Maybe we shouldn't even ask the question; maybe writing about music is like dancing about architecture (to paraphrase Martin Mull, whose original quotation was about painting, footnote 1). However, music is probably tough enough to withstand a little scrutiny. Besides, like most "why" questions, this one is really interestingand surprisingly challenging.
Music evokes, very directly, emotions that we feel in life: joy, love, beauty, anger, excitement, fear, lust, sadness, exhilaration. That's fine as far as it goes, but it begs the question: If we already feel joy or sadness in our lives, why are we drawn to the musical expression of those feelings? Why not just feel them? The answer will be different for everyone, but there may be some common threads.
Music can intensify feelings. Sometimes, when I feel sad, I listen to sad music. In such moments, music may do us good by reminding us that we're not alone; and if we wallow a little, perhaps even that is usefully cathartic in moving us through and past negative feelings. When I feel great, playing some cheerful Dvorák makes me feel even greater, as I happily commune with the composer and the musicians across space and time.
Opposite its role as an intensifier, music can be a counterweight to other emotions we may be feeling. If there is some ugliness in our realitywho among us avoids that entirely?music can remind us that beauty and sweetness are still alive and well. This counterweight effect can be more powerful when the music takes us on a journey, leading us through a struggling first movement and a sorrowful slow movement to a vigorous scherzo, then a hopeful finale that restores perspective. The traditional musical forms of concerto and symphony seem to be ways of saying that things will be okay in the end, despite whatever struggle and heartache we may experience along the way.
Sometimes we may have no particular feelings, good or bad; on such days, playing some cheerful music can put us in a good moodthe joy in Mozart or Gershwin is infectious; you can't feel bad listening to Louis Armstrong. So music can be a generator of feelings, making us feel happy and energetic when we didn't before. These may be empty calories, but they still taste good.
When real life seems random or chaotic, music can seem to reveal or impose an underlying order. Most music is organized and purposeful; the very best music feels inevitable. In that, we feel a comfort not dissimilar to the comfort many find in organized religion or a regular routine.
Music can also fill space that otherwise would be silent. When we write, perform, and listen to music, we rebel against emptiness and stasis, casting our votes in favor of motion, activity, and life.
And, of course, music can inspire. A Bruckner symphony, a Bach partita, a Mozart concertothese things embody such beauty that one feels, while listening, in the presence of something greater than oneself. The religious may hear in such music the hand of God; atheists and agnostics may hear the heights our species can scale. Either way, music can lift the heart with overwhelming intensity.
Everything has its dark sideeven music, which can act as a proxy for, and a safe haven from, real feelings. We can listen to passionate music without taking any risks, to heroic music without showing courage. Joy, beauty, and tenderness are always on tap, and, unlike life, music does not ask us to earn them. When, instead of inspiring, music becomes a safe substitute for the risks and rewards of human interaction, it can become a drug that leads to self-absorption and isolation. This can be a danger for composers, performers, and listeners alike.
The most beautiful answer to "Why music?" may be its capability to bring people together: musicians cooperating in a joyous enterprise, audiences, and the extended audiences of people listening in their homes, spanning barriers of time, language, place, and culture. When the beauty of music is amplified through sharing, it's like no other pleasure. It lets us express our connectedness with those close to us, and establish new connections with those we may not yet know. The meaning of happiness varies for each of us, but feeling connected with others is usually part of it, and music has a unique power to create and deepen human connections, whether romantic, familial, or friendly.
Those are a few of my thoughts on why music matters to me. Please tell the editor why music matters to you.Glenn Weadock
Footnote 1: This statement has also been attributed to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, and art critic Thomas McGonigle (in 1979). No one seems to know who actually said it first.Ed.