Almost three years ago to the day, I was standing with my cello in tow in the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, about the board the plane that would take me to my next chapter in life: studying for my master’s degree with Hans Jensen at Northwestern University. Despite my best efforts, the cello attracted its usual share of attention. As I passed a row of seats on my way toward the jetway, I passed a scruffy-looking guy with a guitar case. We made the usual small talk about music, and I, being my usual anti-social self, was inching away and trying to disengage for the whole conversation. He seemed unfazed by my stand-offishness, and as we parted ways, he said, “Here–I want you to have this,” and pressed a dog-eared copy of Daniel J. Levitan’s The World in Six Songs into my hands. I hopped on the plane, studiously avoided conversation with strangers and arrived in Chicago, where the book languished on my bookshelf, unopened and forgotten, for three years.
Turns out, I should have read it. Levitan’s book, which seeks to uncover the secret of music’s power on a neurological basis, has inspired a recent, much buzzed-about project helmed by researchers at the UK’s The Guardian. The premise of both the book and the project is simple, straightforward, and very potent: there is no culture without music, making music perhaps one of the most universal and therefore powerful forces in the world. After diverging from this one very simple point of origin, though, the map of music and its relationship to all things human gets more complex. Music itself is a deceptively simple phenomenon. If one doesn’t think too closely about it, it is easy to think of it as a fairly direct and self-explanatory art form. If one thinks a bit more, however, the questions pour out much faster than answers do. The concept of music itself is a somewhat difficult one to describe. Music is so important to the human race that recorded music of various cultures have been launched into space as potential ambassadors to alien lifeforms. But when one thinks about explaining to these lifeforms what music is and why it is so important, the strongly anomalous nature of the art form comes into clearer focus. Why are these seemingly random patterns and sequences of sounds, noises, and pitches so central to the human experience? How did specific types of music come to be so very central to so many specific venues, occasions, and rituals? Why does one culture prefer certain types of patterns to others, and why do some individuals prefer what others can’t abide? Why do we like the music we do, and why do we like it so much?
Above all, the question at the heart of the Guardian project is this: what does our personal musical fingerprint mean? Does it shape our personalities? Do our personalities and experiences shape our preferences? In an article for the Guardian, Oxford University Eric Clarke ruminates on the significance of music to our shared and individual experiences. Clarke postulates that, while neurological research is all well and good, it is perhaps more fruitful and telling to investigate music and its ramifications from a social viewpoint: instead of looking at what neurons light up in the brain when exposed to Mozart, why not look at the myriad ways in which music is entwined with and embedded in social functions?
It is this social experience with music that has driven the Spotify-supported “Six Songs of Me” project launched on the Guardian website. Clarke asserts that some of the trouble with musicology’s quest to ascertain what makes people love some music and not other music and what makes music important is the lack of specificity and personal meaning in the investigations. Says Clarke, there is a “tendency to tackle these big questions in ways that are too general and abstract….One way to ground them is to look more closely and think more deeply about the music that matters most to each of us at a personal level.” The “Six Songs of Me” project was launched to personalize the quest to learn more about the music that matters more to each individual according to their own assessment.
The project asks participants to select meaningful songs or pieces in six specific categories: the first song you bought, the song that makes you want to dance, the song that takes you back to childhood, the perfect love song, the song that you’d want played at your funeral, and the song that makes you you.
By asking for a spectrum of these targeted, universally significant moments, the team at the Guardian hope to compile personal soundtracks that they can study and compare. But what do these soundtracks mean? As Clarke puts it:
So what do the soundtracks to my life tell me about either music or myself? Well, they bring home that strange combination of serendipity and revelation that so often characterizes our encounters with music: those BBC advertisements for the proms in which a passerby steps into an invisible circle of sound and is suddenly transfixed and transported tap into a particular preoccupation with “the secret power of music” which is both profoundly ideological and all too real.
There is something about the project that has a universal draw; it sparks a curiosity and an interest in sharing–what’s your soundtrack, and what’s mine? Why not add your six songs to the project and see what it means for you? Check out my six songs, and then go add your own–and share them with your friends. You just might gain insight into your friends and yourself that you can’t get any other way. Celebrate yourself, your music, and your world by thinking about the pieces and songs that made you who you are.