Music has a curious way of lifting us out of troubling circumstances. This is so prevalent in the human condition it is of no surprise somebody would write a song about this exultant effect. American composer Frank Ticheli provides us with the following lyrics from his 2007 piece titled “Earth Song”:
Sing, Be, Live, See.
This dark stormy hour,
The wind, it stirs.
The scorched earth cries out in vain:
O war and power,
You blind and blur,
The torn heart cries out in pain.
But music and singing
Have been my refuge,
And music and singing
Shall be my light.
A light of song,
Through darkness, pain, and strife,
I’ll Sing, Be, Live, See…
Music seems to provide the comfort, strength and encouragement we need to carry us through our difficulties. But why would that be the case? What is it about music that can bring about this kind of effect? To answer those questions, we might first consider where music comes from in the first place.
My first thought often is that we are surrounded by music in nature. However, while we enjoy hearing the song of birds in the morning, or the trickling water in a babbling brook, there really isn’t anything in nature that would fall under the definition of music as we know it: vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony. Nature provides us with many delightful sounds, but they aren’t music. Music is something which is uniquely made and appreciated by humans alone.
In his best-selling book, The Thing with Feathers, Noah Strycker describes how music is largely inexplicable by any evolutionary account. From Darwin down to today, evolutionary biologists have been unable to give any reasonable account how the ability to make and appreciate music gives us humans any selective advantage. Darwin in The Descent of Man wrote that “Neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life”. Strycker cites evolutionary biologists who assess music to be superfluous…a quirky by-product of evolution… “auditory cheesecake”. Strycker adds, “In other words, behaviors that don’t exist in the wild…have no effect on an animal’s ultimate survival, so they can’t have evolved as an adaptive benefit.” Life on this planet has survived well for millions of years without anything like music, but few people would be willing to say it is superfluous.
But, if music is not derived from anything in nature, where does it come from? Neuroscientists have noted that in watching brain behavior, the brain processes music in much the same way that it processes language. That doesn’t help much in answering the question, though, because the exceptional language ability of humans is just as inexplicable as music – it tells us they are related, but it still doesn’t tell us where it comes from.
It may be worth noting that music has strong ties to mathematics and physics. Several music scales have been developed by different cultures, but all the notes within those scales have mathematical relationships which existed prior to the development of scales – they were discovered, not invented. The notes played out by musical instruments or human voice are attuned to the laws of harmonic resonance ascribed by physics. So, like mathematics, music corresponds to nature, but it has no material existence – once the song is sung, it is gone. It emerges from and exists only in the mind (think about Beethoven who was able to compose music even though he couldn’t hear it). Unlike mathematics, however, music has the ability to have an immediate effect on us humans.
Expressions of many emotions find their way into music: joy and sorrow, hope and fear, delight and anger, love and hate. These emotive qualities pour forth from both composer and performer and resonate in the hearts of its listeners. In some way we sense that the emotions we feel do not just belong to ourselves, that they need to connect to something beyond ourselves – even to something greater than ourselves. This sense is what some have in mind when they describe music as having transcendent qualities – that music in some way has the ability to transmit our emotions where they ought to go.
These connections to language and mathematics along with its recognized transcendent quality may lead us to infer that music is the product of a mind – of a greater intelligence which resides outside of nature itself. The reason we can both make and enjoy music – something which does not exist in nature – is because we were made that way – designed that way. The reason music lifts us out of our troubles, is that it is a purpose of that design.
*Performing artists worldwide have taken a hard blow with the restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The performance by Voce8 was a request for support during this difficult time. If you liked their performance, you might consider contributing to their foundation (https://voces8.foundation/donate). You might also think of ways to support your local performing artists.