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We need music to survive

People used it to get through Nazi P.O.W. camps and 9/11. It helps heal us.

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One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not value me as a musician. I remember my mother's reaction when I announced my decision to study music instead of medicine: "You're wasting your SAT scores!" My parents love music, but at the time they were unclear about its value.

The confusion is understandable: We put music in the "arts and entertainment" section of the newspaper. But music often has little to do with entertainment. Quite the opposite.

The ancient Greeks had a fascinating way of articulating how music works. In their quadrivium – geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music – astronomy and music are two sides of the same coin. Astronomy describes relationships between observable, external, permanent objects.

Music illuminates relationships between invisible, internal, transient objects. I imagine us having internal planets, constellations of complicated thoughts and feelings. Music finds the invisible pieces inside our hearts and souls and helps describe the position of things inside us, like a telescope that looks in rather than out.

In June 1940, French composer Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There, he finished a quartet for piano, cello, violin, and clarinet, and performed it, with three other imprisoned musicians, for the inmates and guards of that camp. The piece ("Quartet for the End of Time") is arguably one of the greatest successes in the history of music.

Given what we have since learned about life under Nazi occupation, why would anyone write music there? If you're just trying to stay alive, why bother with music? And yet – even from concentration camps themselves, we have surviving evidence of poetry, music, and visual art – many people made art. Why?

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