Music to make you sit up straight

At a dinner party the other night I fell into conversation with a young lawyer on the subject of music. Having never heard contemporary music, and having had little exposure to music in general, he was intrigued by my enthusiasm to dedicate my life to the art, and asked what it was I like so much about it. The question caught me off-guard, and I replied with something or other describing the transformative power of music, the ability it has to make you sit up straight. The nice lawyer seemed interested, and pressed me on this point: how can music make you sit up straight?

I knew in that moment that an adequate answer was beyond pre-dinner small talk, and I stumbled over something to do with structure, and the vast playing field of musical conventions that was established a few hundred years ago. The friendly lawyer listened, smiled, and nodded along, but I felt I hadn’t convinced him, and knew that my position wouldn’t hold in court.

On one level I wished I hadn’t mentioned it in the first place: short of being rude, it wasn’t really possible to hold this argument in the circumstances. After all, if it were so easy to justify this power of music then doctors would be prescribing it daily for back pain.

The reason it’s hard to explain is that you have to go back to first principles. It’s quite easy to make the case that music can be surprising, for instance: the composer creates various patterns of expectation, and simply by changing them can subvert this expectation. All that’s required for this to work is that the patterns be identifiable by the listener. Of course the nature of patterns can vary hugely, and the identification of more complicated constructions might require training.

So we can see how music can surprise the listener. And naturally, the nature of that surprise depends on the type of subversion. But what about sitting up straight? How can music have such a physical effect?

The music I had in mind was a particular song by J. S. Bach, ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ (‘Purify yourself, my heart’), an aria that concludes his Matthew Passion, written in Leipzig in 1727. Here’s a link to a recording with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists:

In this music, Bach doesn’t simply vary a pattern of expectation, but weaves multiple threads at the same time, and all under the umbrella of this vast playing field of eighteenth-century harmonic, contrapuntal, and rhythmic convention. These relationships between threads sounding and dissolving in time are infinite and, in performance, infinitely varied—what I’m describing is a kind of immense, indefinable complexity.

And yet, despite all this, there is crystal-like clarity as these threads come together to make various enchanting shapes. In more musical terms, we could discuss the pattern of expectation in the bass, for example, descending step-wise, suggestive of a repetitive ground, and lament-like in contour. And, against this, the vocal part which ascends, working towards a high sustain over the word ‘rein’ (‘pure’), before falling to an ebbing, repetitive figuration. But in combination, these two patterns fall over one another in strange ways, and, according to contrapuntal conventions, materialise dissonances where we might not expect them to be otherwise, and yet at the same time we predict them to be there because of the anticipated repetition of these patterns on an individual basis.

In other words, Bach’s composition causes us to think “in time”: both in the present and in anticipation. What’s more, this aria comes at the end of nearly three hours of music. The ubiquitous pulsing rhythm of Mache dich recalls the opening: here it is generous and stately, but at the beginning it is tight and foreboding, the kind of music that gets under your skin. So in this moment we also recall the past. In an instant, then, Bach conjours the past, present, and future: the act of reflection is literally composed into the music; it exists at a molecular level. Mache dich, mein Herze, rein is the most deeply restorative music I know.