A march is playing as I type…a march I played as part of the Naval Aviation Cadet band at a time, it seems now, both only slightly after dinosaurs roamed the earth and yesterday afternoon. And instantly I am back on the parade field at Pensacola Naval Air Station, sweating in the Florida heat, but almost euphoric with the sense of being part of the music and something much larger than myself.
I played the clarinet, though not particularly well. In fact, I dreaded the very thought of actually being heard as other than a part of the whole band. But I also know that I played far better when I was one of many than I ever could alone, which I find true of many things.
The need to feel we belong is an elemental but…other than, perhaps, during our teenage years…seldom considered part of being human. Few things promote a sense of belonging more strongly than patriotism, and patriotism is nothing but an awareness of unity and, underlying it, the human need to feel that we belong. There are, of course, both visual and visceral symbols of patriotism and unity: the flag being most prominent of the visual, music…and especially march music…being the most visceral.
There is something about march music that is unlike any other form of music; something that goes beyond the music itself. It evokes an almost primal emotional response. Marches convey a sense of power, confidence, boldness, exhilaration and inclusion which resonate strongly with something deep inside us all. We hear a march and somehow feel we are part of it, part of the music. It is not coincidental that the rhythm of march music has been proven to increase the heart rate. (Drums, the very first musical instrument after the human voice, echo the heartbeat. You can’t get much more basic than that.) It is not coincidental, I think, that marches are so strongly related with militarism...to the calling up of power and patriotism. The uniforms, the drums, the cadence, the blending and interplay of brass, percussion, and woodwinds all join together to produce a singularly unique sensation.
To stand on the curb along a parade route and hear the approaching staccato of snare drums and the flourish that leads into the start of the next march…or even better, to be in the band…never fails to create an almost out-of-body experience in me. I love it, and I am not alone…literally.
It has frequently been suggested that The Stars and Stripes Forever should be made our official national anthem, and I agree wholeheartedly. Can anyone listen to it without being infused with a deep sense of patriotism? The Star Spangled Banner evokes patriotism, I think, largely through a form of osmosis: we’ve been simply programmed for that response. But it doesn’t grab us with anywhere near the power and force, or provide the euphoria of The Stars and Stripes Forever. No need for programming there; it just scoops us up and carries us away.
I think those of us who have spent much of our lives being made to feel like we are outsiders, like we do not belong, take perhaps an inordinate degree of comfort in anything which tells us that we are not, indeed, alone. Music…almost any kind of music…provides this comfort, this escape from the world. Some find it in opera, others in symphonies or string quartets. But for me, play me a march, turn the volume way up, and I’m gone.