Emotional Liminality: What Music Can Do that Words Just Can't

June 8, 2015


During my research, I recently came across the following poem by Ricardo Reis, one of Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms:


Others narrate with lyres or harps;
      I tell with my thought.
For he finds nothing, who through music
      Finds only what he feels.
Words weigh more which, carefully measured,
      Say the world exists.

                                         (Pessoa & Co. 101)


I agree with Reis that words are infinitely important. My career… no, my life… revolves around them. As a poet and academic, I am one of those writers who labors over every sentence. My word choices are well-planned, and when I craft, regardless of the genre, I often cycle through five synonyms before landing on the one that I feel fits just right.


Still, there are times when I realize that despite my efforts, words will never be enough— In some instances, they can’t even be correct. I am not alone. There have been many writers throughout the years who have wallowed in the despair of the inadequacy of language… Flaubert, Foucault, Yeats and Eliot to name a few. (And, maybe for me, it’s just mid-dissertation blues.) The primary agenda of poetry is to connect with others through emotionality, but there is something to be said of musical narration that cannot be said of words.


When certain songs come on there is a feeling that is utterly indescribable. For me, it comes from things like: the opening of “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears, or the halted musical bridge in “We Are the Dead” by Does It Offend You Yeah, or the saxophone solo at the end of Beck’s “New Pollution”. These are musical moments that instantly change my mood and transport me to some other space. That is not to say that I haven’t read word arrangements that do the same, but all too often, words lead to more measures of words… to comparisons… to explanations… to descriptions. Music is what leads to that fleeting moment of feeling, always new, yet somehow reminiscent of what you can’t put a finger on. I find immense value in that kind of liminality, and I wish I could bask in it forever. Ultimately, however, words always break the trance.

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