It has always fascinated me how a bunch of notes played in a certain sequence can invoke something so arcane as emotions. It is startling how music tames the wild heart to feel happy, sad, or even angry. But what is it in music that brings out something so esoteric that throws you into the darkest abyss of your mind? What is it that prompts an artist to craft a melody so sweet that opens the emotions that you’ve so long shut close?
In short, what is it that drives an artist?
Music inspires awe even in the most unimpressionable. An inspiring piece can bring an ignorant burden some much needed sense. Or it can motivate you enough to finish that project that has been sitting on your desk for the past month. A melancholic song sure will accompany you through a tough day and stay up with you to listen to your troubles. Almost everyone turns to music to fill their emotional voids, positive or otherwise. Silly melodies sure add to the fun of a party and yes, metal will scream with you in frustration. Locking your doors to listen to your favourite record to soothe you through a bad day? Done that countless times and I can say that you have, too. Yes, you. Out there on the phone, sitting hunched back and smiling.
In the laps of all that’s familiar, we listen to music to take us to the most fragile caves of our mind. It’s just something you and I, as people do, listen to music that makes us feel what we want to feel at a specific moment. Beyond reason, music takes us someplace afar. Far away from the bustle and mundane ways of reality. A landscape sculpted by notes escaping into the ethereal. An escapism sounding so fantastic, that it’s only true within the edges of imagination. How appealing! And I’m a rational and logical person who is fascinated by the workings of reality.
Musical escapism is true for all moods. It’s hard to recount the number of times a boring day out with friends turned out so much better just because Heavy Metal removed all sense of humiliation from us, and we started headbanging in the middle of the streets. A meagre explanation suffices to say that Rob Halford screaming “Breaking the Law” quite numerously made our stupid teenage selves forget about the larger civilized society and escape into a realm where being judged did not really matter. No regrets! Everyone can listen to their favourite songs and get out of their stressful (or not so stressful!) situations. A simple tap of the fingers on the steering wheels on the 1st and the 3rd beats of a 4/4 drum groove goes a long way in aiding a jam packed drive from your office. Yes, escapism! After all, who doesn’t want that, to be away from reality even if for the shortest time?
But perhaps this escapism that music provides is most desirable during negative experiences. An inevitable aspect of reality, sorrow is an integral part of the human experience. When life throws you down and you are rendered helpless, left alone in the twilight, wandering for an escape that is nowhere to be found. No hands to save you, no words to console. As unpleasant as it sounds, all of us have experienced these downs, and truth be told, they’re not very pleasant. No conceivable words can possibly describe how terrible the hopeless landscape of the mind feels. And for those overarching eons of sorrow, music truly takes you out of your mind and listens to your wants to scream, to cry, to give up. A perfect escape from your condition, listening to you and sharing the same desperation. Albeit momentarily, music calms the storm.
This transcendental ability that music possesses allures the desperate to use the sonic medium to express their feelings. This makes individuals pick up an instrument and turn to the wells of their hearts to become ‘artists’. Spending hours upon hours, honing their craft. Learning to play 16th notes at 200 beats per minute, soloing over the E major scale in the G phrygian mode. Not an issue if you’re not a musician (But trust me, these are pretty basic concepts!). In the process, some have attained such musical prowess that they’ve become ‘virtuosos.’ Their command over their instrument makes them worthy of envy by other artists and the layman alike. I am an artist, playing guitar and singing in a metal band. But I do not fit the bill of a virtuoso by a long shot. Most artists probably share my sentiment. What can we do but to look at John Petrucci play that fiddle like a part of himself?
But what is to make of a virtuoso or an artist in general? No matter how well a musician knows their way on their instrument, every technique they learn is ultimately just a tool. A tool to craft a piece, a song. They perfect their craft not to flaunt their skills for us to withhold and despair while it inflates their ego. Rather, they practice rigorously so as to draw better music from the wells – the wells all artists draw from; the manna of bottled emotions, to paint over the silence.
Unrequited feelings spark creativity in many artists. As a matter of fact, some of the best melodies ever crafted have been claimed by their performers to have been inspired during times of great emotional turmoil. I often find myself writing some beautiful pieces with insightful lyrics in my darkest hours. And I’ve read about and even met people who agree that their miseries have brought out great music. But what is it that drives the creative mind to make something beautiful out of otherwise unpleasant times? As it turns out, humans would rather waste all their little valuable intellects in focusing on negative details than to look and be happy at all the most pleasurable things. Scums. Evolution is to blame, not you and me! But this implies that we focus twice as much on a single bad event than on multiple great outcomes. But this focus on the bad is not intrinsically bad. It forces us to look into the uncomfortable parts of ourselves in a much needed serious light to gain deeper insight.
Enter musical creativity!
To artists, music is an outlet to communicate these uncomfortable truths that they’ve discovered, about themselves and the world. The deep insight fuels passion and a strong urge to act on the emotions they’ve so long closeted. The notes they craft convey exactly what they feel; contempt, anger, desperation, sadness, or the other plethora of emotions locked inside. Every tool in their arsenal is used to achieve the emotionally driven sound they’re looking for; sweep picking, chicken harmonics, screaming and the hundred other multitudes of techniques that have been crafted over the years. The artistic goal at the end is to let out others and their own unrequited emotions out into the open, to lay them bare and exposed under the sun, hoping for a change (or maybe not, at least that’s not what Trent Reznor writes about). In the process, the artist gets to escape from their situation by liberating themselves from the feelings that they have so long hidden. Evolution did not mess up too badly after all.
Artists treat creating music as a great escape, akin to you listening to their art. I, for one, always find myself back to scribbling on my diary on days when I just cannot take it anymore. The outcome may be beautiful, but the process itself is laughably painful. But creating something helps, even distracting from the very cause I started writing for. Now I can’t draw conclusions based on my experiences but lots of artists would agree with me in saying that they write to escape their unfortunate realities. And it gives us happiness. Immense happiness. Ah, the joy of writing, how sweet!
Music does not always come from a place of beauty. The escape it provides is glorious, but more often than not, it originates in the heart of a broken and despairing artist. Now, there is a lot to be said about artists who get dependent on such feelings for creativity. I am not entirely free of guilt too. On many occasions, I indulge in activities which ultimately make me feel terrible and that forces me to look straight into the eyes of the uncomfortable truths of life. To cope up with the discomfort, I retire to the pen and come up with a melody to mirror my sorrow. It elevates the pain. But sometimes, you get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Sometimes, it gets difficult to write with the right mind. Somewhere, it starts to feel wrong that you are finally happy. It kills creativity. And you find yourself voluntarily performing activities that will bring discomfort. Congratulations, you are Mr. Self Destruct.
As someone currently working on a full length album in a band, I have on days done absolutely nothing but things which would bring me enough sadness so that I can write a great piece that is relatable. Artists before me have famously said that their sorrow and depression is what makes them so creative and original. A term called ‘Functional Depression’ is best assigned to individuals who are regularly drawn to the dark side to drive through reality. And whilst it does bring out great art, it takes a toll on the artist over time. And given how hectic and mind numbing the music business can be, it becomes a recipe for a perfect mental breakdown.
Some artists have openly confessed that they fear their depression might be gone someday and they may be left unable to create anything substantial. This, alongside our stigma around mental illnesses as a collective society, has become a cause for artists to develop a negligence for therapy. Their belief that being cured will make their minds useless prevents them from seeking professional help, and in the process, they suffer. And so do the people who surround them. This neglect may result in crippling depression. Now sadness in little doses may facilitate creativity but an overdose, well, works in the contrary. And so, their esteemed capacity to create falters. But more than that, their lives are shattered, on more than one fronts. That is when you hear about these once charismatic figures doing the unthinkable: the act of taking their own life.
But reality does not always dwell on the fringe extremes of humanity. Yes, boundaries are breached, mistakes are made more often than not, everyone stays fine. Most musicians who fall prey to such destructive behaviours find their way around it, sooner or later. I have. So have so many others. The corners can be scary but a lot of the time, we go to these daunting places, document our accounts, and get back and laugh and celebrate it. Absurdism! And as long as it is not overdosed, music can be the most beautiful means to process emotions. Truly sweet.
As is evident, great music is not always bestowed from the heavens. Some of the most beautiful songs have emerged from the gutters of the hearts of despairing artists. They venture into their minds and take you to the borders of your imagination, painting a near perfect picture of their mind’s dissonance. And it is beautiful.
Oh, and please do not glorify ‘artistic’ sorrow. It is not fun. Not at all. And the people experiencing this are really suffering. If you know a struggling artist (or anyone for that matter) who is going through any sort of mental crisis, help them receive professional help. Convince them it is not shameful, and that it will not take away their unique traits.
Also, I lied before, imagination has no borders.
Now we can leave.
Written by Josh Mastiff