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Jonathan Øverby: The power of music in times of strife

Jonathan Øverby: The power of music in times of strife

Madison Symphony Orchestra (copy)

The Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates Beethoven in its 2020-21 season. 

The opportunity to share a few thoughts on the therapeutic power of music to heal, nurture and comfort is one I relish. Why? Well, for me, music is more than alignment with a profoundly spiritual feeling. It is a way of life rooted in an evolving relationship that inspires and challenges me to increase my understanding of people and their daily traditions. I suspect that for many of you, music lifts you up similarly.

That said, one cannot ignore the existence of, potential exposure to, or the threat of this global pandemic and how it dispassionately injures our daily way of living. And yet there is some relief through listening to music — in spite of our widespread suffering, sacrifices and challenges. It can give us respite from the ills of the day and provide encouragement and strength to people near and far.

Episodes, for example, linked to the suffering of humans from the U.S. enslavement of Africans to the horrific legacy of the Holocaust represent only two of many, many events that have, over time, compromised the human spirit. And yet through it all, it was the onus for music to not only entertain but to sustain.

Now, because music historically mirrors the society and the culture from which it was birthed and grew, it, like other art forms, has the breadth and capacity to sustain and champion those ideas that we hold dearest. What’s more, music has qualified itself as having the potential to increase our empathy for each other.

Music, while illuminating globally accepted images, symbols and customs, such as relationships grounded in love, joy, sorrow, pain, religious, spiritual, sacred as well as communal traditions and rituals is uniquely able to portray the richness of the human condition around the globe.

Today we see universal suffering caused by the same enemy. I hold that music can fight the good fight and have an excellent international effect on the mind and the body by contributing to our collective well-being — especially now.

In "Outre-mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond The Sea," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow —American poet, educator, and a towering figure in 19th century America — described from his travels around Europe and what he learned about culture and society, that “music is the universal language of mankind.”

The music of the world with its vastly diverse “dialects” is once again called upon to serve, to speak to us, to calm and to encourage one and all. It hails us to reconnect with each other by bridging what unites us. It reveals our everyday experiences and emotions, and it expresses aspects of the human condition that profoundly communicate universal messages that, more often than not, positively expose our universal commonalities.

For me, there are so many works to choose from. Today, it's Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water." It tells how we might navigate these trying times. It is said that Simon first heard the motif by a gospel group singing at a Baptist church. The late gospel and soul singer Aretha Franklin’s passionate interpretation speaks to me in a language I hope we can all understand, appreciate and find comfort in.

Jonathan Øverby, Ph.D., is an ethnomusicologist, radio producer and host, and the first post-doctoral fellow of Edgewood College in Madison. Øverby holds degrees in administrative arts, vocal music and choral conducting, a master’s degree in religious studies and a doctorate in administrative leadership in higher education. He is the executive producer and host of Wisconsin Public Radio’s world music broadcast, “The Road To Higher Ground with Jonathan Øverby.”

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