Children’s birthday parties have a tendency to erupt into complete and utter chaos. Twenty unruly children are hard enough to control without the addition of piñatas, pony rides, and Pixy Stix. In hindsight, this aspect of chaos is not what people tend to recollect about such parties. Rather, they remember the dissipation of this pandemonium in exchange for the calm brought by the customary singing of “Happy Birthday.” Such a song carries with it the connotation of unity and camaraderie due to its seemingly unfailing ability to coalesce a group of party-goers into harmony. Usually, it is more difficult to discern the effect of music on a group than it’s effect on an individual. Each person may have a unique reaction to the same song, which is partially responsible for the difficulty in identifying its generalized effects on a group. It is generally accepted that direct effects of listening to music can change one’s mood or provoke new thoughts. However, over extended exposure, music can have more intricate and lasting effects on people and relationships. Additionally, the particular music that groups listen to can reflect their current social conditions. Therefore, music inspires and reflects harmony and unity within groups that interact with it, as what we might call its Apollonian abilities maintain intergroup relationships over prolonged periods of time.
As each successive summer begins, “Sweet Caroline” evokes shared memories as it reunites family and friends. Whether listening to the song while floating on the lake, or lounging by the campfire in Adirondack chairs, it always welcomes us back to summer and to a state of harmony in our relationships.
Throughout childhood, my summers were marked by an exodus from Pittsburgh’s suburbs to our cottage on a small lake about an hour north of the city. Each year, friends and family gathered there for boating, skiing, cookouts, and campfires. Around my tenth birthday, these summer memories became punctuated by music, specifically Neil Diamond’s song, “Sweet Caroline.” During that particular summer, my parents succumbed to a lack of judgment and purchased a karaoke machine for the family. It was not long before summer nights comprised performances of Billy Joel, Elton John, and Duran Duran. But our hallmark performance was “Sweet Caroline,” to which elaborate dances were choreographed and lyrics belted off-key. This particular encounter with one of Diamond’s most successful song has continued for almost a decade, and has come to represent substantially more than a worthwhile karaoke machine purchase. As I navigated my way through middle school, I looked forward to each summer’s Saturday nights. The unchanging schedule included grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, building a campfire for the parents, and then retreating inside for some “Sweet Caroline.” It seemed that each time we performed the song, our embarrassing dance routines and crazy Neil Diamond impressions only strengthened our relationship with the song and each other. Our experiences with the song have built upon one another, and it has since become our uniting anthem. Now, when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve, we blast “Sweet Caroline” over the stereo. When we moved into our new house last year, we christened it with a “Sweet Caroline” serenade. Our annual Fourth of July fireworks are now punctuated by Neil Diamond’s crooning of his hit song through the speakers on our back deck.
As each successive summer begins, “Sweet Caroline” evokes shared memories as it reunites friends and family. Whether listening to the song while floating on the lake or lounging by the campfire in Adirondack chairs, it always welcomes us back to summer and to a state of harmony in our relationships. Over the course of a decade, our schools and jobs have changed, but the people and the music have remained constant. The memories we made while singing, dancing, shouting, laughing, and crying to this song are strengthened and preserved by “Caroline” herself, who has evolved into a keeper of friendships and memories. These experiences help us to convey an instance of music affecting a group collectively. Much like singing “Happy Birthday,” listening to this song coalesces the group every time we reunite. Each time I hear Neil Diamond launch into the first verse, I am transported back to simpler times so that collective memories and relationships are reinforced. In this way, the song also serves to reflect the tranquil amity of our summer atmosphere.
The unity that “Sweet Caroline” evokes can be explained by it adherence to the Apollonian music theory. According to R. Murray Schafer, Canadian composer and author of “The Soundscape,” there are two primary views regarding the purpose of music: Dionysian and Appolonian. Derived from Greek myth, the Dionyscian theory holds that music is best understood as a chaotic, emotion-laden whirlwind, while the Apollonian theory proposes that music embraces the more formal purpose of inspiring harmony and unity within social groups. ((R. Murray Schafer. “The Soundscape,” in The Sound Stories Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne. (New York: Routledge, 2012): 97.)) The Apollonian theory bolsters my own experiences with music. Specifically, Schafer reminds us that the Apollonian view “seeks to harmonize the world through acoustic design.” ((Ibid., 98.)) My own experience with songs of summer attest to this power of harmonizing, as “Sweet Caroline” was able to elicit feelings of community and unity among family and friends over a substantial period of time. Even more provocative, Schafer goes so far as to say that “For some time I have also believed that the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society.” ((Ibid.)) Using my life as a microcosm of this idea, various music accurately mirrors situations and feelings I have experienced. Rather than “harmonizing the world” with music, “Sweet Caroline” harmonizes and strengthens unity in a much smaller cross-section, my group of friends and family. Each summer, the song’s complement to my experience reflects an unchanging, relaxing summer environment. This carefree mood, characterized by a current of group harmony, is directly represented by the music we choose to listen to. Listening to Billy Joel, Elton John, and Neil Diamond reflects camaraderie, familiarity, and requiescence.
Music wields a power of unity and reflects our social conditions. Not only does it have profound individual effects, but it is also capable of strengthening group dynamics over long periods of time, whether a birthday party or friends around a campfire. This capability also speaks to music’s universality. Ineffective by themselves, but strong together, music’s combination of acoustics and lyrics elicits congruence and inspires collective witnessing of events. The Apollonian approach rings true to personal experience as it accounts for a vital social force.
Schafer, R. Murray. “The Soundscape” In The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012: 95-103.