This is the last segment of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12.
Marked with Musical Notes – Part 13
Deep within the earth, near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, lies the world’s largest musical instrument. The Great Stalacpipe Organ spans three acres of the Luray Caverns and can be heard through all sixty-four acres of the cave. In the 1950s, engineer Leland Sprinkle tapped over 2,500 stalactites of different sizes with a rubber mallet to test their sound, finally choosing thirty-seven for the organ. When an organist presses the instrument’s keys, an electrical signal travels via a solenoid to a mallet that strikes the corresponding stalactite.
While a pipe organ is an aerophone, the Great Stalacpipe Organ is a lithophone: an instrument whose sound comes from a struck piece of rock. It sounds more like a xylophone or bells than a conventional organ. The tones echo through the cavern, producing a sound that is eerie, beautiful, and peaceful, all at the same time—music from the belly of Earth.
Today, Earth and her inhabitants cry out, oppressed by greed-fueled devastation, disease, and deep-rooted injustice.
Bono, activist and lead singer of U2, reportedly said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” Such a bold quote begs examination. Does music actually change people? What can music do for us now?
Music usually accompanies social movements and change. Music by artists such as The Staple Singers and Bob Dylan encouraged and inspired those fighting for civil rights in the 1960s. Rock music was instrumental in helping Czechoslovakia through the Velvet Revolution, its nonviolent transition from communism to democracy. Songs such as “La Réveil de Peuple” and “La Marseillaise” fostered unity during the French Revolution. Obviously, not all social movements end well. Music is a tool, and it can be used to spur one to progress or spread propaganda. Musicians capture it all in song for later generations.
Music therapy addresses mental, behavioral, and physical issues. Sufi music was used in the Ottoman Empire for centuries to treat the mentally ill and restore balance to the humors. Different Ottoman musical modes affect the body and mind in different ways, such as making patients sleepy, reducing fever, dispelling lethargy, or even helping patients lose weight. The tradition has been revived in modern Turkey to complement conventional medicine.
As music heals the individuals of Earth, it heals communities. Numerous musical initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as the Mostar Rock School, the Pavarotti Music Centre, From Woman to Woman, and the Youth Cultural Center Abrašević, seek to bring people of different communities together and heal the wounds of the recent past.
A group of artists called the ClimateMusic Project wishes to save the world—literally—by raising awareness of one of the earth’s most pressing issues: climate change. They produced a thirty-minute interpretive audiovisual piece called “Climate,” which illustrates the earth’s climate over 500 years, beginning in 1800 CE. As the piece continues into the earth’s future, it projects two possible scenarios. The visuals come from the Community Earth System Model and illustrate the ocean’s pH and the earth’s CO₂ concentration, which is reflected in the tempo of the music. The earth’s temperature is reflected in the pitch, and the earth’s energy balance manifests as distortion in the sound. Response has been positive so far and audience members are intrigued, but will it produce real change? Will it transform people’s opinions and actions?
We cannot predict the future, but we can listen, educate ourselves, and promote positive change—and art. Whatever lies ahead, music will be there to document it and give us hope and, perhaps, solidarity. The path forward is always marked with musical notes. Let’s make sure it leads us to a sustainable and bright future.