A few weeks ago, we stumbled onto a thought-provoking discussion about music and communication in the Upper School Great Scores class. We were watching a scene from Star Wars Episode IV wherein an entire thirty seconds of the movie plays with no dialogue. Only the symphonic soundtrack backs the main characters as they watch the Millennium Falcon soar into the vast nothingness of space. That is thirty whole seconds of a movie where there is dramaturgical interest without dialogue. When we replayed this scene multiple times, the students were absolutely shocked by how long 30 seconds feels when there is no talking. They also noted how interesting and engaging the visuals and acting were, even in all of their 1970’s glory.
I asked my students how this was different from the most recent movies that they have seen. They all concurred that there is rarely ever that much time in more modern films where there is a continuation of dramatic interest without dialogue. Generally, if there is no dialogue, the music is meant to cover up the silence, not enable it to be a part of the dramaturgical discourse. In this scene, even though the characters are not speaking, the music, with its various leitmotifs paired with masterful harmonic sequences, helps us to truly be a part of the drama that is unfolding. It enables us to really study the characters’ faces and movements and dive deeper into their emotions, their relationships, their reality.
The key word here that the students continued to come back to was: “listen”. They agreed that listening happens with the whole body, not just the ears. When truly listening, all of our senses are heightened and engaged (even if they are not specifically being utilized in the moment). All of this led to a larger conversation about how we listen and the ways in which easily portable technology - like cell phones - have changed the way we listen to each other. How many times do we say, “I’m listening,” with our faces buried in a phone, tablet, computer or TV screen? That may be called hearing, but we cannot call it listening. And that is where we lose so much in how we relate to one another when we have conversations.
So naturally, what is needed to get our attention? More thoughtfully created ideas? More melodic lines in music that take long, luxurious strolls through various harmonic modulations? No. We need things to be louder. Shorter. More attention grabbing. These Upper School students then concurred that we don’t really need this noise, we have simply conditioned ourselves to only respond mentally and emotionally when we have it. It’s a communicative Pavlovian experiment that we have done on ourselves. It is through this that we have become really bad at conversation. In particular, really bad at listening.
In a genuinely good conversation, one person will present a well-organized idea or ideas while another person listens, takes notes (physically or mentally), and begins to create their well-organized thoughts to share in return. Here, optimal listening involves listening to the specific words being employed by the conversant, as well as listening to their tone, and noting their body language and the tenor of the room. It is undeniable that the quality of silent contemplation has become not only useless in many ways, but is actually abhorred by many people. Taking time in conversation to quietly process what is being said and to start to fully develop a rebuttal is often looked at as someone being “slow.” Thoughtful statements and developed ideas have become much less highly regarded than quick quips and responses which many seem to regard as a sign of mental agility. Thoughtful statements, which take time to develop after thoroughly acknowledging all of the communication given to us by someone else, are frankly, not always very exciting, dramatic, or easy.
And therein lies the crux of the “why is John Williams’ Star Wars score so amazing?” question which my students were discussing. John Williams' artistry and his music is so amazing because with his thoughtfully created melodies and harmonies, full of questions and answers, he creates a dialectic discussion amongst the characters on the screen and the audience in the theater. His music was not created solely to entertain or distract but to add to the conversation. A conversation which takes a little bit of work - like all really good conversations.