We often think of music as something we hear.
This isn’t surprising. Our hearing is the main sense involved in the endeavor. But it’s not the only sense.
We pay less attention to the way music—and sounds, in general—are felt.
But sound has a profound effect on our bodies. Emotionally. Physically. Cognitively.
Think, for instance, of how jarring it is to wake up to the monotonous, honking blare of an alarm clock.
This kind of jolting sound actually triggers our flight-or-fight response—injecting our bodies with a shot of the stress hormone cortisol. Not the greatest way to start the day, in other words.
(You may even be feeling slightly stressed hearing it now.)
The opposite can also be true. Certain sounds soothe our nervous systems, like birds singing or gentle waves lapping at the shore.
Think, also, about how some music is more likely to trigger strong emotions. The Wall-Street Journal wrote about why Adele’s song “Someone Like You” makes us cry. (Spoiler: It’s a musical ornamentation called appoggiatura.)
Long before scientists started studying how music impacts our senses, however, we had Helen Keller, the brilliant, deaf/blind author and activist, who, in 1924 “heard” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and wrote this stunning description of the famous work—which was written, it should be noted, after the composer himself lost his hearing.
Keller felt the music, which was performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, by putting her hands up to a radio speaker.
What was my amazement to discover that I could feel not only the vibrations but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow.
Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth—an ocean of heavenly vibration—and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.
I couldn’t help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marveled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others.
Let me thank you warmly for all the delight which your beautiful music has brought to my household and to me.
With kindest regards and best wishes, I am, sincerely yours, Helen Keller
An experiment: Experience Beethoven’s piece the way Beethoven and Keller experienced it, not in your ears, but in your body. Close your eyes. Put in some ear plugs. Turn your speakers up. And feel.
What do you notice? The “quenchless spirit”? The “heavenly vibration”? Discomfort? Silliness? Something else entirely?
Perhaps it’s joy, as in “Ode to Joy,” the theme Beethoven used that was based on the Franz Schiller poem:
“Joy, beautiful spark of the gods . . . We enter, drunk with fire.”
Anna Pulley is associate editor at Strings. Follow her on Twitter @annapulley.