The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones—a list of cliches in the form of a travel guidebook, as useful as it is hilarious—catalogues several forms of magic in fantastical fiction: magic that comes with a price, synecdochically sympathetic magic, nature magic "done by attuning to trees and breezes and things," and so on. She gives a full paragraph of explanation for every kind of magic but one: the ninth entry is simply "Music," with no explanation given or required.
Supernatural singing is as fixed in our shared imagination as the idea that you can make some things happen by talking about them—especially if you speak Latin, or Quenya, or the language of dragons. In Tolkien's Silmarillion the world begins with singing rather than speech. And according to Oliver Sacks "music occupies more areas of our brain than language does." Dr. Sacks often writes about patients who suffer severe neurological damage and afterwords need music to maintain memory, identity, or the ability to tie shoelaces. The right tune can hold them together.
Now here's Karl Paulnack, Director of the Boston Conservatory, in a 2004 speech to new students. You can find the whole speech on Amanda Palmer's blog. This bit is from the beginning:
This bit is from the end:
Well, my friends, someday at 8 pm someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
Readers likewise come to books overwhelmed by the outside world (I do, anyway). And fantasy is escapism, right? It offers an escape from the world we know—and the possibility of returning to it whole afterwards.
William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel Goblin Secrets. His second novel, set it the same world and city, is yet another fantasy about music.