Sound & Sense, a Blog by Brett Allen Reeves

“SOUND & SENSE
A Blog by Brett Allen Reeves
Why is Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” a song and not a poem?

Why is Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” a song and not a poem? It’s got powerful lines and provocatively blends the titular woman and Jesus Christ, among other feats of artistic alchemy. But the words spoken do not have the power of the words sung. Why not?

The answer is that songs, good songs, that is, forge the words and music together. The sound enhances the sense, the sense guides the reader through the sound.

Mr.Cohen’s masterpiece makes clear why the best poems are sung, and the best songs are pure poetry.

The Key Matters

For one thing, the song is in the Key of E. Guy Clark, the Texas troubadour and a skilled luthier, said the E chord in first position was the best way to test a guitar after it’s been worked on. It uses the lowest note available in standard tuning. The chord covers 3 octaves, with 3 instances of the root note (E). There is only one instance of the 3rd (G#) in this chord, which can easily be shifted to an A (the 4th), as Mr. Cohen does in the song’s opening measures. Toggling between the G# and A within the E chord (from E to Esus4) yields a tension that keeps the sweet sound of the major chord while complicating it sonically. Putting the song in the key of E lets it start from the lowest note on the guitar and then alternately rise up and fall back several times in the song. The music keeps stretching upward, but it always comes back to where it began.

A Melody/Progression That Rises and Falls

That rising and falling is the key to what makes “Suzanne” a great song, worthy of the name poetry–but surpassing it–because the music gives the words so much more power than they can muster on their own. The progression starts in E, then rises up to F#m, falls back to E, then rises up to G#m and from there on to A. It’s a series of stretches:

* First from the E to the F#m (the 2nd note in the E scale)
* Then a second attempt that reaches the G#m (the 3rd note on the E scale)
* And then tiptoeing, so to speak, into the A (the 4th note on the E scale)

But then, instead of rising on up to the B (the 5th), as a listener might expect, Mr. Cohen falls back to the E, before shifting up to the F#m, falling again to E, shifting again to F#m, until finally, almost resignedly,  ending the verse on the E. The chorus makes the jump again to the G#m, which stretches into the A. It’s like he’s making one last effort to rise up, to get to something big, before he subsides back into the E – F#m – E.

“Suzanne,” Verse 1

The rise and fall, the twin podes of push and pull, major and minor, in the music are crucial to making the lyric sing. In the first verse, “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river” and the next line, rising up melodically, imagines you “can spend the night beside her”. But it immediately falls back to the lower chord for “you know she’s half-crazy”. It’s a moment of doubt, a pulling back.

Then there’s an immediate ascent into the G#m–”and she feeds you tea and oranges”–a sensual teasing of each other’s bodies. And then to the full A chord. This is the desire building. It’s the sap rising. The pressure pushing. It’s getting good…

But no! The next line falls back to the E chord, the low end, to more doubt– “you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her”. Then the rising, again, to the F#m– “and she lets the river answer”.

What’s the River’s Answer? The Big Reveal? It’s that “you’ve always been her lover,” a line which appropriately falls back melodically into the root chord, E. We are back where we started from, but made fuller and wiser by the journey, which has been manifested by the rising and falling of the chord progression. You can see visually how the song stretches upward then returns to base:

    • 1 – 1 – 2 – -2           (E, F#m)
    • 1  –  1 – 3   –  4   (E, G#m, A)
    • 1 – 2              (E, F#m)
    • 1 – 2              (E, F#m)
    • 1                   (E)

Suzanne Verdal, the woman Mr. Cohen based the song on, said she thought “he made me sound sadder than I was.” But I think she misheard. There’s nothing in the lyric about a sad girl. As for the music, I think what she heard as “sadness” was really “longing”–a building of desire, without ever forgetting that that desire would never be fully quenched.

“Suzanne,” The First Chorus
If the song stopped there, it’d be a drag. But the chorus, as we’ve rehearsed, reaches upward once more, into the G#m and the A. It’s now time for the singer’s A-HA! moment. Now he knows that his desires, I want to travel with her . . . . and I want to travel blind, are something to be set aside. Because he’s found something much more powerful: you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

The musicality is important. The melodic lift comes at the front end, with the singer’s desires.

Then the shift back to the opening tune and the E chord. The word touched coincides with the F#m, giving us a final brief lift before we subside back to the root for the word mind. 

“Suzanne,” The Payoff

That wraps up the sequence, from an exploratory Verse of desire to the consummation and transformation in the Chorus.

It’s a repeated rising and falling, not unlike the way that bodily passion rises and falls. The lovers keep reaching toward climax. He’s grabbing for something purely sensual, and she takes him on a journey (she leads him “by the river,” remember) that yields a more layered experience, in which they both have perfect bodies that touch each other’s minds.

The correspondence of body and mind in the lovers also plays out in the music. The music is physics (sound) and the meaning of the words is mental (sense). The music is the body, the words are the mind. The experience would not be complete without them both. These words need the tune to lift them up and rock them back. The music needs the words to bring the listener into the scene.

Why it’s in E
Juxtaposition technique
A structure that rises but never hits the 5 (drowning)

Sadness, a la Suzanne herself et al, is in the music not in the words.

Mindful Living

Are you Here?

The state of having your mind anywhere but the present moment, locked in thoughts about what you’re going to do later, about something someone else said, about something you’re stressing about or angry about. The state of mind where we’re lost in our smartphones and social media. A stress-free life doesn’t exist, but these tools will definitely make you more prepared to deal with the stressors that will inevitably come your way.

Mindful Living

Meditation. Meditation is where mindful living starts. And it’s not complicated: you can sit still for even just 1 minute a day to start with (work up to 3-5 minutes after a week), and turn your attention to your body and then your breath. Notice when your thoughts wander from your breath and gently return to the breath. Repeat until the minute is up.

Be Awake. Awake, which is not being in the dream state (mind wandering into a train of thought, getting lost in the online world, thinking about past offenses, stressing about the future, etc.) but being awake to the present, to what is. Being awake is something you can do throughout the day, all the time, if you remember. Remembering is the trick.

Watch Urges. When I quit smoking in 2005, the most useful tool I learned was watching my urges to smoke. I would sit there and watch the urge rise and fall, until it was gone, without acting on it. It taught me that I am not my urges, that I don’t have to act on my urges, and this helped me change all my other habits. Watch your urge to check email or social media, to eat something sweet or fried, to drink alcohol, to watch TV, to be distracted, to procrastinate. These urges will come and go, and you don’t have to act on them.

Watch Ideals. We all have ideals, all the time. We have an ideal that our day will go perfectly, that people will be kind and respectful to us, that we will be perfect, that we’ll ace an exam or important meeting, that we’ll never fail. Of course, we know from experience that those ideals are not real, that they don’t come true, that they aren’t realistic. But we still have them, and they cause our stress and fears and grief over something/someone we’ve lost. By letting go of ideals, we can let go of our suffering.

Accept People & Life As They Are. When I stopped trying to change a loved one, and accepted him for who he was, I was able to just be with him and enjoy my time with him. This acceptance has the same effect for anything you do — accept a co-worker, a child, a spouse, but also accept a “bad” situation, an unpleasant feeling, an annoying sound. When we stop trying to fight the way things are, when we accept what is, we are much more at peace.

Let Go of Expectations. This is really the same thing as the previous two items, but I’ve found it useful nonetheless. It’s useful to watch your expectations with an upcoming situation, with a new project or business, and see that it’s not real and that it’s causing you stress and disappointment. We cause our own pain, and we can relieve it by letting go of the expectations that are causing it. Toss your expectations into the ocean.

Become OK with Discomfort. The fear of discomfort is huge — it causes people to be stuck in their old bad habits, to not start the business they want to start, to be stuck in a job they don’t really like, because we tend to stick to the known and comfortable rather than try something unknown and uncomfortable. It’s why many people don’t eat vegetables or exercise, why they eat junk, why they don’t start something new. But we can be OK with discomfort, with practice. Start with things that are a little uncomfortable, and keep expanding your comfort zone.

Watch Your Resistance. When you try to do something uncomfortable, or try to give up something you like or are used to, you’ll find resistance. But you can just watch the resistance, and be curious about it. Watch your resistance to things that annoy you — a loud sound that interrupts your concentration, for example. It’s not the sound that’s the problem, it’s your resistance to the sound. The same is true of resistance to food we don’t like, to being too cold or hot, to being hungry. The problem isn’t the sensation of the food, cold, heat or hunger — it’s our resistance to them. Watch the resistance, and feel it melt. This resistance, by the way, is why I’m doing my Year of Living Without.

Be Curious. Too often we are stuck in our ways, and think we know how things should be, how people are. Instead, be curious. Find out. Experiment. Let go of what you think you know. When you start a new project or venture, if you feel the fear of failure, instead of thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to fail” or “Oh no, I don’t know how this will turn out”, try thinking, “Let’s see. Let’s find out.” And then there isn’t the fear of failure, but the joy of being curious and finding out. Learn to be OK with not knowing.

Be Grateful. We complain about everything. But life is a miracle. Find something to be grateful about in everything you do. Be grateful when you’re doing a new habit, and you’ll stick to it longer. Be grateful when you’re with someone, and you’ll be happier with them. Life is amazing, if you learn to appreciate it.

Let Go of Control. We often think we control things, but that’s only an illusion. Our obsession with organization and goals and productivity, for example, are rooted in the illusion that we can control life. But life is uncontrollable, and just when we think we have things under control, something unexpected comes up to disrupt everything. And then we’re frustrated because things didn’t go the way we wanted. Instead, practice letting go of control, and learn to flow.

Be Compassionate. This sounds trite, but compassion for others can change the way you feel about the world, on a day-to-day basis. And compassion for yourself is life-changing. These two things need remembering, though, so mindful living is about remembering to be compassionate after you forget.

Support groups make connections, get help

Support groups: Make connections, get help

If you’re facing a major illness or stressful life change, you don’t have to go it alone. A support group can help. Find out how to choose the right one.

Support groups bring together people who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. For example, this common ground might be cancer, chronic medical conditions, addiction, bereavement or caregiving.

A support group provides an opportunity for people to share personal experiences and feelings, coping strategies, or firsthand information about diseases or treatments.

For many people, a health-related support group may fill a gap between medical treatment and the need for emotional support. A person’s relationship with a doctor or other medical personnel may not provide adequate emotional support, and a person’s family and friends may not understand the impact of a disease or treatment. A support group among people with shared experiences may function as a bridge between medical and emotional needs.

 Structure of support groups

Support groups may be offered by a nonprofit advocacy organization, clinic, hospital or community organization. They also may be independent of any organization and run entirely by group members.

Formats of support groups vary, including face-to-face meetings, teleconferences or online communities. A lay person — someone who shares or has shared the group’s common experience — often leads a support group, but a group also may be led by a professional facilitator, such as a nurse, social worker or psychologist.

Some support groups may offer educational opportunities, such as a guest doctor, psychologist, nurse or social worker to talk about a topic related to the group’s needs.

Support groups are not the same as group therapy sessions. Group therapy is a specific type of mental health treatment that brings together several people with similar conditions under the guidance of a licensed mental health care provider.

 Benefits of support groups

The common experience among members of a support group often means they have similar feelings, worries, everyday problems, treatment decisions or treatment side effects. Participating in a group provides you with an opportunity to be with people who are likely to have a common purpose and likely to understand one another.

Benefits of participating in a support group may include:

  • Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
  • Reducing distress, depression, anxiety or fatigue
  • Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
  • Improving skills to cope with challenges
  • Staying motivated to manage chronic conditions or stick to treatment plans
  • Gaining a sense of empowerment, control or hope
  • Improving understanding of a disease and your own experience with it
  • Getting practical feedback about treatment options
  • Learning about health, economic or social resources

 Possible risks

Support groups may have drawbacks, and effective groups generally depend on the facilitator to help steer away from these problems. These problems may include:

  • Disruptive group members
  • Conversation dominated by griping
  • Lack of confidentiality
  • Emotional entanglement, group tension or interpersonal conflicts
  • Inappropriate or unsound medical advice
  • Competitive comparisons of whose condition or experience is worse

 How to find a support group

Information about support groups may be available from the following:

  • Your doctor, clinic or hospital
  • Nonprofit organizations that advocate for particular medical conditions or life changes
  • National Institutes of Health websites for specific diseases and conditions

Questions to ask before joining a support group

Support groups vary in how they are organized and led. Before joining a support group, ask the following questions:

  • Is the group designed for people with a specific medical condition or certain stage of a disease?
  • Does the group meet for a set period of time or does it continue indefinitely?
  • Where does the group meet?
  • At what times and how often does the group meet?
  • Is there a facilitator or moderator?
  • Has the facilitator undergone training?
  • Is a mental health expert involved with the group?
  • What are the guidelines for confidentiality?
  • Are there established ground rules for group participation?
  • What is a typical meeting like?
  • Is it free, and if not, what are the fees?

Red flags that might indicate a problematic support group include:

  • Promises of a sure cure for your disease or condition
  • High fees to attend the group
  • Pressure to purchase products or services

 Getting the most out of a support group

When you join a new support group, you may be nervous about sharing personal issues with people you don’t know. At first, you may benefit from simply listening. Over time, however, contributing your own ideas and experiences may help you get more out of a support group.

Try a support group for a few weeks. If it doesn’t feel like a good fit for you, consider a different support group or a different support group format.

Remember that a support group isn’t a substitute for regular medical care. Let your doctor know that you’re participating in a support group. If you don’t think a support group is appropriate for you, but you need help coping with your condition or situation, talk to your doctor about counseling or other types of therapy.

GRIEF IS EXPERIENCED UNIQUELY BY EACH OF US, OFTEN IN WAVES

GRIEF IS EXPERIENCED UNIQUELY BY EACH OF US, OFTEN IN WAVES

Grief is the natural healing process that occurs after a significant loss. It is experienced uniquely by each of us, often in waves, with emotional, cognitive, physical and social responses varying in terms of the intensity, duration, and order of our reactions to the loss. There are many components of a loss, and many variables that can affect your grief reaction.

Grieving Components:

  • Emotional
  • Cognitive
  • Physical
  • Social
  • Variables of Grief

Components of loss can include:

Emotional

  • Shock, numbness, feeling of unreality
  • Helplessness
  • Vulnerability
  • Fearfulness
  • Sadness
  • Anger, irritability
  • Emptiness, loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Carelessness, harming oneself or others in any way
  • Outbursts, euphoria

Are you grieving the loss of a loved one? Find comfort in one of our grief support groups

Cognitive

  • Slowed and/or disorganized thinking
  • Confusion, aimlessness, difficulty concentrating
  • Preoccupation, rumination
  • Unaffected, no thoughts at all about the person or the circumstances
  • Dreams
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Altered perceptions, sensing the presence of the deceased person

Physical

  • Fatigue, sleep disturbance
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Physical distress, nausea
  • Anxiety, hypo- or hyperactivity
  • Greater susceptibility to illness

Social

  • Being unaware of others’ needs
  • Passivity
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding others
  • Decreased work productivity
  • Loss of interest in usual pleasures, including hobbies and/or relationships
  • Strained relationships, differences in grieving needs between self and others

Although everyone experiences bereavement and grief differently, that doesn’t mean that you have to do it alone. Join one of our grief support groups

Your reaction to grief is unique to you, and affected by your experiences and beliefs.

Here are some variables that can affect how you experience grief:

  • Your own history of past losses, through deaths, divorce, relocation, lost dreams, phase of life changes
  • Violations of one’s safety (accidents, fire, personal trauma, world crises), or health changes
  • Your current personal and situational stressors
  • Your personal beliefs in a faith tradition or spiritual practice
  • Your cultural and family expectations about loss
  • If the loss is anticipated or unanticipated
  • If the loss is marked by traumatic events
  • The degree to which closure with the person was possible
  • A “loss out of season,” for the person who has died or for you
  • Your ability to share the loss with others
  • Your coping style and use of stress management resources
  • Working through past hurts and forgiveness issues
  • Finding a way to make meaning of the loss

Grieving is a multifaceted, individualized process for which there is no definitive timetable. As you grieve, professional and community organizations, family and friends can offer helpful support, as can online resources like this website.