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What are the images that come into your mind when you listen to music? When listening to a slow, plodding piece written in a minor key, you may think of a funeral or a graveyard. When listening to a fast, furious flurry of instruments, you may see a busy city. Reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I realized that it can also go in the opposite direction.

As I read through the scenes of the play, I found myself thinking of music that matched the mood. I also noticed that particular literary strategies evoked different music. One of the most striking examples of this is Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. When I read a soliloquy, I imagine a solo violin playing high and with lots of emotion, creating a solemn atmosphere. The scene in which Hamlet first meets the ghost of his father suggests a quiet, dissonant musical accompaniment. And the final scene of the play in which several people are killed makes me imagine music with a lot of low, tuba notes and trilling violins and woodwinds to create tension and suspense.

I personally find it amazing that the mere vibrations of air molecules can be detected by our brains and interpreted in such emotional ways. Enjoy to the fullest this amazing gift we humans have.