Bill Bailey on the meaning of music

Bill Bailey / 24 January 2017

Why music is a companion, a source of happiness and sometimes comfort for Bill Bailey.

One of my earliest memories of enjoying music was hearing my mother singing around the house, often accompanying songs on the radio. Perry Como’s Magic Moments was a favourite. It’s a classic of its genre. How many songs can you say have a whistled refrain and a jaunty bassoon counterpoint?

Not many, and certainly not one by the heavy metal band Slipknot, although Slipknot do feature in another of my vivid musical moments. Standing stageside at Sonisphere rock festival I watched them whip a rain-soaked crowd into a frenzy. This sonic assault is the music I imagine orcs listen to before going into battle.

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Visualising music is a habit I’ve acquired from childhood. When I was young, my mother would sit me down near the record player, and bring music to life. A favourite of mine I now know was the Karelia Suite by Sibelius, but back then I had no idea of the composer, or the piece of music. I had no expectation, or frame of reference. It was one of the purest forms of musical enjoyment I can recall.

My mother would describe the scenes the music seemed to suggest. Over the opening bars of distant horns and rising layers of rhythmic strings she would say, ‘These are horsemen riding through a forest, over a mountain, their flags waving.’

Even now I can see it. This is noble, irresistible music like the powerful, Nordic opening to Sibelius’ Finlandia itself. Play this and tell me you can’t see Imperial Starcruisers gliding across distant planets, or even just a cross-channel ferry’s bow-doors opening?

Music is in many ways an enigmatic human activity. It exists in virtually every culture across the world, yet only a few early instruments survive. There are no written accounts to explain how homo sapiens first discovered a love of a good tune.

Perhaps our ancestors heard lilting birdsong, wind in the trees, the pounding hooves of fleeing deer, and it provoked an emotional response. After the hunting was done, they would reflect, and try to recreate these sounds that caused pleasurable sensations in the brain.

This might explain the Paleolithic bone flutes found in southern Germany that were made around 40,000 years ago. A crudely hewn vulture’s wing bone with five holes was the first step on a path that led eventually to Mozart’s Flute Concerto No 1 in G major.

The world of science puzzles over music, and whether it conferred an evolutionary advantage on our ancestors. I personally don’t think it did. I reckon one of my Neanderthal forebears was dragging a wild boar back to the cave, and something caused him to dally. Ah! The silvery song of a goldfinch made him pause, his whiskery face twitching into a smile. A stirring of wistfulness in his oversized, clumsy frame compelled him to let his guard down, and he was spatchcocked by a Giant Land Sloth.

Whatever its origins, music is inextricably linked with human emotions. When I hear music that affects me (such as, for instance, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2) I think, whoever’s written this must also have felt longing or regret, anger, giddy lightness, been bored, crazy in love or just exasperated with their broadband provider.

And for me, knowing this is reassuring. If someone else has felt these same emotions that correspond with mine, then somehow the world is briefly not such a bewildering place.

We’re not alone in our thoughts, and these same feelings echo down the ages.

For me, music is a companion, a source of happiness and sometimes comfort, and my curiosity at its power over us has been a mother’s gift.

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