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The Music of Longing


More than any other art form except perhaps film (think Love Story), music has the power to make us weep. Whether it’s the swooping waves of a Tchaikovsky concerto, cryin’-in-your-beer country music, or the cheap potency of a pop song music has the potential to turn listeners to mush.

What makes a piece of music moving? From the 18th century onwards people have been fascinated by the way music plays on the emotions and wondered why.

Even Plato recognised music’s impassioned pull. Despite the fact that he preferred military music because it made the listener feel virtuous. In fact Plato could have been in trouble for that observation - anything that made people feel weepy, watery, and unmanly, was banned in ancient Greece because it was considered bad for the spirit.

American philosopher Susanne Langer suggested that what is interesting about music is not its sound but its formal structure which is the same as the formal structure of our emotions.

Another line of thought suggests that what we think of as being emotionally-charged music is something we’ve learned through conditioning, so that what’s moving in one culture may not be so in another.

Sad music, think Portuguese Fado, gives us thrills without the consequences. You can listen to a very sad piece of music and feel commensurately sadder, but you don’t have to have had your lover run over by a bus.

Empathising with the singer, knowing that someone else has felt the same as you, can give a sense of communion and catharsis. The music allows us to feel emotions that we can’t express in any other way. Come what may, gloomy tunes are universally popular.

Many pieces of music make us cry because they remind us of sad times. It’s around just this situation that former Radio One show Our Tune, presented by Simon Bates was based. Normally, however, the music complemented the mood.

Tearful songstresses as different as Cleo Laine, Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday made careers out of sad ballads. The blues is an entire melancholy musical movement in itself.

Edith Piaf, who died nearly 60 years ago, had an extraordinary ability to communicate feeling even to non-French-speaking international audiences who couldn’t understand a word she was singing. “Piaf was completely emotionally involved with those songs. That’s why she sang so bloody well,” said long time Piaf fan Elaine Paige, who once played the Paris songbird on stage.

Some songs are more tasteful than others. Elvis Presley’s Old Shep is a dismal ditty about a boy whose faithful dog has to be put down. The odious Two Little Boys took the disgraced Rolf Harris to number one in 1969 although it dates back to 1903. Tom Jones’s egregious The Green, Green Grass of Home and Al Jolson’s Mammy were meant to bring tears to the eyes of original listeners but to modern ears sound mawkish and fraudulent.

In song, it is acceptable for men to show emotion without fear of shame or embarrassment. Joseph Locke was the great Irish tenor whose life story was made into the film Hear My Song. Locke’s Danny Boy and Take Me Home Again, Kathleen have a strange ability to make even the most, manly, man’s neck hair stand to attention.

The French singer Jacques Brel favoured plaintive numbers aimed at the lovelorn, and in the 1970s Bobby Goldsboro’s Honey, and Summer: The First Time, were guaranteed to put a tear in every adolescent eye. It should come as no surprise that Goldsboro spent a three-year pop apprenticeship with Roy Orbison, another master of the mournful ballad whose anthem was Crying.

Some tearjerkers have stood the test of time. Billie Holiday had the ability to make songs her own: her forlorn Nobody’s Child still has a tremendous power to move.

The entire output of Jim Reeves always makes the sentimental reach for their Kleenex. His death was as untimely as that of fellow country singer Patsy Cline. Back in the 1980s Nashville technicians were able to splice together songs they had each recorded separately and produce a grisly album of duets by two dead stars that had never recorded in the same studio.

Sad songs cut across the musical divide – from old-fashioned rock’n’roll to bagpipe laments to much-loved classics like Elgar’s Nimrod, Samuel Barber’s funeral favourite Adagio for Strings and Nessun Dorma from Turandot which was the perfect accompaniment to Gazza’s 1990 World Cup tears.

Meanwhile pop songs as diverse as Tell Laura I Love Her, Mad World, Elton John’s Daniel, Bat for Lashes’s Siren Song or Sinead O’Conner’s Nothing Compares 2U do not so much pull at the heart-strings as rip them out.

The largo movement in Dvorak’s From the New World symphony became a gospel tune called Goin’ Home which is often played at funerals, shamelessly tugging on the tear ducts.

In the 1948 film The Snake Pit the inmates of a mental asylum are suddenly hushed and still when a concert party band plays the mournful tune.

It’s unlikely that even an ardent heavy metal fan would remember their girlfriend leaving them every time they hear some ear-shattering Megadeth.


Improbably, Billie Holliday nailed the definitive version of Nobody’s Child


Anything that made people feel weepy or unmanly, was banned in ancient Greece because it was considered bad for the spirit


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