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Kaitlin Dunnevant

On Harmony

I've always thought "music" was a beautiful word, resonant and pleasing to speak. The "mu" syllable rises with a slight inflection, and to me it sounds like warm milk, if warm milk had a sound. Then the word settles with a click at the end. How lovely. Music. Music.

"Harmony" does not appeal to my ear the same way. The word "harmony" conjures up images of people holding hands and twirling in a dandelion field. Yet I love the word. I've been infatuated with musical harmony since I was a little girl. One of my earliest memories is the day Dad called my brother and me into his bedroom and pulled out his guitar. He strummed the chords to "Happy Birthday" and directed Patrick and me to close our eyes and try to harmonize with him. I don't remember if we got it right away, but we must have stayed up there for an hour, Dad playing song after song and encouraging us to pick out a second part. I found a simple harmony to a praise chorus at one point -- Dad's eyes lit up and he thumped me proudly on the back. "That's my girl!" he yelled down to Mom, beaming.

As a junior high student, I listened for the sweet accent of a high part flitting over the melody. I practiced the grounding solidity of resonant alto. Whenever my harmony could slide in and out of a vocal line, something vaguely unsettled released inside me. I remember reading in eighth grade about various groups who can manipulate their vocal chords to actually sing two parts at once. The Huun-Huur-Tu quartet of Tuva, a federal subject of Russia, has earned quite a reputation for their "throat singing" -- these men can create deep buzzing undertones and melodic overtones to complement the main melody they sing for each piece. "Throat singing" is never taught formally in their culture; rather, they pass it down to their children, encouraging them to practice incessantly and tap into the spiritual realm for inspiration. They never articulate the science of it. For them, what's crucial is soul.

In a clumsy way, I understand. The melodic third, for instance, is much more than a melodic third. It can layer a chord with richness, New York cheesecake drizzled with dark Godiva chocolate. Even in spirited arrangements, the fourth interval aches, pulsing like the temples during a migraine. A sixth makes me skittish, edgy. And then of course, my favorite, the seventh chord -- it throbs with dissonance, but then it resolves, caressing the listener and blowing cool oxygen through the body. You can research the seventh chord and read for hours about its history with the blues genre, its harmonic and diminished varieties, and its modulations, but you can never teach me why a song full of sevenths draws out the grey in lake water, or why it sucks bitterness from my bloodstream like a straw.

In high school I participated in a select vocal ensemble at school. The choir included only twenty students, and we developed a camaraderie that sometimes interfered with rehearsals -- I can remember my choir teacher storming from the piano and slamming her office door after we giggled our way through a Renaissance madrigal. In her eyes, we had profaned a sacrament. From her, I learned to think about each vocal run as something deeply emotional and risky. My senior year, we sang a piece in eight part harmony depicting General William Booth's triumphant ascent into Heaven after founding the Salvation Army. The piece culminates into a brilliant fortissimo, major chords booming in bright victory as the choir sings, "He saw King Jesus, they were face to face, and he knelt a-weeping in that holy place" -- as my choir teacher conducted our final performance of this song, her arms swept the air in exultation, her face flushed red, and tears streamed down her cheeks.

I remember driving with a friend one Saturday night, listening to a new rock CD I loved. One particular chord had overwhelmed me for weeks -- the harmonies fit together strangely, taut with dissonance, and it awakened sadness in me. I would drive the dark streets toward home and rewind over and over, suffocating in the chord's airless dejection. When the song reached that section, I turned the volume way up and franticly entreated my friend to listen. "Do you hear that? That chord is an emotion. I have felt that before. Do you hear it?" I desperately wanted her to understand, to feel it with me. She didn't. She laughed helplessly and changed the subject, and I felt suddenly very disconnected.

There is no question that music is evocative -- with it, humans wring out saturated souls, dripping across concert halls, in motel rooms, around dying fire pits. I believe that a central reason for music's power is harmony. A cappella melodies can be poignant, but they soar when swept up in harmony's airstream. Harmony is context. It can echo mournfully under a melody, flutter above a heavy refrain, or thunder with a patriotic anthem. I suppose that's why I am so infatuated with harmony -- it empowers me to take something beautiful and expound on it. With harmony, I can support, equip, soften, sharpen, highlight.

That's what humans are made to do. That explains why passionate, blended music moves the human heart. After hearing an insightful speech, people exclaim, "That really touched a chord in me," because chords signify a perfect fit, an impressive and logical wholeness. I do not make sense alone. I ring true when supported, equipped, softened, sharpened, highlighted by those I love. I am complete only when upheld by the community around me. What would life be like if I couldn't ask for advice over cappuccinos, argue political policy until three a.m., have Leslie edit my writing, or slip a note into someone's mailbox? I think it would become monotonous and self-indulgent, like song after song of one solitary melody with no accompaniment.

If I'm not careful, I may end up holding someone's hand and prancing in a dandelion field. But I believe that harmony testifies to something universal. Singing a second or third part exhilarates me because it helps me mend what humans are created to mend. It "heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality," as C. S. Lewis wrote so beautifully. Humans are better together -- when multiple voices intertwine and create a collective sound. That's why I sing harmony. And I will continue to sing it forever.

©2008 by Kaitlin Dunnevant

Kaitlin Dunnevant grew up in Richmond, Virginia. She will graduate from Cedarville University in 2009 with a BA in English Education and a minor in music. She loves to write, especially short essays and poetry.

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