The best instrument is the one we all carry around all of the time—the human voice.
Some years ago, on the windswept Atlantic coast of Ireland, a couple of old farmers came up to my family’s cottage. There was tea and whiskey and turf was blazing in the grate. Late in the evening, when it was cold and dark outside, one of the old men suddenly started to sing. Just his voice in the silence, high and reedy, mournfully intoning the ballad of Banna Strand.
At moments like that, song becomes the soundtrack of our lives. It all starts with our first music—our mother’s voice. Around the world, every Saturday in the stands and every Sunday in the pews, people join together in song. Birthdays, marriages and deaths are solemnised when people open their mouths and sing.
When music involves a voice, whether you love Callas or Adele or Queen, the instruments are all second fiddle. The voice is a fingerprint, a personal stamp capable of endless variety. Borrowing the plosives and fricatives of spoken language, it imparts a feeling, a mood or a story—of a faithless lover, or a shipment of guns meant for Ireland’s Easter Rising that never made it to Banna Strand.
Nearly all music bears the mark of the voice. When you hear the sinuous melody of a Chopin prelude, you are hearing the piano imitate the voice. When you hear a string quartet, you are hearing the soprano, alto, tenor and bass of a choir. When my violin teacher, Clarence Myerscough, wanted me to understand how to phrase a melody, he wouldn’t play it on his exquisite 17th-century Maggini, he would sing it in his ordinary 20th-century baritone.
Singing is good for us. Exertion and concentration fortifies the mind and invigorates the body. All that breathing clears out our airways and staves off coughs and colds. All that noise-making helps get things off our chests.
Why not see if it works for you? If you cannot muster the confidence to join the local choral society, wait until the coast is clear, shut yourself safely behind the bathroom door and get under the shower. Then open your mouth, fill up your lungs, and launch into a stonking good tune. The music is there inside you. You just need to find your voice.
Edward Carr is Intelligent Life's editorial director and the foreign editor of The Economist
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine