Many of the people who come to me for help tell me they want more harmony in their relationship, and I like using the idea of musical harmony to help understand what happens between two people in a marriage.
I recently had a client tell me “I love when my wife and I are just humming along at the same frequency.” I think this is true for many; we like humming along at the same frequency.
Reflecting on this idea of harmony and frequencies in relationship some analogies and insights arose –
First, we all tend to have our preferred frequency… And we also have a preferred frequency for our partner. In truth though, while we have a frequency that we strive for, there are actually a multitude of frequencies continually vibrating our psyche and shaping our being, and the same is true for our partner. This is an important truth to acknowledge for reasons we’ll explore.
Musical ideas of harmony indicate a mixing of frequencies, which is a somewhat different notion from “humming along at the same frequency.” Two people at the same frequency isn’t really harmony at all; it’s a monotone.
What is harmony in a relationship?
A harmony is a blending of different frequencies. In a relationship this means a mix of different moods, opinions, perspectives, ways of being. These different moods and ways of being move both in ourselves as individuals, and between us in relation to our partner. If we acknowledge this we see that many different kinds of harmonies are likely.
We’re likely to favour one particular type of harmony in our relationship. Our favoured harmony may or may not match our partner’s.
Different harmonies reflect different moods, feelings, images. Harmonies are organized into various keys or modes. In musical language, a “major” key has a strong unified tone, it drives forward, implies action. A “minor” key lags back, there’s melancholy, uncertainty. Other keys or harmonies correlate with tension, aggression, completion, sadness, joy, and so on.
The classical Greeks understood musical modes (keys) as expressions of various patterns of feeling, the same archetypal patterns or forces that continue to move through us and our relationships today.
When we say we want “harmony” in our relationship, we are usually talking about one particular type of harmony based on our preferred moods, modes, or frequencies. We want to feel one certain type of “feeling tone” in our relationship.
Too often we forget or ignore the multitude of frequencies in and around us, and so we dismiss a multitude of possible harmonies that are being played (or playing us) in our lives together. We fail to appreciate the complex or difficult harmonies woven into our relationship, sounds that to the uninitiated ear sound dissonant, non-musical.
In this sense, it behooves us to broaden our musical repertoire. We may have a strong preference for upbeat pop songs, and so avoid those harmonies that evoke longing, sadness, tension, or other modes of feeling we deem “negative” or undesirable.
The less pleasant harmonies of our lives and relationships may be muffled through our efforts, but they will not be silenced.
The difficult music of composers and improvisers like John Cage or John Coltrane might not match your preferred harmonies, but they may perfectly represent some of that multitude of frequencies that get too little appreciation in life and love.
Music that is built upon difficult, complex harmonies may not get us up and dancing; its purpose is different. Difficult harmonies give voice to the more dark, confusing, or troublesome frequencies that are part of the multitude running through each of us.
In a relationship we tend to reject difficult feelings out of preference for our favoured feelings, and yet if those difficult feelings get no voice they start to rattle and make noise. Harmonies reflect feelings, and feelings are multitudinous.
We may want a “happy” marriage, we may insist upon it, and so try to amplify only those chords that match our desire, but the multitude of frequencies that move us may pull us instead toward harmonies that are more challenging, and these challenges potentially introduce us to further richness and depth. There’s a reason that music appreciation classes are taught in colleges and universities; difficult and complex music requires a special kind of listening. The point of these classes isn’t to simplify the music, the point is to learn how to appreciate it, to listen differently, more deeply, to refine our musical aesthetic.
We can change the dial, always trying to find our favourite song, or we can develop a more sophisticated ear, finding the beauty – perhaps aching or terrible – in all the precious music, all the difficult harmonies running through our life and relationship.
Want more harmony in your marriage or relationship? Try this exercise –
If you’ve ever felt like you want more harmony in your marriage or relationship, try this exercise –
Choose some music that represents the particular type of relationship harmony you prefer. Discover the feeling tone of the music. Give it a name – Upbeat. Intense. Chill. Difficult. Sensuous. Fun. Dark. What music does your partner choose to represent the kind of relationship harmony they prefer?
Now find some music to represent the moods that are actually being played in your relationship. Maybe you resist, dislike, even hate the sound and feel of this music. How do you characterize this music? What sort of harmonies form this music? What’s the feeling tone? Can you let this music move you in some way? Can you find some appreciation for it?
Try having a conversation along these lines with your partner. Listen to different kinds of music together with this kind of metaphorical ear. Make distinctions between the various musical moods you hear and then relate them to the emotional tones that shape your lives as individuals and as a couple.
The literal differences between your musical tastes and your partner’s may become very clear, but try to go deeper with the metaphor. Relate the various musical styles, feeling tones, and “harmonies” to how you think about and experience your relationship. Music, after all, is a metaphor for our lives, and so can be used to glimpse life (and love) from other angles.
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