A Soundtrack for Sustainability

Screen shot from short film "Birds on the Wires," by Jarbas Agnelli.

Screen shot from the short film “Birds on the Wires,” by Jarbas Agnelli.

By Shaun Daniel, Sustainability Resource Center

You are the music while the music lasts. —T.S. Eliot

My colleague Hilary Smith recently wrote on the importance of personal sustainability amid our efforts at broader sustainability. “What sustains you?” she asked. For me, one of those things is music. So I thought I’d speak to another of Hilary’s questions: “Is what sustains you in line with what sustains the planet?”

Since planetary stewardship is a group effort, and music is something that brings us together, I’m asking for your help to create a sustainability playlist that I hope will be a soundtrack as we build, dream, grieve, and celebrate the future of this beautiful planet. Leave song suggestions in the comments below. They need not be overtly about sustainability—just containing a kernel of the idea. I’ll add things that are available to stream. You can subscribe to the playlist via Spotify or find a web player embedded at the bottom of this page.

Screenshot from Vero News video on treating dimentia with music therapy.

Screenshot from Vero News video on treating dimentia with music therapy.

The power of music is well documented. For example, surgeons show better focus and performance when certain songs are playing. Patients are more relaxed and better able to manage pain. Music has been shown to boost memory, language skills, and overall mental processing. Human language may even have arisen from listening to monkey alarm calls and birdsong. Music itself seems a universal language that allows us to transcend cultural barriers. In fact, so universal is music that there is no known human culture without some musical form or tradition.

My own close association with song goes back to before I could fully form words. While riding in the car, I shouted from the backseat, “‘Sic! ‘sic! ‘sic!” and my mother thought I was about to throw up. But I kept pointing at the radio and chanting, “‘Sic! ‘sic! ‘sic!” “Oh, mu-sic!” she finally said, and switched on Oldies 101.1 for the rest of the ride home.

Piano lessons, a hand-me-down guitar, wooden flutes, a drum set, and an electric guitar and amp followed in time. I was hooked. I used my allowance to buy cassettes. I taped the radio. I spent my lawn mowing cash on CDs from BMG or Sam Goodies. I browsed my parents’ records. I wrote my own songs. I checked out what I could from the library, everything from Tibetan throat singers to electronica, heavy metal to klezmer, West African blues to hip hop. With each new artist, each new style of music, I learned something more about the world.

Screenshot from Playing for Change video, "Clandestino."

Images from Playing for Change music video, “Clandestino.”

After college, streaming music came to the fore and I was fortunate enough to have access to a computer and the Internet to play it. Even broader worlds opened up. They still do. All these songs and traditions have bolstered my sense of solidarity with Earth’s myriad peoples. Music offers enchantment, a way to feel the animating force that lies at the heart of everything. At its most basic, music is nothing more than patterns of vibrating molecules—like life itself.

Music has sustained me through happiness and heartbreak. There are songs so indelibly written across the folds of my brain that when certain tracks or albums come on I can picture the mountains scrolling by on a train trip, hear the plastic whir of my old walkman, smell the citrus trees from an L.A. vacation, feel the snow fall around a crowd in slow motion, or taste the rich cortadito from the coffee shop I haunted as an undergrad.

Music has literally sustained me, providing at times a not insignificant portion of my income, like the summer I spent volunteering on organic farms or when I lived in Minneapolis and played a show every week. It has also allowed me the privilege to use my music to help sustain others, too, through playing for charity or social events. I believe that what makes music so profound is that it goes beyond simple transaction to work at the level of the gift. We are all enriched by these kinds of gifts, you and I. The world needs our passions and our gifts, the things that make our cells sing.

Pete Seeger's banjo. Photo by TCDavis / Flickr, Creative Commons.

Pete Seeger’s banjo. Photo by TCDavis / Flickr, Creative Commons.

Composer Hans Zimmer says, “Music lets you rediscover your humanity, and your connection to humanity.” It is important, therefore, that it also not lead to our disconnection. Sometimes we need to put down the instrument or remove the headphones to enjoy those ancient sounds of birdsong, the subtle sweep of wind, or the tones of the fellow human voices surrounding us. “The pause is as important as the note,” Truman Fisher reminds us.

With all that in mind, I invite you to join me in co-creating a soundtrack for sustainability, a gift to ourselves as well as those who come after, who just might be inspired to pitch in and keep this wonderful world spinning. The “Soundtrack for Sustainability (U of U)” playlist already has a number of songs, contributed by me and several colleagues and friends, including such classics as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” alongside modern hits by Sharon Jones, Arcade Fire, and more. Add your suggestions in the comments below.


Having trouble finding the playlist? Paste the following in Spotify’s search box: spotify:user:124140604:playlist:7zTt1MKT71q7yjgEtqOnD4

Shaun Daniel is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

3 responses to “A Soundtrack for Sustainability

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