The Power of Music
In my post about “The Shakespeare Code,” I wrote about the saving, magical power of words. Now this episode concludes with a victory based on the power of music.
This is a gorgeous concept: I hope that every one of you readers has had your heart wrenched, your soul uplifted, and your life changed by listening to live music, especially orchestral, operatic, chamber ensemble, piano, or organ music (I find those to be the most powerful). And if you have, perhaps you wondered what exactly was going on. Why should a particular combination of mechanical waves, setting up patterns of oscillating pressure in air (thanks, wikipedia), make me cry or make me feel like I am in heaven?
Well, words do the same thing, and words are also sounds; i.e., mechanical waves setting up patterns of oscillating pressure in air. And any particular set of those mechanical waves, originating at someone else's mouth and ending at my ear, to be processed by my brain, can cause me to cry or laugh or want to die or think I'm in heaven.
But words are different. Words carry meaning. We could have a delightful conversation about whether the meanings words convey are simply arbitrary social conventions, or whether they have an essential relationship with the sounds of the words themselves. But either way, there is something astonishing about how sound waves cause emotional reactions, even when they have no textual meaning.
Why should a Chopin prelude sound sad? It's not that the series of notes sound like certain sad words (in English, or Polish, or any language). Why should Beethoven's Third Symphony sound victorious? It is only because the rhythms and the instrumentation resemble traditional military music? Or is it more than that? Is all of this also only culturally constructed? A minor scale doesn't necessarily sound sad to someone who grew up listening to scales involving microtones.
I don't know the answers to those questions. But the point is, however music has its effect, and whatever kinds of music have particular effects in certain cultures: music is very powerful.
And in “The Lazarus Experiment,” it is powerful enough to kill.
This is not an original idea, although used to great effect in this episode. I encountered deadly music previously in The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers: it's my favorite of all her books (so far; Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon are waiting for me at the library right now). But I can't say any more. Even that much is a bit of a spoiler. After you read The Nine Tailors, check out this amazing sock knitted in its honor.
Yet the music in “The Lazarus Experiment” doesn't only kill; it also saves.
By killing the monster (to whom he had already given chance after chance), the Doctor saves Martha, Letitia, and possibly the whole human race.
Before I go, I do have one more point to make. When the Doctor plays the organ (so much fun!), he doesn't play a piece of music. He just plays random chords as he tries to find just the right combination of pitches that will destroy the monster. Later, though, Martha says that she didn't know he plays the organ. He says, “Well, you know, you hang around with Beethoven, you're bound to pick a few things up.” That's cute.
But Beethoven isn't really known for organ music. Here is the rather short list of Beethoven's works for organ. Didn't the Doctor mean Bach?