Why Music?

Why does music matter so much to so many of us? Some, like Stereophile's readers, go to great lengths to reproduce it in their homes with accuracy and impact, and build libraries of their favorite works. Others, like my daughters, don't care much about equipment, but find it hard to spend more than five minutes in a car without listening to music. We go to concerts, play instruments, hum tunes, sing. Why? Why does music seem to speak to so many more of us than do, say, painting, sculpture, poetry, architecture, or even literature?

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 interesting—and 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 reality—who 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 mood—the 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 concerto—these 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 side—even 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.
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COMMENTS
volvic's picture

Is that the Berlin Phil with Nikisch? Looks like it, but then again everyone had mustache and beards like Nikisch.

Jon Iverson's picture

Boston Symphony Orchestra - the photo is a crop of a larger photo from Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Symphony_Orchestra

What I love is if you look at the full-rez version, you can see a musician tuning up at the far right while everyone else is watching the camera.

volvic's picture

Good one, not interested in posing I guess. I think I am corrected in saying that is Nikisch standing on the podium.

BudgetAudiophile's picture

Listening to Records in the Dark

The little blue amp lights
Sooth as the sounds swirl,
Spinning round the room.
Analog and alive!
Digital and distant,
The cold day fades
As the warmth of the music
Lovingly lifts and embraces
A slumbering soul
Now soaring!

Starbucked's picture

Why music? Have you ever tried stuffing a cheese sandwich in your ear?

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I entertain this notion that if we ever encounter an alien species, the only thing we do that will interest them will be our music. All the other really important stuff - math, science, proficiency at killing - they'll be much better at if they reached us first. Music may be the only thing that saves us in the end.

Utopianemo's picture

Then we'd better hope they don't hear Gwar or Slipknot or 2 Live Crew.

Utopianemo's picture

Who are you to infer the Aliens' music won't be better, too?

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