Why Is There Music?

A difficult philosophical problem, which has concerned me for a long time, is the status of music as an art form. How does it fit into the arts? What does it say to us? What is the reason that it affects us?

Ayn Rand wrote that "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments." Rand was a writer of novels, and it is clear how this definition applies to literature: a literary work presents events which we could imagine happening, and the writer decides which of the infinity of imaginable events are worth writing about. With painting and sculpture, at least of the traditionally representational kind, the issues are similar; the artist depicts living beings or objects which we could imagine existing, or presents actual ones in a particular way.

But music is different. A work of music does not show an event or an object. It may include a setting of words which tell a story or express someone's feelings in a given situation, but the music is something added to the words, and music can stand without any text. Some purely instrumental music purports to tell a story, but this is a small minority of all music, and it really doesn't do the job very well. Try listening to Strauss's Don Quixote or Vivaldi's The Four Seasons without any mental recourse to their literary associations; would you guess that one presents a fight with windmills or the other depicts a stag hunt?

Some would say that music selectively re-creates emotions, but this is unsatisfactory. Emotional response is an important part of the musical experience, but not the center of it. If the words in a story were replaced by different words which described the same events, one would be a translation or paraphrase of the other. But if the notes in a piece of music were replaced by different melodies which produced an equivalent emotional response, no one would say they were equivalent pieces. On the other hand, it is possible to modify a happy tune to make it sound tragic, and still have both recognized as variants of the same melody. Music is not just the story of an emotional progression.

A better answer is found in Roger Bissell's article, "Kamhi and Torres on Meaning in Ayn Rand's Esthetics." He writes that

Instead, as Leonard Peikoff has pointed out (Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 417), art is fundamentally a microcosm -- a sort of little reality, as it were. The re-creation is, at root, the creation in a new (and necessarily finite, limited, selective) form of the reality we live in; and this microcosmic form, by the very selectivity of what is included or not, conveys an abstract view of the world. It is certainly true that this form, to be intelligible, must have a coherent subject -- i.e., it must, as its central feature, present coherent objects or (as in music) melodic patterns. However, those objects or patterns are there not to replicate or copy something from the real world, but to serve, as Kamhi and Torres themselves say, as "the principal bearer of meaning" or, in Rand's words, as the means of "express[ing] a view of man's existence" ("Art and Sense of Life," The Romantic Manifesto, p. 40).

This applies particularly to music, which does not reproduce concretes (except occasionally and incidentally, as when it imitates nature sounds). It creates something analogous to real life -- a "microcosm" of conflicts, progressions, and resolutions -- without imitating life in a concrete way. But what is the relationship of this microcosm to real life? Why does it have an impact on us?

Music, emotions, and the body

Rand wrote of music:

Psycho-epistemologically, the pattern of the response to music seems to be as follows: one perceives the music, one grasps the suggestion of a certain emotional state and, with one's sense of life serving as the criterion, one appraises this state as enjoyable or painful, desirable or undesirable, significant or negligible, according to whether it corresponds to or contradicts one's fundamental feeling about life.

This is a part of the human response to music, but only a part. A person's response to a piece of music is not simply his response to the emotions it evokes. There is more to say about "The Swan of Tuonela" than that it is sad, more about Mendelssohn's "Spring Song" than that it evokes vernal emotions.

Music is qualitatively different from the other arts. A piece of music affects us not by standing for something else, but in a more direct way. Our nervous systems respond in certain ways to certain types of sound. The reasons for this are biological ones which I'm hardly competent to address. In addition, we recognize certain sounds as characteristic of the expression of certain emotions.

Anthony Storr's Music and the Mind presents some interesting theories regarding this, including the possibility that music comes out of the non-verbal communication between mother and infant, and that it provided a means of bonding people together in primitive societies. Whatever the cause may be, it's certain that musical sounds affect us strongly; and music as an art combines the way basic tones and rhythms affect us to create compositions which appeal at once to the intellect and the emotions. Storr wrote:

The universality of music depends upon basic characteristics of the human mind; especially upon the need to impose order upon our experience... What is universal is the human propensity to create order out of chaos.
In music, we order sound by making it into discrete tones and by combining these tones in melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and structural patterns. While sight may be our most important sense for perceiving the outside world, hearing is our most important sense for communication, especially the communication of feeling. Speech serves primarily to communicate concepts, facts, and intentions, but the tone of sound reaches us, at least in part, on a physiological level.

Certain types of sound apparently evoke certain responses from the nervous system. A sudden, loud sound brings a person to alertness. A steady, low-pitched rumble can produce tension. Quiet, regularly paced sounds have a relaxing effect. We associate these responses with the emotions which give rise to similar states -- fear, anxiety, calm -- and thus recognize emotional content in the music. But we experience the response as coming from the music itself.

In addition, we recognize sounds of certain kinds as being related to the expression of certain emotions. Music which rises to a sustained high note suggests the speech pattern of someone in the grip of a strong, striving feeling. Music in short, hesitant phrases reminds us of the way a hesitant or nervous person speaks and moves. Such music conveys the physical feeling behind the emotion by reminiscence.

In an early essay, "The Concept of Artistic Expression," John Hospers struggled with the question of what it means for music to express an emotion. Noting that we don't enjoy feeling sad in reality, yet can enjoy sadness in music, he draws a distinction between "life-sadness" and "music-sadness," but he leaves the relationship between the two unresolved. But we can resolve this if we recognize that music invokes emotions indirectly rather than directly. A piece of "sad music" does not normally leave the listener depressed; rather, it induces something of the physiological state which is associated with sadness, or makes us feel that we are in the presence of sadness. Hearing gives, I think, a greater sense of immediacy than sight. Things which we see are perceived as being outside us, in a definite place, while sounds seem to come directly to us. This sense of immediacy gives sound a greater emotional impact than an equivalent sight might. It's thunder, not lightning, which frightens us, even though the lightning is the real danger.

A piece such as Sibelius's "The Swan of Tuonela" or Holst's "Mars" evokes responses similar to those which we would have when feeling sadness or fear, respectively, without placing on us the burden of actual loss or danger. The listener does not feel actual sadness or fright, but experiences a safe equivalent which may help him to become more aware of his potential for such feelings, or of feelings which he has repressed, and to grow more able to deal with them.

In contrast, a badly written or performed piece of music may invoke genuinely negative emotions in the listener -- boredom, anger, or even pain. Only a seriously jaded person would go to a performance for the purpose of feeling these emotions.

When something affects us at such a basic level, the response of a curious, mentally active person is to be attentive to what's happening. In music, this means actively listening, following the stimulus to find out what it is doing, where it is going. But this produces no satisfaction unless the sound is organized in a way which is possible and interesting to follow. Random noise can't be followed. Sound which is organized in too regular and repetitive a way won't hold a person's interest very long, except perhaps to induce a hypnotic state. Only if sounds are organized in a way which is varied, yet has regularities which the listener can grasp with some effort, can it hold active attention. Rand made this point in "Art and Cognition":

Epistemologically, a man who has an active mind regards mental effort as an exciting challenge; metaphysically, he seeks intelligibility. He will enjoy the music that requires a process of complex calculations and successful resolution. ... He will feel a mixture of boredom and resentment when he hears a series of random bits with which his mind can do nothing.

Music as a tool of self-integration

By providing this experience, music brings two ends of the spectrum of human awareness together. Its content is sounds which affect our bodies directly, but which are organized in a way which involves our minds on an abstract level. Music unifies the experience of mind and body.

When it does this, it's no wonder that people bring all the levels of their consciousness into association with music. Composers use music not just to re-create emotional experiences but to tell whole stories. When they do this, though, there is no guarantee that the listener will reconstruct what the composer intended. On the emotional level, there is usually a fair level of agreement among people familiar with the same musical tradition; but even at this level there can be disagreement. When a piece of music sets out to tell a story through notes alone, listeners will seldom identify the intended story without some amount of prompting.

In general, though, we can recognize the emotional landscape of a piece of music in our own tradition; and most composers have characteristic tendencies. Haydn's music, on the whole, is cheerfully optimistic. Beethoven's suggests titanic struggles.

Emotional connotation, however, is only one aspect of a piece of music. What we listen for is the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Fully involved listening means awareness of the effect a piece has on our feelings, and also understanding of how the piece does this, how it is organized. It involves the physiological, emotional, and intellectual levels of thinking all at once. By combining these levels in a single experience, we gain greater awareness of our inner experience and a greater sense of personal integration.

Rand's worst mistake with regard to music was neglecting the active role of the listener. She wrote in "Art and Cognition":

It is possible to observe introspectively (up to a certain point) what one's mind does while listening to music; it evokes subconscious material -- images, actions, scenes, actual or imaginary experiences -- that seem to flow haphazardly, without direction, in brief, random snatches, merging, changing and vanishing, like the progression of a dream. But, in fact, this flow is selective and consistent: the emotional meaning of the subconscious material corresponds to the emotions projected by the music.

Everywhere else in Rand's writing, when she uses such terminology, she is condemning a mystical, out-of-focus, evil thought process. But here she is saying that random, flitting responses are appropriate when listening to music. Further on she states that the emotional response to music "is induced by deliberately suspending one's conscious thoughts and surrendering to the guidance of one's emotions."

But treating music that way is the opposite of listening. At times, we may want some pleasant sound in the background, or may even use music to fall asleep; but that's treating music as the equivalent of wallpaper, and has nothing to do with music as art. Some people also read books to fall asleep, but this hardly means that "deliberately suspending one's conscious thoughts" is appropriate for normal reading.

Rand is not saying that no mental activity is needed in listening to music, but that the activity is automatic. She distinguishes, as mentioned earlier, between mentally demanding music and the mind-deadening kind. But it is very strange to regard musical alertness as automatic. I know that there are times when I listen to music very carefully and attentively, and other times when I simply can't keep my attention on the same piece.

Rand was not a musician and evidently treated music very lightly. She was careful not to give her comments on music the same weight of certainty which she gave to her much better informed comments on literature and other arts.

Even a simple melody can be heard passively or actively. An active listener tries to remember its shape and recognize patterns and recurrences in it. For more complex music, passive listening misses almost everything. The same listener may be active on some occasions and passive on others.

It isn't morally necessary to make all one's listening fully active. There are times when we have other things to do, and having music present can enhance the experience even though we aren't giving it our full attention. Unfortunately, most people hardly ever engage in active listening to music.

At the extreme of passivity, hearers don't respond either intellectually or emotionally to music, and are barely aware that it is there at all. Because most of us are constantly exposed to background music, we learn to do this simply to close out music which isn't of interest to us at the time. Unfortunately, this can become a habit.

At a step up from this, a hearer may be aware of the music -- it might even be very loud -- but doesn't participate mentally in it. It provides color to the hearer's experience, but not content.

The level which Rand describes involves the hearer more deeply, to the point that now we can talk about a "listener" and not just a "hearer," but the involvement is confined to the emotional level. Appreciation of content is still largely lacking.

The fully aware listener doesn't necessarily have much technical knowledge of music, but is able to recognize content -- recurring themes, rhythmic patterns, dissonance vs. consonance, and so on. By remembering and anticipating, he intensifies his emotional involvement in the music, recognizing particularly significant moments in it. Instruments and themes become, so to speak, protagonists, and the active listener follows their progress.

Active listening is a different matter from technical knowledge. It isn't a matter of knowing what sonata form is, or recognizing a modulation into the submediant. Technical understanding can help a listener to better appreciate the music, but doesn't affect whether he's putting his attention into it in the first place. The amateur whose musical knowledge consists only of "do-re-mi" can be just as much an active listener as a symphony conductor. The conductor, of course, hears much more in the same piece; but that is a matter of study and experience.

It is also possible for a person to listen to music only intellectually, cutting off any emotional significance. This can happen when listeners let their analyses take over, so that they dissect the music without really getting involved in it. Much of modern serious music encourages this approach, since its complications defeat one's ability to integrate them acoustically, forcing an artificial and detached response. Schoenberg's tone-row music is one of the most blatant examples of this.

Music and the (other) arts

Music is no different from literature or painting in requiring full attention to be best appreciated. But it is distinctive in the degree to which it involves direct physiological responses, and thus in its role in letting the listener experience mind and body as the unity which they should be.

But in content, music is very different from any of the representational arts. It does not tell a story, or even directly portray emotions. But it does have important characteristics in common with literature, drama, painting, sculpture, and dance. It provides an experience, outside the events of everyday life, which evokes by design a strong personal response. If we follow Rand's definition, and include music among the arts, we have to recognize that the "selective re-creation of reality" which music offers is a matter of creating an experience which is like reality in containing conflicts and goals which are attained or frustrated, and in bringing the listener to close awareness of the emotions which are associated with those pursuits, victories, and failures. It is a "microcosm" rather than a representation of some aspects of real life. And by using the medium of sound, music arguably achieves the greatest immediacy of any art form.

What I hope to have shown here is that music fulfills a unique esthetic purpose, one which brings inner experience at the physiological and intellectual levels together more than any other art, and that this purpose is apart from any storytelling or overt portrayal of emotions. The questions of specifically how music does this, what the role of form, tonality, harmony, and rhythm are, and how to distinguish good music from bad, are outside the scope of this essay. The root question -- "Why is there music?", as I put it in the title -- is one which has fascinated me for a long time, and this is the best answer I have to offer at this time.

Copyright 1999 by Gary McGath

Last updated October 26, 1999

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