What would you consider to be the greatest of humankind’s achievements? The very pinnacle of all our creative, intellectual or emotional lives? The most life enhancing, wondrous endeavour ever to flow from the human mind? Well don’t worry yourselves, as I already know. It’s that aural art form we call music.
If you think about it, music is an extremely strange ‘thing’? Why have people always felt the urge to throw these strings of sound together, and why do so many people love listening to these temporally based sound patterns? What’s the point of music, why does it exist? Scientists, historians and philosophers have all tried on numerous occasions, to pin this down, but none have really come up with an adequate answer. At a certain objective, non-human level, music appears to be sort of meaningless, yet for those of us who love it, it’s full to the brim with meaning.
Music is by far the most wide ranging of the arts, not only in the sense of styles, but also in the way it is used. But I want to start by looking at the thing I find most fascinating about this particular art form – and that is music’s ability to be completely self-contained and only self-referencing. Music is one of those extremely rare entities that can be entirely abstract, not needing to make any reference to things outside itself. Modernism in the visual arts, was in part inspired by these properties in music, and there was an attempt at pure abstraction there too, but there’s always shape and colour, and it’s not quite the same. We make music with sounds, but sounds aren’t music. Music is the ultimate ‘man-made’ manifestation.
Outside the arts, the only thing I can think of that has a similar level of abstraction is maths, so maybe that’s why the ancient Greeks considered these two disciplines – maths and music – to be so important.
Like Maths, this kind of ‘pure abstract’ music is exclusively a human experience, it can’t belong anywhere else, and can only exist whilst we do. However, unlike maths, this music, like all music, reaches parts of us like nothing else does. As an example, listening to the slow movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it’s hard to see it as anything but beautiful. It’s intellectually interesting: it’s feels understated (especially for Beethoven’s Symphonic work), and it just meanders along. It has an unusual structure with a weaving melody that’s hard to grasp on to. Emotionally, it’s kind of sad, but it’s also comforting, it envelops you, it’s soft, it’s lovely. It was created for us to listen to, nothing else.
Our emotional response to music is a curious, and perhaps unique, one too. With the Arts, and other areas of our lives, it’s usually easy to find the cause effecting our emotions. That can also be true with some music – ‘sad’ music might suggest sounds similar to ‘weeping’, or brash, loud, harsh sounds in music reflecting those we associate with aggression or anger. But music is capable of bringing out less obvious emotions in us, subtler ones that aren’t about reflecting real-world sounds. Music can be uplifting, euphoric, as well as calming and relaxing. It’s capable of making the hairs at the back of our neck’s stand-up. I know there are pieces of music I can rely on if I want to evoke a particular emotion, or music to encourage a mood I need to feel at a particular time. What is interesting though, is I don’t understand how this music does this. Music is mind altering.
So that’s music at the intimate, personal level, but music works at the opposite end of the scale too, playing a huge role in the social and cultural areas of our lives. Dance is the most obvious music related socio-cultural activity. From formal stage performances and ‘national’ dances, to the less formal club culture and ‘dad-dancing’; music’s ability to make us move is an odd and interesting subject. There’s been a few suggestions relating rhythm to our heartbeat or footsteps, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of study around this unique ‘rhythm is a dancer’ relationship.
Music performers and their audiences are socially significant too. Most of the world’s folk traditions include some aspect of communal participation – even if it’s just people joining in to sing a well-known chorus. This music is very much an experience shared. Even the large ‘music festival’ events many attend nowadays are about music bringing people together, loosening them up a bit, allowing them to temporarily forget their worries and enjoy themselves. Only music does this.
Music seems to have an important role in this idea of ‘identity’. As far as I’m aware, all nation states have a national anthem, that works alongside a national flag and other emblems, to express the idea of nationhood. Strangely though, all these anthems seem to reference the Western Classical tradition, which is a bit of a shame. Of course, musical styles are also associated with national identity, Country Music or the Blues help define U.S. culture for example.
Music is present in all kinds of socio-cultural customs and rituals; ceremony, celebration, memorial, commemoration … all manner of pomp and pedantry, large and small. Music to mark the crowning of a new queen or music to celebrate the day a boy becomes a man.
Music can be used to strengthen our resolve and march us to war – all armies carry musicians in their arsenal. Music often plays an important part in religion too; Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Masses really do seem to express and support the idea of something magnificent and boundless.
Lastly, we mustn’t forget how music played a big part in many of our lives growing-up. That was partly about identity too, almost tribal in the way that liking a particular style or even a particular artist, made us feel we belonged to a special, exclusive clan.
I’ve met people who appear not to care much about music, they seem to be missing the music-loving gene? I instantly feel sorry for these people, it’s like they’re living life without an essential sixth sense. Music is important, music is special, music is everywhere. Everyone can carry a tune – whistling and humming. Listening to music appears to improve our mental capacity, and Music Therapy has been used to alleviate mental stress and trauma. We respond to music as babies and many of us choose music to be remembered by.
I’d say music is certainly a contender as the greatest of all humankind’s achievements.