our eardrums are constantly tickled by little sonic explosions. In a tight, compressed space, music can get asphyxiated.”

Asphyxiated. Great word. Smothered. Deprived of air. Unable to breathe. When that happens, we die.

Like loudness, happiness – or being on top of the hills – has its place. But most of us need that breathing room, too. Like music that’s just loud, if life is nothing but happy, we can start to feel smothered. Trying to compress, or limit, the valleys means we miss the tickles from the explosions of pure joy that come along when we least expect them.

The Pixar movie Inside Out does a brilliant job of conveying a similar message within the context of emotional health. Both joy and sadness, the emotions and the characters, have their place in the story. They both have purpose beyond simply being an emotion that is felt. Recognizing this and allowing space for both is greatly beneficial to our own emotional health.

I don’t know that there was any real intent in my writing this other than simply trying to make sense of some of the thoughts the article evoked. I love music. I love a great song. I love how music can move me to feel. I also agree with the writer who says they really don’t make music like they used to. I don’t know if that carries over into the music/life metaphor, but I hope the idea of increased dynamic range – allowing for the hills and valleys, for the joy and sadness both – is one that we all can take to heart.

Life is not meant to be lived at only one level. Give yourself some breathing room. Enjoy the little tickles of joy and happiness, but don’t fear the sadness, or pain, either. The dynamic range they create is beautiful.

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