Musical power in many ways remains much of a mystery. Think of a beautiful human face. What exactly makes it beautiful? Are there specific characteristics that can be identified, that guarantee a face will be beautiful?
No. It remains a mystery. Somehow a power is encoded in the facial features. Analogously, a beautiful work of music is more than the notes; a power is somehow encoded.
The power carried in music is emotional, reflecting the principle that emotions are more fundamental than thoughts. Feelings can exist without thoughts. Metaphysical people are familiar with the term “thought form”,
the idea that a thought is a packet of energy that can remain in the “ether” after someone thinks it, localized in space. It’s easy to extrapolate from that the notion of a “feeling form,” that after it is generated
takes on a life of its own and remains as a packet of emotional energy.
Music can carry packets of emotion. They are not attached to the music, they are embedded in it. That embedded energy can vary from very superficial to quite profound. How does this work? Emotional power is created primarily
in the chord progressions of harmony accompanying a melody. Melody plus a strong harmony are the basis. Both are needed. Tempo and dynamics affect it also, but harmony is the essential source of emotion. Using the symbolism
of music theorists, the chord progressions I -> V and V -> I generate the strongest energy. The other common chord sequences, combined with a melody, also create potency.
The Source of Power in Music
What determines an emotional packet’s strength?
Harmonic transitions are the basis of power. Music that embodies deliberate, strong transitions, which are emphasized even more by a simple and deliberate melody, is power music. A slow tempo and the simplest of harmonies can create profound power through measured and strong chord progressions. For examples of power through simplicity, we need look no further than two of Mozart’s choral works: Ave Verum Corpus and Laudate Dominum. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah is a faster tempo and the power it carries is a different kind from those Mozart pieces, yet again the strength is in the deliberate transitions of the highly tonal harmony. No matter if the tempo is slow or fast, the more strongly the harmony is emphasized, the higher will be the power level.
Still, chord progressions are merely the carrier of energy, not the original source, and the whole process remains a mystery, like the beautiful face.
A melody line without any harmonic accompaniment can still create power, if it implies harmony, and most melodies do. The Swanee River tune implies transitions between the I, IV, and V chords. Something in your subconscious fills in the harmony. Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques are examples of songs that do not imply any chord changes, and however fun they are to sing, they are emotionless except in a superficial way.
A song’s lyrics can combine synergistically with the melody to create high emotion. The early 20th-century musical mystic Cyril Scott said of the
song Home Sweet Home that “it is a noteworthy example of a perfect synthesis between the quality of music and the quality of the words. Neither
alone is of [remarkable] value if judged by the standard of high art, yet rendered by vocalists with histrionic ingenuity they conjointly moved
audiences for over half a century.”1
The same could be said of Amazing Grace and many other well-known songs. It cannot be denied that the lyrics of choral works add to their power. But in my investigation here, I focus only on musical power. When music is strong, even the loftiest of words add to the strength only marginally.
The vast majority of music of all genres is relatively weak, from the standpoint of high inspiration. Ordinary music affects us ordinarily, and profound music touches us profoundly, if we are able to “tune in” to it. Many popular songs, with their prevalent theme of romantic love, convey those kinds of feelings strongly. But that is a different kind of energy from the archetypal energies that represent evolution. Love within families and relationships is a wonderful force for spiritual advancement, but by itself it is not one of the seven stages. Love in its largest meaning, however, may be another word for the seventh stage, that I have labeled as “home”.
Power music falls almost entirely within the classical genre. But there are a few popular songs, from the pens of gifted songwriters in the1970’s primarily, that carry archetypal energy, mainly of the Blue category. Some of these have romantic themes and some don’t; 95% of the power, at least, is in the music, not the lyrics. I’ll include a few of these later in the lists of examples. Again, there are many powerful songs from all time periods, but only a handful that have one of the pure energies strongly.
I have said that pure energies are encoded in simple harmonies. Therefore archetypal power requires tonal music, meaning music that follows the traditional harmonic rules, and retains a sense of a central key (although modulations may change the key occasionally). Somehow the simple frequency ratios of tonal harmony are necessary to convey “pure” energy.
Strongly tonal music was composed starting in the 1500s and continues to the present, but not much powerful tonality has been created since about 1900. It may seem strange to say that power music was brought forth during a span of only 400 years of human existence, yet that is precisely what seems to be the case. In a certain sense those 400 years represent the fulfillment of the human search for truth, or at least the human ability to incorporate truth in music and art. Incidentally, 400 years may seem like a relatively short period, but earlier I claimed that the time “window” for true power in popular music was only one decade. I don’t expect these statements to stand without a challenge, though.
20th and 21st century music and art has served and are serving purposes of a different kind, purposes that that are needed at this time in history. Impressionistic art and music (Debussy, notably) was the beginning of a breakaway from formalism, where free expression became more important than adhering to convention. Tonality in music became weaker, and unconfined creativity grew. This new music, along with art and literature, is meant to open us to expanded possibilities, to break down structure and free us from all restrictions. Obviously it will be uncomfortable for those who derive security from the familiar. The danger of greater freedom is that chaos is possible. The great potential is that we will advance much faster, if at all, than we would otherwise. We must claim our power and take control over our destiny. Only a revolution in societal beliefs will allow us to do that.
Jazz is a genre of music that embodies the very idea of breaking the rules. But really, jazz bends the rules only slightly, maintaining a regular beat and sense of key. It brings in creative harmonies, but they are harmonies that can be named. Jazz serves as an environment for relaxation, for letting go, and as such it will likely always have a welcome place in musical society. But the very thing that epitomizes jazz, the loosening of harmonic bounds, makes encoding archetypal power in jazz very difficult. And the same can be said of all contemporary music that abandons the rules: it has its purposes but it cannot serve as a vehicle for the high energies.
If the highest and best music comes from somewhere else, somewhere beyond these three dimensions, then conveying it here requires a special conduit; it takes a person who can first hear or feel the energy in the mind, then put it into notes. The highest music comes through composers who have this ability, and they often consider themselves merely the channel, not the source. We call this music inspired. It is the rare composer who is blessed with this gift. The rest are creating mostly or entirely in their own minds. The amount of true power in an artistic work relates directly to the degree of other-worldly inspiration.
Those rare composers often spoke of the source of their music being “spirit”, “God”, or other terms denoting larger reality:2
Strauss: "I feel...that I am tapping the source of Infinite and Eternal energy from which you and I and all things proceed."
Wagner: "I have very definite impressions while in that trance-like condition which is the prerequisite of all true creative effort. I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity to do so."
Grieg: "We composers are projectors of the infinite into the finite."
Stravinsky: "I heard and wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Rite passed."
Handel (upon completing the Messiah) : "I think I did see all of heaven before me, and the great God himself".
Robert Schumann said that his later music was dictated to him "by angels".
The composer’s capacity to transmit inspired music may bear no relation to other aspects of his/her makeup and personality. Joscelyn Godwin writes,
“No matter that their personal life may not always measure up to the highest moral standards: being moral exemplars is not their task. There are
other souls who may have incarnated for that purpose: we call them Saints, and we do not expect them to be great artists.”3
Next: The Colors of Music
1 Music: Its Secret Influence Through the Ages, p. 20.
2 Godwin, J., Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, p. 75.
3 ibid., p. 76.