Reflections on experiencing music

Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits is for me a song that typifies the layers of meaning and identity that music has for the listener. Each person will have their own example, and different music will mean different things for different people, but this is one of the richest examples for me personally of the different ways that music can be experienced. Thinking about this, I have observed the following

Music gives pleasure:

Each individual will have a different example here, but there is seems to be a universal truth that music, in general, gives pleasure. The audience in this concert are clearly enjoying, getting pleasure, from this performance of this piece of music.

Music is made by musicians

Musicians are artists who can tell a story through the medium of music, with or without words. They can craft an artefact, a process which may be complex and detailed. The better the reproduction of the music, the closer the listener can get to the craft of the musician. A cavalier approach to preservation and reproduction of music is perhaps an insult to the musician, the artist, and at the very least diminishes the richness of the story being told.

Music tells stories

Music can seem to represent or invoke ideas about reality. Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is known as the Pastoral Symphony, and it does indeed seem to invoke pastoral scenes.

When combined with words, music takes on additional power as a storytelling medium that can exceed the power of the words alone.

The story in this song is self-explanatory. A mercenary or guerrilla fighter is about to die, in the mountains, far from his home in a farm in a valley. As these will be the last words that he will be saying to his comrades that he has been fighting with, they are the most important things that he can think of to say to them. He looks back on the war that he has been fighting that has been brutal and painful, claiming the life of many. It has not been glorious but instead, on reflection, it has been lonely, sad and bitter. It has been fought with, but also against people of his own race and family. He recognises that we all see the world differently, that we see different value and we hold different things dear. But ultimately the war has been futile and foolish. The brothers that have borne arms together have been fighting against the ones that they should have been holding close in a tight embrace, as brothers in arms.

This is powerful and clever poetry. The wordcraft here is admirable, the clever use of allusions to higher authorities beyond the small horizons that we know as humans. We can admire the craft of story telling in the blending of words and music. The immersion of the words within the music is sublime. The music stands on its own as beautiful. The overlay of words onto the music, and the shaping of the music to fit the message of the words is so well crafted. The fact that the words are difficult to hear makes the storytelling even more powerful because the listener has to fully immerse themselves in the song, concentrate fully on it in order to be rewarded with the story.

The musician has a story to tell

The song was written at the time of the Falklands war between the UK and Argentina in 1982. Mark Knopfler, having been born in Glasgow, was able to draw on his thoughts about how it must have felt for those fighting in the various Clan Wars in Scotland to imagine fighting in the similarly rugged and inhospitable mountains of the Falklands. He was able to craft profound and moving poetry to express how deeply he was moved by the futility and foolishness of people fighting people that they individually and personally have no fight with but do so because they are told they should,

Music is appropriated by the listener

Part of the mystery of music is the way it takes on a new meaning for the listener. The listener associates music to events within their own life story, making an emotional bond that causes the events to be relived when triggered by the music. Whatever motivated Mark Knopfler to tell the story in the song, listeners may have their own interpretation or their appropriation of the song.

On my first visit to Colombia in 2004, I was invited to visit the Church on Monserrate, one of the mountains overlooking Bogota. From there, looking to the east, the vast city of 9 million people laid out below us, it all looked so peaceful and serene and ordered. Looking to the west, I was struck by the tropical alpine beauty of the jungle. My instinct, based on my experience of exploring countryside, and particularly forests, in the UK, was that I would like to visit this place. My host laughed at my suggestion and asked if I was completely mad. Apart from the dangers of wild animals and insects, at that time guerrillas lived in that forest, coming into Bogota at night to recruit young people to fight on one side or other of the civil conflict. This conversation made me feel intently sad. Colombia is a country of infinite bio-diversity and great natural beauty. A country that its people are fiercely proud of. But a country that people can’t know the way we in the UK can know our country, where we are generally free to wander safely through common land and parks, and beyond if we do so responsibly and carefully. I felt sad that the people of Colombia can’t know their own beautiful country the way I could know mine.

This feeling of sadness was heightened as I flew back to the UK a few days later. For the first hour of the journey I watched mountains, forests, canyons, desert spaces, vast rivers, and plantations pass below me until we reached the coast and I left the country behind. As I did so, Brothers in Arms came on my iPod, and I found such a strong connection with what I had recently experienced that just started to weep, as I appropriated the words to describe the sadness that I felt for the people of Colombia. It was not my conflict, but my observation was that the conflict had divided families and communities and had made it impossible for the people to know their own land.

Because of this experience, I had appropriated the song and added a layer of meaning that made it part of the sound track of my life.

Music is a badge of identity

Storytelling is both a means of cementing social relationships and a vehicle of education [Schank 1995]. Because of this, engagement with stories changes us and identifies us with a social community. Whether it it is a song about the exploits of or an anthem for our sports team, our social group, our school or even our nation, when we repeat or appropriate music we are identifying with the community that that music represents. In this case we may not enjoy the music as music but we “have to” like it because it is the music of our community.


Our experience of music happen at many levels and can be or or less superficial or intense. The potential for engagement is certainly enhanced when the full set of elements that have been used to craft the music are capture and reproduced, so the engineering of user experience should recognise this, and understand compromises as they inevitably must be made.


Schank, Roger C., and Chip Cleary. Engines for Education. Engines for Education. Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1995.

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