Sound and Circumstance
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Few are those who can legitimately claim to be unmoved by music. As human beings, we have an inborn capacity to appreciate and respond to acoustic stimuli. Equally rare is one who can honestly say he or she has no musical preferences. Such a statement is almost always a transparent attempt to avoid potential arguments about taste. Even if one’s reaction to a certain piece, performer, style, instrument or rendition is subtle, it is virtually impossible to avoid its effect. Indeed, music fascinates us largely because it triggers visceral responses, both positive and negative. Depending on our feelings for a particular piece and whether we are in a receptive or rejective frame of mind, music can hurt or heal.
Our complex relationship with musical sounds is addressed in an enigmatic verse from Proverbs: “Disrobing on a chilly day, like vinegar on natron, is one who sings songs to a sorrowful soul” (25:20). It should be noted that this text is uncertain: the English translation is a best effort at clarifying muddy language. Some renderings even omit the analogy about disrobing. The peculiar wording might cause us to question the value of interpreting the proverb. How, after all, can we derive substance from a verse that is tarnished by approximations? Yet, paradoxically, it is in this haziness that we find musical truth.
Read in its entirety, the proverb suggests what biblical scholar Abraham Cohen called “ill-timed gaiety.” For someone in a melancholy mood, cheerful music can (and often does) act as an exasperating agent. This is so even if the music being played is something the affected person would ordinarily like. As the proverb seems to indicate, a happy melody met by unhappy ears is analogous to the discomfort of undressing in the cold or the violent fizzing of acidic vinegar mixed with basic natron. Instead of inducing merriment, the music is an annoyance.
Still, there are instances when appropriate music can soften a sour state. Under the right conditions and with the right music, a person can be eased into a more agreeable humor. Oddly enough, this is also alluded to in the proverb. If we excise the first part about disrobing—as many scholars do—the remaining metaphor takes on a different meaning. In place of an image of incompatibility, vinegar on natron comes to imply the neutralization of sadness: an acid balancing a base. This interpretation is in line with the rabbinic dictum: “Three things restore tranquility of mind: music, fair sights, sweet smells” (BT Ber. 57b).
It is not often that a single verse imparts two contradictory pieces of wisdom. For this to occur, there almost has to be obscurity in the language employed, as with the proverb examined here. But rather than diminishing its profundity, a double meaning seems appropriate when the topic is music. Like the analogies used in the verse, our relationship with music is at times mysterious and inconsistent. Though we are emotionally susceptible to musical sounds, the same tones that attract us one moment might repel us at another. In sum, music can be a source of both aggravation and alleviation.
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