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Why We Should Study Music

Why We Should Study Music

Ed Dumas

A long time ago, in a world far, far away, a movie was released that changed the course of history. The date was May 25, 1977, and of course, if you have not figured it out from the paraphrase above, that movie was Star Wars. Folks that are seeing the Star Wars series today may not realize that when there was only one movie, it was just called “Star Wars” to us. It was not until four years later did they add “Episode Four: A New Hope.”

My friends and I went to see Star Wars at the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver because of the big screen and the impressive sound system. This was a big night out for a bunch of Maple Ridge hicks, and we looked forward to this great event. We had heard so many wonderful things, but still, we were not prepared for what was coming up. We all sat in utter silence as this new sound just exploded over us. We were completely lost to this new world presented on the screen, and it seemed that time just stood still while we were enveloped in that amazing show.

After we started walking out of the theatre, we were all just amazed at the differences between this show, and everything else that had gone on before. We just couldn’t stop talking about it, but it was not for the scenes on the screen. It was all about the amazing soundtrack. We knew instantly that the soundtrack was now totally different. It was no longer just some background kind of noise to fill in the holes where the dialogue was lacking, or maybe to add a bit of tension here and there.

No, now the orchestra was THE main character! The orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra at that, was so important that the show could not be enjoyed without it. The whole movie could not be accepted by the audience and believed as real without that amazing soundtrack behind it. In short, the audience could not “Suspend Disbelief” without the orchestra guiding them through it.

As an aside, if you doubt the power of music in visual presentations, consider this. Hollywood each year updates a list of all-time biggest box-office money-earning movies. One year in the early nineties, I saw a top ten list that immediately struck me as profound. Seven of the ten movies it contained had an extremely close relationship with music. These were the three original Star Wars movies, the three original Indiana Jones movies, and American Graffiti. The last three were older shows like Gone With The Wind and were blockbusters that had been on the list for decades.

What immediately struck me was that Harrison Ford was in all seven of those named “music-based” movies. That is some kind of star power! But, John Williams composed the music for 6 out of 7 of those “music-based” shows, and the seventh, American Graffiti, contained a running 50’s Rock & Roll soundtrack that was an essential part of the show. That speaks volumes about the power of music.

Going back to Suspended Disbelief, if you have not heard of this concept before, here is a synopsis. When you go into a theatre to watch a movie, musical, opera, play or whatever, you must suspend the disbelief that this world presented to you on the screen or stage is real. We simply do not believe that humans are yet capable of fighting in space using light sabres and some mysterious power called The Force. Everything that we know up to now proves to us that this is not real.

To enjoy the show, we must suspend this disbelief temporarily. We must set it aside and pretend that what is on the screen is real. We go along with the pretense to understand the story. The use of that London Symphony Orchestra proved to be immensely powerful in getting the audience to suspend their disbelief, and Star Wars caused a massive change in entertainment from then on.

Shortly after the beginning of Star Wars came a shift in musicals beginning with Cats (1982) by Andrew Lloyd Webber. While it was not Webber’s first musical, it is often considered the beginning of the huge productions accompanied by major soundtracks that acted more like characters in the manner of Star Wars. Others to follow included Phantom of the Opera (1986), and Miss Saigon (1991) among many others. The trend now was that the orchestra played a significant role in the musical, other than just helping the singers find a pitch.

Now, here is another personal example of suspended disbelief in action. In the late 1980s, my wife and I were given tickets to see the touring version of Les Miserables which came to Vancouver. Just as my wife and I excitedly settled into our seats, the house lights went down, the curtain went up, and the show began. In what seemed to me to be only five minutes later, the curtain came down and the house lights went back up. 

My first reaction, which thankfully I kept to my inside voice, was “Oh my God. Someone backstage has died!” You see, the production crew would never close the curtains and raise the house lights 5 minutes into a show unless something very serious had happened. I literally expected an ambulance gurney to be coming down the main aisle. My next reaction, again the inner voice, only a second or two later after glancing at my watch was “Oh my God! That was an hour and a half and it seemed to pass in five minutes!” My last reaction, now to my wife, was “Oh my God!! That orchestra played for an hour and a half and there was not a second of a break in the sound! Awesome!”

I had so been “lost” to the musical that time just did not seem to pass for me. That is the ultimate in Suspended Disbelief. This is a critical factor in enjoying just about any kind of presentation and is one of the important elements to learn in musical studies. People that are talking or texting during movies or music do not understand that others cannot get “in” to the show when they are constantly being pulled back out to our current reality.

Music students also need to learn that their music needs to be presented in a way that their audience is “allowed in.” If you are unsure if they are in or out of your music, have a glance back at your audience when you are leading your band. If the faces of the audience are kind of a blank stare off in the distance with a half-smile on their lips, you have lost them. The students should aim for some kind of reaction, any reaction. Leaning in, intense applause, gasps, and tears are all acceptable reactions. Polite, short, quiet applause does not cut it. 

Here is another Star Wars story for you to better illuminate how powerful Suspended Disbelief is. Several years back, my wife and I decided to have a night out at a theatre when one of the latest Star Wars movies was being released. I think it was episode 7, or maybe 8. It was a bit of a stormy night, so we thought it was a good chance to spend a night out enjoying a show, at least for a bit. We didn’t count on the power going out.

About 30 minutes into the movie, we found ourselves sitting in total blackness and total silence. No one moved because it was just far too treacherous to navigate the steep stairs in the dark. So, we waited.

About 5 minutes later, the power suddenly came back on, as it usually does. To our surprise, the movie projector just rebooted and picked up where it had left off. It seems that the projector had an automatic reboot function for power outages. The sound system, though, did not have any such function and needed to be manually rebooted. It remained stubbornly off for the next 20 minutes until a projectionist arrived while we watched the show in silence.

Well, anyway, it started in silence. To watch the Star Wars shows in silence is nothing short of comical, and boy, did we laugh! To see these men in little white armour plating running first this way and then that way in silence was kind of like watching the Keystone Cops! Very quickly some folks caught on that they should add sound effects to the images since none were provided by the sound system. Before we knew it, everyone was stomping their feet like little running men every time a stormtrooper squad came running by. Or, everyone made light sabre and blaster sounds to coordinate with the onscreen fighting.

It was FAR more comical than just about anything else I have ever witnessed before or since, and I will remember the time fondly as long as I live. I would have gladly paid double the price had I known what fun we were going to experience. I truly love the Star Wars series, but this episode utterly drove home the power of the London Symphony Orchestra and John Williams’ music. That music can take some scenes that are so unbelievable as to be completely laughable and then turn them into something powerful, impressive and inspiring. That was Suspended Disbelief at its best!

Now, I have another Star Wars story for you, if you can bear with it. In the summer of 1978, I attended Courtenay Youth Music Centre (CYMC) for 6 weeks as a student. We were all still in the thrall of Star Wars, and someone had brought along a vinyl record of the soundtrack. Some of us students borrowed a rolling stereo cabinet and moved it into the staff room of the school to listen to this soundtrack during one afternoon break. We closed the door to the staff room because we intended to turn it up a bit but did not want to upset anyone else.

After listening to the album, we then packed it all up and began heading out with a smile on our faces and our heads in the stars. As soon as I opened the staff room door, I discovered dozens of students lining the hallway listening to the sound, and we had no idea they were there! I kind of blurted out, “What are you guys doing here?” The answer was, that they were listening to the orchestra rehearse!

All they could imagine was that it was a full orchestra rehearsing and they did not want to come into what was actually a tiny staff room to “interrupt” them. They could not imagine another scenario, because the recording of the orchestra made them “see” the orchestra and the grandeur. Since they did not have images to follow, they made up their own. This speaks to the power of music and Suspended Disbelief.

Hollywood has known this psychological trick of using music in their movies since the very beginning of their creations. They used it to make the shows that people watch more enjoyable and believable. Even in the silent movies, piano players were used in the small theatres, or full orchestras in the larger ones, to play behind the scenes. 

It can be very jolting, though, when watching a movie to suddenly find yourself “outside” of the show because something “inside” does not work. An example that comes to mind is the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock. While I love science fiction movies that are done well and I appreciate Sandra Bullock as an actress, I found myself constantly coming out of the show due to its bad relationship with physics. Watching the main characters attempt some transfer maneuvers in space between two different vessels in different orbits and vastly different speeds without something like “The Force” or even a jet pack to explain how this was possible was more than my intellect could take. After that scene, I was out and would stay out until the end of the show.

Hollywood, though, has only the intent of selling movies to us for entertainment's sake. What if other more nefarious forces intend on adding musical soundtracks to different broadcasts to sell other ideas to us? As an example, there is a world of “Alternative Facts” out there in various political arenas right now. What if these “broadcasters” decided that adding a soundtrack to their “news” would help them convince people to rise up and say, attack Congress in the US for example? I have no idea if this is currently being done to these “news” broadcasts, as I do not watch these kinds of shows. I just cannot stomach the content. But, if this was ever done, would the majority of the population have the ability to separate fact from fiction once the soundtrack was added?

Germany before World War II understood this concept very well. The Nazi Regime commissioned hundreds, maybe thousands of musical compositions solely for “Uplifting the German spirit.” The intent was to help the German people accept the new Nazi direction as something far more glorious than it was. Most of this music still exists in written or recorded form, but little of it is ever performed today for obvious reasons.

Having the ability to understand how you are manipulated to enjoy an excellent Star Wars movie can also help a person understand how you are being manipulated to do something else against your will. Studies in music help our students understand the forces at play, and therefore nullify those forces once the show is complete. I still have in my head an early 1970s MacDonald’s commercial written by Barry Manilow and Sidney Woloshin that sang to us, “You deserve to get away, so get up and get away, to MacDonald’s!” I heard that bloody commercial so many times I am sure I will take that song to my grave. But, I can nullify its power over me by bringing it up, singing it to the students, and laughing at it.

Over my entire career, and likely over yours as well, there has been a constant struggle for music teachers to gain enough funds to keep a music program afloat, whether it be elementary level or secondary. Constantly there is this justification that when times are bad, we must dedicate limited resources to the things that matter, like Math or English classes. So many people have been heard to ask “Can we afford to teach ALL of our students about the world of music?”

With a real insider's look at the power of music, it is far more appropriate to ask, “Can we afford not to?”

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