The Marginalian
The Marginalian

A Shelter in Time: John Berger on the Power of Music

A Shelter in Time: John Berger on the Power of Music

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his ode to the enchantment of music. Music is the most indescribable of the arts, and that may be what makes it the most powerful — the creative force best capable of giving voice and shape to our most ineffable experiences and most layered longings, of containing them and expanding them at once. It is our supreme language for the exhilaration of being alive.

I have come upon no finer definition of music than philosopher Susanne Langer’s, who conceived of it as a laboratory for feeling in time. Time, indeed, is not only the raw material of music — the fundamental building block of melody and rhythm — but also its supreme gift to the listener. A song is a shelter in time, a shelter in being — music meets us at particular moments of our lives, enters us and magnifies those moments, anchors them in the stream of life, so that each time we hear the song again the living self is transported to the lived moment, and yet transformed.

That is what the uncommonly insightful painter, poet, and writer John Berger (November 5, 1926–January 2, 2017) explores in his essay “Some Notes on Song,” composed in the last months of his life and included in his altogether wonderful final collection Confabulations (public library).

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a symphony. (Available as a print.)

Berger considers how music, in bridging the universal and the deeply personal, illuminates the meaning of intimacy:

Much of what happens to us in life is nameless because our vocabulary is too poor. Most stories get told out loud because the storyteller hopes that the telling of the story can transform a nameless event into a familiar or intimate one.

We tend to associate intimacy with closeness and closeness with a certain sum of shared experiences. Yet in reality total strangers, who will never say a single word to each other, can share an intimacy — an intimacy contained in the exchange of a glance, a nod of the head, a smile, a shrug of a shoulder. A closeness that lasts for minutes or for the duration of a song that is being listened to together. An agreement about life. An agreement without clauses. A conclusion spontaneously shared between the untold stories gathered around the song.

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is the luscious corporeality of song that lends music its extraordinary powers of intimacy. In consonance with Richard Powers’s arresting observation that “the use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body,” Berger writes:

A song, when being sung and played, acquires a body… Again and again the song takes over the body of the singer, and after a while the body of the circle of listeners who, as they listen and gesture to the song, are remembering and foreseeing.

A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. While it is being sung it fills the present. Stories do the same. But songs have another dimension, which is uniquely theirs. A song fills the present, while it hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, farther and farther. Without the persistence of this hope, songs would not exist. Songs lean forward.


A song borrows existent physical bodies in order to acquire, while it’s being sung, a body of its own.

Music is so embodied an experience because it is made of the same substance we ourselves are made of: time. With an eye to how “songs put their arms around linear time,” Berger adds:

The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song offer a shelter from the flow of linear time — a shelter in which future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another.


Songs are like rivers: each follows its own course, yet all flow to the sea, from which everything came.

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe and the fascinating science of how music casts its spell on us, then savor Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” brought to life in a Spanish flashmob of 100 musicians.

Published June 27, 2023




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