The Most Beautiful Music You Can Make

Occasionally, something new seems to surface, standing out among the ordinary and repetitious: an interesting gadget, a novel idea, a helpful device or invention, a lovely literary, artistic, or musical expression. Mostly, though, what looks new initially turns out to be a retread or recapitulation of what has been before. This is not necessarily a disappointment, but a reiteration of patterns that nature has woven into the fabric of life, the world around and within us, and our perceptions of reality. Not that things never change-surely, they do-but it is the manifestation of nature that we recognize and repeat familiar patterns of biological processes, behaviors, and preferences.

This is evident in our habits and also in the unfolding of art, music, creative endeavors, and, most strikingly, in the experiences of emotions and relationships. If "something new under the sun" does occur, it is weathered and reflected by our perceptions of the familiar, the assimilation and integration of new experiences into what we already know. A new event must somehow make sense and gel with what we have already understood. This is necessary for problem-solving and survival, and it is also true for aesthetic pleasure, moral rectitude, and conscience and integrity.

For example, consider the myriad ways that foods, music, and artistic creations can be combined. While tastes differ, any appreciation of something "good" or "special" or "new" is a recognizable spinoff of something previously experienced. The new version or creation contains elements of the old presented or combined with fresh or innovative flair. A recurrent theme is not the same old thing when presented with variations that suggest originality.

In music, the notes are finite, but the combinations and sounds and the permutations of styles and timing continue to push the envelope of exploration. What makes us like a piece of music is its sensory effect on us and the recognition of its themes and elements and attachment of them to familiar harmonies, melodies, and rhythms in our experience. We gravitate toward and seek to repeat something that is familiar and that satisfies.

So it is also with emotions and human interactions and relationships. We become used to hosting certain emotions; often the behavior of others elicits the feelings most familiar to us, and yet we tend to see circumstances and others as causing these feelings. We develop patterns of interaction and relationships that fulfill and confirm our needs and beliefs, patterns that form our character and react to the character of others. Circumstances are the content of our lives, and they become embedded in the context of character and world view. They are like lyrics and melody, harmony and timing. The music may be somber or uplifting; yet its inexhaustible variations are crafted from limited elements into themes with repeated practice and presentation.

We learn to identify what is pleasing to our ears and the rhythms that make us want to dance or cringe. We use labels and categories to help us find and express what we like and avoid what is unpleasant. So it is, too, with sensing and listening to people.

Recently, a patient related to me the constant hardships of living with a family member. According to my patient, his sibling was regularly cranky and demanding. Listening to the details of my patient’s complaints (not for the first time), I formed a picture of his sibling as an irritable person with a flawed personality marred by entitlement and self-pity issues. Though I had never talked to his sibling, I understood my patient’s needs and outlook, his frustrations, desires, talents, and limitations. I was familiar with his lyrics and rhythms: a sad country song, it seemed. In response, I tried to validate his long-suffering responsibility, to praise his devotion without enjoining or reinforcing any justification for resenting or criticizing his sibling.

One day, after lamenting his sibling’s recent offenses, he said something unexpected and remarkable. Almost as an afterthought, he remarked, "It’s strange-even though she’s very difficult, I have sympathy for her."

This thought seemed to surprise him. Though he wasn’t asking for validation, I sensed an opportunity to expand upon his sensitive emotional offering. I said, "Thanks for sharing your feelings about (name). I appreciate your sensitivity and what may come as a surprising discovery in your experience. There is a name for what you’ve just shared. But before I tell you what it is, I want to tell you a story from my own experience:

"As a young adolescent, I loved music and wanted to play an instrument. But I balked at instruction and discipline. Formal violin lessons were a misery for me, and my teachers undoubtedly suffered with me through their attempted tutelage. Still, I had music running through my head, and I wanted to express it through my fingers. In a gymnasium/auditorium where I practiced basketball, there was an old piano. During my rest breaks from basketball, I’d tinkle the piano keys; quickly, I could emulate melodies of the popular songs I heard on radio. This was exciting to me, and soon I could expand and augment my melodies by spreading my fingers into chords that sounded harmonious. Though I was simply playing by ear, this provided me with great satisfaction. I could copy what I heard and be an active part of the music. What I played resembled what I listened to on the radio.

"Soon thereafter, I persuaded my mother to rent a piano and furnish a piano teacher. During my first lessons, I demonstrated for the teacher what I had learned on my own. As I played each chord and melody from my limited repertoire, he nodded and commented with descriptions of what I was playing: 'That's an A major chord.. and a D major seventh.' 'C major, D minor, A minor seventh-very nice!' This amazed me-there were actual names for what I was doing. Moreover, one chord related to another in a conceptual, as well as musically aesthetic, manner. My teacher was introducing me to music theory, using my life experience as a basis to escort me to newer levels of understanding and expression!

"I learned from this profound lesson that there are labels that signify categories of common experience-and that these labels can help us recognize and identify the nature and belongingness of what we see, hear, and feel.

"I tell you this story as a prelude to helping you recognize and generalize the feeling you’ve just shared with me about your difficult sibling. You have expressed and are experiencing feelings of compassion-this, despite your sibling’s offensive and demanding behaviors. When this happens, you are in harmony with God’s music, his sympathetic, understanding, and forgiving nature. It resonates well, doesn’t it?

"Contrast this with your familiar and discordant negative ruminations about how badly life has treated you and how difficult you’ve had it. There is a label for that music, too: it’s called self-pity. And it has its own surrounding theory that rankles and attracts more of the same"

My patient regarded me thoughtfully as he absorbed the categories and labels I’d appended to his feelings and experiences. I was hopeful that he could continue to recognize and reinforce his feelings of sympathy and compassion to lift him from the discordant doldrums of self-pity to more prevalent opportunities to feel and offer compassion and sacrifice.

There are many types of music, of course. From finite notes, rhythms, and instruments, we can produce and experience magnificent sweet sounds and harmonies, stirring or relaxing rhythms, and cacophonies of restless disturbance. We tend to recognize and recapitulate the imprints of preference and experience with which we are most familiar. Life presents them to us with discernible themes and multiple variations. Like our tastes and choices in music, our categorizations of and practiced responses to people and events develop and confirm our character and worthiness. Whatever your gifts, whatever your tastes-I believe that the most beautiful music a person can make is the music of compassion and self-sacrifice. Such music is always pleasant and inspirational to the ears of humans and God.

I don’t play much piano these days; my hands are arthritic, and my musical prowess has diminished from its former limited development. But when I act on the opportunity to identify the melodies and rhythms of repetitious patterns in the lives of my fellow humans, to point out and label the pleasant chords of compassion and the melody of selfless love and sacrifice, I hear echoes of resonance, and I know that there are angels playing the most beautiful music in heaven.