The Power of Music

by Ben Kleinman

November 1996

I cried tonight. Not real crying; enough to wet the eyes but not the cheeks. The tears aren't really because of anything in particular, but every now and then I like to cry a bit. Actually, that's not entirely true. It's not even a reasonable facsimile of the truth. I cried because I was listening to the _Rent_ soundtrack. I don't suppose many people have heard the soundtrack yet, although the play was quite good. It's kind of a rock opera, or rock musical and it opened on Broadway this summer (ie, sometime in the summer of 1996). I saw it with a very good friend of mine -- or someone who I thought was a very good friend of mine.

But I'm not going to let this turn into a diatribe or an essay on the perils of summer relationships. This is, selfishly enough, about me. (Now, and this is very parenthetical, I feel compelled to say that each time I've typed enough I've added a 't' to the end of it. I don't know why, but I did it that last time also. Enough already (and again -- I had to check. It's probably subconsciously intentional by now.) Anyway, this is about me and why I cried.

The blame lies with music. And perhaps some genetics or the vagaries of nature and the stimuli I've encountered. Which just boils down to that ever-evasive ME. Naught to blame but myself. When I hear music I very often think back on my life. Wow, that's a banal statement. But the fact remains that, as many song writers have written, melodies bring back memories. Moreover, lyrics reinforce them; romanticizing events that most likely were never as glorious or as meaningful as I recall. But then again, if they weren't significant, why would I glorify them? Do mere words really have the power to change how I conceive of events or are the simply filtering and highlighting, revealing the true value I place on events I'd rather not think about.

That is terrible. People might think that I want to erase my past -- live for today, forget regret (that last phrase was directly taken from one of the songs on the Rent soundtrack). That's not at all true. It's just that sometimes thinking about what's gone on is a bit painful. Or emotional. And it's almost always a consuming activity. Category Theory is tough enough (didn't type the 't'!) without thinking about past roommates, girlfriends, friends that could have been, friends that once were, friends that still are but might not know it, and friends that are just too far away...

I often tell people that I have no secrets. If someone is willing to ask me a question, I'll probably provide an honest answer (maybe not 'the' honest answer, but there could be a lot of reasons for that). On the other hand, I also claim to not have a best friend. There are plenty of people who know a lot about me, and there are plenty of people who know things about me that few other people do. But I don't know that there is a single person who knows everything about me. There's no one who can complete my sentences, who can exchange a meaningful look instead of uttering a word. I don't think I'm the only one in that situation (or not in that situation, depending on your point of view), but it also makes me feel rather alone sometimes. How do those other people cope.

So when I listen to these songs, I here words that remind me of events, and of people. I hear music that I heard before or should have heard before. And I can't go to someone and say 'remember when we did...' or 'we used to hear this song all the time when...'. All I can do is think of the events, try to remember the person's name, and wish that somehow we had kept in touch. There are very few people I've met that I wouldn't want to hear from and renew a friendship with. There are many more that I do (thanks to email) hear from every now and then. But keeping in touch is hard work, and I've never been terribly good at it or put much effort in it. So if you see me sit and sigh, and the tears are in my eyes, know it's because I regret that.

Last modified: Fri Jul 3 19:28:56 BST 1998