Can Your Soul Change in 5 Seconds?

How quickly can your inner self change? And even if an inner change occurs, can you ever really know what caused it?

Sure, characters change all the time in movies and novels, often in sudden, dramatic moments. Something happens to a character and—boom, suddenly their perspective and life trajectory changes. But real life is rarely like that. Plain living is more of a steady flow of events, a muddle of causes and effects. Most inner changes happen so gradually, and for so many ambiguous, overlapping reasons, that it's hard to pinpoint exact turning points. No matter how pleasant, most daily living isn't filled with obvious transformative moments, hence the appeal and satisfaction of all that stunning clarity in fictional narratives. At least that's what I always thought—until I heard a couple songs in a gangster movie. Those songs did something to me, and I'm trying to figure out what it was. I'm even wondering if those songs permanently changed me in a matter of seconds.

I'm talking about my reactions to two songs from the 1950s. I never used to like this kind of music, but suddenly that changed, and I'm trying to figure out how that was possible. Fans of this particular music may not feel the mystery here, but I hope everyone can recognize the general problem: the overwhelming majority of adults continue listening to the same music we heard as teenagers, and we almost never manage to truly love whole new genres of music, no matter how much we try or protest about our open-mindedness. As Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky showed, most people spend their entire adult lives listening to the same music they heard as kids. Only 5% of people branch out into new musical genres after age 35.

I'm right in there with the 95%, and now that I'm past my mid-30's, it's getting frustrating. I'm still listening to rock (which I grew up on), as well as cumbia and vallenato (which, luckily, got into my bloodstream in my late 20's, before the cut-off), but it's really, really hard to find new genres that I truly love. (When I say "truly love," I mean the kind of music I can play over and over and find new depths in, not the kind I just hear and appreciate once or twice). It's like an iron cage. I can't take in new musical genres because they're too different from what I know, but, with a few exceptions, I'm also getting tired of the music I do know.

Apparently this musical deadlock is based in the brain's wiring, as Jonah Lehrer explains: "...the corticofugal system is a positive-feedback loop...This only encourages us to listen to the golden oldies we already know...and to ignore the difficult songs that we don't know...." Sapolsky offers an intriguing additional explanation: "There's a stage in childhood in which kids become mad for repetition, taking pleasure in the realization that they are mastering the rules. Maybe the pleasure at the other end of life is the realization that the rules are still thereas are we." Whatever the reason, the musical iron cage of post-30's adulthood is real.

That's why I was deeply grateful when two songs from The Freshman broke through my iron cage and got me to love a new kind of music. (The Freshman is a comedy starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick, and it's a brilliant, affectionate tribute to father-son relations, The Godfather, college life, and komodo dragons, among other things.)

The first song in The Freshman that I have come to love is "Mona Lisa," which gets played during a dance in the living room.

Clark Kellog (Broderick) dancing with Tina Sabatini (Penelope Ann Miller)

I also love Tony Bennett's song "I Wanna Be Around," which plays while Brando gracefully ice skates with an older woman in a later scene.

So how did these two songs in "The Freshman" break through my musical iron cage?

Part of the answer lies in the mood created by those two movie scenes. The first one, where the young couple dances in the living room to "Mona Lisa," is just so beautiful and intimate. Dance has moved out of the crowds and into the embrace of a young couple dancing all alone in the living room, in the middle of the day. It's like pulling stars out of the night sky, or having the Mona Lisa in your own living room, as Brando does here. ("Now I'm happy, sugar. Now I got the Mona Lisa," Carmine Sabatini tells his daughter Tina).

And the later scene, where Brando ice skates with an older woman, perfectly mirrors and inverts the Mona Lisa scene. This time, an older couple goes public with their private dance. Mona Lisa goes on tour.

Also, in a variation on Sapolsky's explanation, this music gives me the pleasures of connecting with my parents and their generation, something I seek out more and more as we all get older.

Yet I never heard my parents specifically listening to these songs or artists, so I think there's something else at work as well.

Tracing back the steps, I realized that a bridge to this musical breakthrough was created by a fleeting moment in the prototype for The Freshman: the scene in The Godfather where Tom Hagen's (Robert Duvall's) plane is touching down, on his trip to see the big Hollywood director.

From the first time I heard it, I just loved the uplifting, muffled trumpet sound that plays while Tom's plane is landing. (The music actually plays longer than 5 seconds, but on first viewing, it was just the landing music that got to me.) And a few years later, I heard that same muffled trumpet sound on Frank Sinatra's version of "The Way You Look Tonight"and I was hooked. That was the exact path: one The Godfather scene to Sinatra to The Freshman, and, since then, a whole musical genre has opened up to me.
I got lucky. It usually takes thousands of experiences to change your musical taste, and even then, it doesn't happen 95% of the time, and on the exceedingly rare occasions when it does, you can't pinpoint the moment when your taste began to change. But this one movie image and trumpet sound changed my musical taste forever.

That's the power of music and movies: they can move your soul in new directions, even when it looks like they're telling the same old stories.

More Posts about The Freshman:
All my posts about The Freshman, such as "Interpreting Broderick's Father's Poem"

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