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The Marvelous Mystery of Music

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As a hard-nosed realist, I try to look at life scientifically. Everything is understandable, if examined long enough and intelligently enough, I think. Even puzzling human emotions - from selfless love for children to nationalistic urges to war - seem comprehendible, in light of mammal and primate instincts.

However, music boggles logic. Its enchantment seems a mystery beyond grasp. It's merely sound waves in the air - tones of steady frequency, varying through sequences, sometimes mixed in harmonies - yet it has amazing power to stir the soul, even evoke tears.

Some music is tedious, annoying, making you reach for the "off" switch. But other beloved melodies transfix you, taking your breath away. Since it's all sound waves, why do some note sequences seize your heart, while others don't?

People have different responses. When I was young, I wanted crashing, thundering symphonies. Now, many years later, I crave tender, haunting, exquisite, poignant, heartbreaking melodies, usually in a minor key. As "Peanuts" characters say, happiness is a sad song.

Your taste may not match mine. Still, I'd like to offer my list of favorites, my personal choices for the absolutely best music ever written. See how many of my treasures coincide with your own:


"Leyenda" guitar piece by Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909)

"Nessun dorma" aria from "Turandot" by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

"Un bel di" aria from "Madame Butterfly" by Puccini

"E lucevan le stelle" aria from "Tosca" by Puccini

"The Harmonious Blacksmith" by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)

"Hallelujah Chorus" from "The Messiah" by Handel

"Little Fugue in G Minor" by J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

"Ave Maria" by Bach (Gounod augmentation)

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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