What Does Music Tell You About Someone New?

When you meet someone new, you probably don’t begin the conversation by asking “What is the meaning of life?” Nor is it likely that you will inquire about anything “personal” or probe for skeletons in his family’s closet.

Instead, you are more likely to talk about things like music.

We get to know each other by testing the waters and discovering whether we share interests, a sense of humor, a style of living. Usually, it is only later that questions of values are raised. Until then, if the new person seems attractive, intelligent, funny; and roots for our sports team and likes our music, that is enough.

We make assumptions. In effect, we say to ourselves, “If you’re a Cubs fan, then your heart must be in the same place as mine because I’m a Cubs fan. If you like the same music I do, then you must share the same sentiments — the same taste.” From data such as this we predict our potential friend or lover to have an acceptable “sense and sensibility” — one that is close enough to match our own.

But, we don’t always get this right, do we? It turns out that just because Person X likes the same music and roots for the same team, he might not be a good match for us at all.

Here is a very dramatic example that illustrates the point.

Let’s say you like the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And, even if your new friend hasn’t heard it, he probably would agree with its vision of a world in which “alle Menschen werden Brüder,” which means “all men become brothers.” Better still if he actually has heard it and enjoys both the music and the sentiment of universal brotherhood. The shared affinity between you and this person might suggest that you will get along well together.

Not so fast. The video link will take you to a performance of the closing four minutes of that symphony that will teach you otherwise: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Hieronymus Bosch: “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (right panel)

The place is Berlin. The date is April 19, 1942. And the audience is filled with Nazis (the film will show you this), all listening intently to the words “all men become brothers.” OK, they aren’t uniformly crazy about Beethoven. The concert, after all, is celebrating Hitler’s birthday (which would occur the next day), so some listeners are there for the celebration if not the symphony. But, I doubt that many of the Nazi Party Beethoven fans were troubled by the contradiction between those words and their day job: murdering people, including the groups they considered “Untermenschen” (subhumans), comprised of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and Homosexuals.

Just in case you are wondering how anyone in the audience could actually applaud the idea that “alle Menschen werden Brüder,” the answer is to be found in the peculiar Nazi conscience. Simply put, since the Nazis had defined the groups I mentioned as less than human, those who believed in Nazi ideology saw themselves as doing a positive good for Germany by eradicating those same groups. And, since the “Untermenschen” were not thought to be “human,” they couldn’t be the “brothers” to any of those people in the audience who thought of themselves as the very best of the human race. Thus, the words of the poet Schiller which Beethoven used in his 9th Symphony seemed to them perfectly consistent with the Nazi view of the world.

No, I don’t think you will soon run into a Nazi who likes Beethoven or whatever other music might be your favorite. But, if you are looking for internal consistency in people, you are likely to be disappointed. Some “great men” cheat on their wives. Some brilliant writers are terribly troubled. Some good-looking and delightful people don’t know how to handle money.

The moral to the story is this: the next time you meet someone new, don’t assume that superficial things tell you everything you need to know. The way he dresses, the place he lives, or the car he drives might actually be irrelevant. And don’t assume that his love for the same music that you love tells you anything about his generosity, his kindness, or his morality.

Even the beautifully harmonized syllables “alle Menschen werden Brüder” are, after all, just words.

The top image is called Female Musicians at Aurangzeb’s Wedding, 1636, posted to Wikimedia Commons, as was the Bosch painting.

4 thoughts on “What Does Music Tell You About Someone New?

  1. Very thoughtful post. I watched the video and thought about the blend of evil and beauty both in that hall that night and in the world today. I find it disturbing and, frankly, these days I can’t leave much room for the paradox of beauty and evil in the world. Was it you who posted a link to Howard Zinn’s “The Optimism of Uncertainty” published in The Nation in September of 2001? If so, thank you. If not, it’s a good article and the final gist is two fold: a) things have a way of changing rapidly and b) there are some pretty amazing young people in the world today and our hope rests in them. They are making a difference. I forget about that sometimes.


    • I didn’t post the Zinn piece, but thanks for making me aware of it. No doubt about the amazing young people. Two of them are my children!


      • Well, I’ll see you (but I won’t raise any more!) One of mine is heavily involved in constructive environmentalism and the other is a special ed teacher 🙂
        I guess we are doing our part.


      • Congrats, JT. Sounds like they do you proud.


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