Loss at Sandy Hook: How Music Can Help Us Get to the Heart of The Matter.


Though several days have passed, I am still in shock. The tragic events that took place last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT were unfathomable. They shook this nation to its core.  I found myself asking questions, seemingly to my computer monitor, as the news, the tragedy, continued to unfurl. How does something like this happen? I asked myself.

As soon as the news reached the Internet, Facebook and Twitter immediately began to explode with prayers for the victims, prayers for their families, embittered valedictions, and a vicious debate between those who are pro or anti gun control.

All I heard was mindless chatter.

My wife was overwhelmed by the images of children grabbing each other’s shoulders, running from the school. I hadn’t seen them, but when I finally did, I was—let’s say, distressed. My whole mind and body, was in a state of distress. I felt pain for all those involved in this, but my mind could simply not make any sense of it. So I did what I have always done in times of great turmoil. I tuned out the world, and turned up the music.

In his address at the 2004 convocation ceremony at Boston Conservatory, Dr. Karl Paulnack referenced the ancient Greek philosophy, “…that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects.” Paulnack said that, “Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”

Invisible spheres—that’s the best metaphor I can think of to describe how our emotions move through our minds. How they fuse together, swell, separate, and collide into each other. Just like blowing bubbles out in the yard on a hot summer day.  On Friday, my mind was filled with too many invisible spheres: sympathy, rage, defeat, anger, distress, hopelessness for our society and despair to name but a few.

They were crashing together, blocked and they couldn’t escape.

The very first piece that came to my mind when I shoved in my ear buds was Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarkte Nacht, or Transfigured Night.  For those of you who don’t know the work, you can get a brief description of it by clicking here. The poem, which inspired Schoenberg to compose the piece, tells the story of a woman who bears on her soul the burden of having committed adultery and thus conceiving an illegitimate child. In Transfigured Night, she tells her male companion what she has done. Though she fears he will abandon her because of her sin, he does not and accepts the child as his own.

The best aspect of great poetry is that is metaphorical and you can mold those metaphors to apply to life’s experiences. This is exactly what I did on Friday.  I listened to the glittering strings on this recording.  Immediately, the haunting melodies began to move the invisible orbs of emotion in my mind. I listened closely, again and again. My heart sought out sounds of grief, despair, and then ultimately hope. When I took the time to be still and only feel, I could literally feel these great and heaving emotions shifting and moving inside me.

Music can help us make sense of the complicated events that sometimes befall us.  In a tragedy as horrible as the one last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary, it is all too easy to lose all hope, to be consumed by despair.  Music works from the inside out. Helping us to identify our feelings and our emotions. It can provide for us a much needed distraction from event which are too horrible to bear.  It can also help us to empathize. Through the music I could share in the loss of the victims, and I felt even more deeply for the parents whose loved ones were taken from them.  If you have ever used music to help ease your pain, you will know how effective it can be.

But more importantly, music can help lead us out of the darkness in our minds. It can change us like nothing else can. A tenuous melody can in fact, pull us from the shadowy recesses of our mind where we might languish.  It can kindle the fire of hope inside of us.  It moves those invisible spheres over the mind like how a magnifying glass positioned in the sun can spark a fire.  In Verklarkte Nacht, there is a particular melody that did this for me. It references a stanza later in the poem;

“Look, how brightly the universe shines! Splendour falls on everything around, you are voyaging with me on a cold sea, but there is the glow of an inner warmth from you in me, from me in you.”

Though this is, of course, a literal reference the woman’s child she carries in her womb, I took it as a metaphor for hope, that even in harshest of circumstances, we carry in us a glow of inner warmth that is our hope and our love. It is with us, and will bear us through life’s hardest experiences. We bear them together, and though we may share life’s hardships with one another, we can also lean on each other to share the glow of love and hope.

My heart truly goes out to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary, their families, and all those involved in this terrible tragedy. I hope that, even if not through music, that these people do find solace and can begin the long road to healing.


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