Where Great Songs Originate
From Dante to Dylan, from you and me – there’s a bigger question.
Starting with the wave of singer-songwriters that shook society in the 1960s, many still ponder where all great songs originate. Some say they come from the soul, referencing Bob Dylan.
While Dylan never actually made that claim, he did reference it in the now classic, “Tangled Up in Blue.” One of the song’s characters refers to a book of poems from the thirteenth century. Dylan wrote:
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you.
Not surprisingly, from an early age Dylan read a lot of poetry and other works of love and fiction. Born Robert Zimmerman, he took his pen name from the poet Dylan Thomas. The Bob Dylan line referenced above apparently refers to the Italian poet Dante and his famous Divine Comedy. Decades later, in 2016, Dylan would be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature.
We all have music hardwired in our brains from before birth. We might say, therefore, that our songs actually descend from our earliest ancestors. Unfortunately, the background noise of today’s society often impedes the flow of our natural artistic talents. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., poet, physician, professor, and scholar, said, “Alas for those that never sing but die with all their music in them.”
Even before language, humans sang storytelling songs of significant meaning. These stories were communicated through music’s powerful poetic influence on body language, including vocal variations, gait, and facial expressions.
It was not our music or storytelling communication that distinguished us from other animals, as these were traits we shared with other living creatures. But as language evolved a distinguishing natural feature of being human was the addition of more detailed meanings through lyrics. Many a song goes beyond its lyrics; even the same words of a song can, and are, interpreted differently. This is much like how the same painting can invoke various meanings, helping to bring out our individuality.
Even more significant is that language developed something distinctive in the human brain: fiction. This led to the capacity to take artistic license, to fib, keep secrets, or use expanding imagination to make up any twist in a story we wish. We became a species of dreamers expressed in all the expanding arts. This continuum of human creativity paralleled brain development, one that began in our early ancestors and continues today.
A similar parallel is observed throughout our own lifetimes. As children we are all artists from the earliest age, gradually maturing with the brain’s creative endeavors incorporating all that is within us to personalize artistic expression.
A healthy, active, creative brain turns out innovative, avant-garde storylines and tales that we hear, see, and feel from our lives and our art.
So, the brain is the source of our songs. Yet, even if they come from the supernatural, the feeling of a song must still be translated to musical components in the mind, with influence by conscious and subconscious memories that attach meaning and prose. Psychiatrist Carl Jung might simply say that artistic expressions are expressions of our multiple personalities. In short, our songs are us.
All this also begs the bigger question. A grander notion, broader and more holistic. What is the origin of art?
First to clarify: our art is us. The holistic feature across all the arts is that it is one. Despite the obvious technical or physical differences, we can feel the same emotional intensity from all forms: from poem to lyric to symphony to painting to sculpture. We can even measure the brain waves shifting into an alpha state upon exposure to art. It’s the rhyming sounds, the melodic repetition, the wordless notes of symphonic story, the harmonic flow of paint on canvas, a chunk of marble coming to life. It all invokes a special feeling unique to us, packaged up in our brain awaiting to be released.
This should keep us from differentiating between poetry and lyrics, painting or musical styles, and other academic features that can distract us from the love of art. And more importantly, part of this amazing human journey is that our art comes from the freedom of our own special feelings. Such features of the human brain, the good, the bad, the in-between, each creative face we feel, is represented by art.
A vital feeling connected with art is passion. It drives creativity. Passion urges our brains to be better humans, to keep on keepin’ on. We were artists for millions of years, both consumers and creators. In modern society, however, too few make the claim. Artistic passion is often repressed; de-emphasized in education and business, no longer a classless endeavor.
To be without the full spectrum of our art is to not yet be whole, as Holmes may have inferred. Too many never experience the passion, the special creative features and feel for the art already within us, that could allow the freedom to feed all human creativity.