I love music. I mean I love music. There is usually one song or another playing in my head at all hours of the day. I will hear a song and it will stick in my head until the next song comes along and replaces it. I’d be a winning contestant on Name That Tune, as I am able to identify songs I’m familiar with just by hearing a few short notes.
One of my favorite courses in college was Music Appreciation. In class, while many of my classmates struggled to stay awake, I listened with rapture as we analyzed one classical composition after another. I play two musical instruments and have often seen firsthand how music affects the mood of those listening to it. Music is able to bring people to places that words simply cannot. This is true in an emotional, physical, and spiritual sense. Happy music elevates people’s moods. Sad music depresses people’s moods. People will experience the physical symptoms associated with fear just by hearing scary music. In all of these examples, no words are necessary. As soon as the music starts, the gates open and the feelings begin to flow.
Music has the potential to nourish our souls, as well. It can lift us and enable us to reach the greatest spiritual heights (think Dveykus), but it is also capable of sending us plunging down into the lowest depths. I truly believe that music is one of the greatest forces in the universe, for better and for worse.
Having said all of that, I will add that I don’t love all music. I will be the first to admit that I’m a bit old fashioned and, like in many areas of life, I have a penchant for the way things were done in the good ole days. Music is no exception. I am very aware that taste in music is a subjective matter. Different people are drawn to different types of music, and one type isn’t necessarily better than the other. As they say in Israel, “Al ta’am va’rei’ach, ein l’hitvakei’ach.” Different strokes for different folks. However, while there are some very talented musicians out there today composing beautiful and inspiring songs, there is some music presented today that I wouldn’t even put under the classification of music. Rather, I would put it into the category of unpleasant noise that I try to avoid. On occasion, unpleasant music can actually be convenient. The music I hear upon walking into a store gives me an indication as to whether or not I should bother taking the time to shop there. Most often, when the music in the store is of the unpleasant type, I know that shopping there will be a waste of my time. I walk right out. It’s a real timesaver.
But this “music” is also harmful, in my opinion. When I say that I would like to hear music that moves me, I don’t mean that I want my inner organs to shake uncontrollably. When I hear certain styles of music, sometimes I actually have to leave the room. This includes some of the music that my kids listen to. And they listen to Jewish music!
Rather than bringing us closer to Hashem, unfortunately, I find that some contemporary music can push us further away. In a vicious cycle, I believe that some of today’s music reflects the chaos and overall sense of hefkeirus that permeates today’s society, which, in turn, pushes people towards chaos and hefkeirus. At weddings that I attend, I sometimes hear the band playing music that unleashes an atmosphere onto the dance floor that causes the guests to sing and dance, using their voices and bodies to make sounds and movements that create an ambiance more akin to a rocking discotheque than a holy venue in which to be m’samei’ach chasan v’kallah. The potential of music is maximized toward the negative rather than the positive.
On Motza’ei Shabbos, I went to a local concert given by Eitan Katz. I was more or less only familiar with his famous song “L’maancha,” but just with that knowledge alone, I knew it would be an enjoyable concert, filled with music of the authentic kind. The emcee who introduced Eitan quoted him as saying, “I’ve been davening and pleading my entire life, pleading with the world…to create a standard for what emesdike Jewish music should be. It’s so simple, it’s really simple – if the nigun doesn’t make you want to understand and breathe the words of Chazal that you are singing more, then it’s not a nigun. If you don’t understand and chap a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the words, it might be a bunch of notes.” That was already music to my ears.
Eitan started off the evening saying that the concert would not be one of just entertainment, but rather an evening of his’alus, ascent. And so, it was. He asked the audience to join him in song. And they did. I would call it more of a kumsitz than a concert. The only difficulty I had with the concert was that I had to garner every ounce of self-restraint in order to keep myself from singing out loud with the crowd. Eitan seamlessly went back and forth between slow, contemplative melodies, and fast, energizing songs. The boys euphorically, but not wildly, danced in front of the stage, further generating an ambiance of simchah bik’dushah. Everyone left feeling elevated and invigorated. I’m so glad I found music once again.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.