“Why do we personify ourselves in music?” The question, emphasis included, came up in an earlier blog post of mine dealing with the impromptu competition among readers of the New York Times to secure their favorite classical composers a spot on a ten-best list constructed by the newspaper’s chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini. The italicized personify registers the almost perverse strangeness of a musical phenomenon so familiar that we too often take it for granted. Music is, after all, something we make; it is not what we are. We may “express” ourselves by it (that’s a complicated issue), but as an artistic creation shouldn’t it be more like a thing than like a person? More, say, like a portrait than like the sitter? Why does music, and more particularly melody, because melody is the main thing involved, so readily worm its way into our sense of self?
One possible answer—speaking of worms—may be suggested by another strange but familiar musical phenomenon, the sometimes maddening persistence of a tune stuck in one’s head. Oliver Sacks recently proposed calling such unrelenting mental melodies “brainworms”; a half century or so earlier, Theodor Reik gave them the more Romantic name of “haunting melodies.” Both Sacks, a neurologist, and Reik, a psychoanalyst, think of music stuck in the head as aberrant, linked in some way to pathology. Yet both also acknowledge a link to normality, or rather to the very foundations of the sense of normality. Sacks connects the persistence of the brainworm to our desire for the repetition of what gives pleasure; the adult brain finds in the melody a relic of the child’s insistence on hearing the same story, the same words, again. Reik thinks of the expressive quality of the melody as a residue of conflict, trauma, or intense emotion—something the self isn’t finished with. For Sacks the brainworm exaggerates the sense of well-being with which we would like to identify ourselves; for Reik the haunting melody returns us to a critical moment in our emotional lives, a moment that we may keep secret even from ourselves but that is one of the keys to who we are.
Melody has this power because it is both immediately expressive and infinitely repeatable. When the brainworm becomes oppressive, it is because expressiveness has been overtaken by repetition and rendered meaningless; when the haunting melody becomes absorbing, it is because the expressiveness has kept itself alive, given itself rhythmic vitality, by harnessing the repetition. Take these processes out of people’s heads and you get the familiar uses of melody to give commodities a personality and to tag the personalities of characters in movies (though straightforward tagging, a misapplication of the Wagnerian leitmotif, is less common than it once was). Put the same processes back in people’s heads, this time on a voluntary basis, and you get personification. Listeners absorb themselves in the music they love precisely as if they were being haunted by it—only haunted for real, haunted in the flesh.
Lawrence Kramer is Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University. He is the author of many books, including Interpreting Music, Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History; Opera and Modern Culture; and Why Classical Music Still Matters, all from UC Press.