From wavelengths to wonder

In my daily duties as an inept philosophy student, I’ve frequently found myself pondering the mystery of music. This is, of course, a multi-faceted mystery but two aspects strike me as most deserving of our consideration – that music is able to express emotions and that it is able to elicit emotional responses from us. That something as humble as particle oscillation, transiting through otic canals to the brain’s frontal lobe, could so vividly and directly cause us to feel joy or wistfulness is an oddity of the highest order. As such, it warrants exploration.

To be clear before we proceed, I am not talking about singing or lyrical expression. Lyrics, being verbal, have linguistic properties that convey meaning in the same way as natural language. That lyrics could convey meaning is no more or less of a mystery than that people are able to communicate anything at all – which is far too broad and baffling a state of affairs for us to consider here. In any case, a quick thought experiment can demonstrate music’s superior capacity for emotive expression. Recall a song of which you are particularly fond which has both lyrics and music. Imagine it with just lyrics and no music. Now imagine it with just music. Ask yourself which better captured the sentiment that track usually rouses in you. I almost guarantee it’ll be the latter option.

Music has fascinated philosophers in the West since its inception in Ancient Greece. Dr Jay Kennedy recently proposed that Plato’s entire corpus was mathematically ordered according to a 12-note scale, which, if deciphered, reveals hidden esoteric truths. Though that’s a little danbrownesque (if I may coin the phrase), followers of Pythagoras who created that scale did hold music in comparably grand esteem. They saw music as the ordering principle in the universe, imposing harmony upon the chaotic flux of the substrate. Through listening to music, one was supposedly able to cleanse the soul in much the same way as medicine cleanses the body.

Part of being able to see music as metaphysically potent was recognising the relationship between the art and mathematics. Music is rule-governed in a way that suggests certain objective qualities, much like maths. But we run the risk of anthropocentrism here, assuming the universe is in accord with our contingently evolved senses. Our evidence for saying Miles Davis’ ‘My Funny Valentine’ is sad yet celebratory is only our experience of it really. More to the point, you get the sense that we’re subtly directed to associate some feelings with certain sounds via culture and media. Christmas songs cause a swell of warmth through our memory of hearing them at Christmas in homely holiday cheer. Crunchy three-chord riffs excite you by sending you reeling through memories of the American Pie trilogy and first-time handjobs. The music played over explicitly sombre scenes in films comes to soundtrack your own sombre moods. It seems we exist in a neatly carved musical matrix, made to feel certain ways just by context-association.

But there is something inadequate with that explanation. Music is able to express and elicit emotion simply in and of itself. I’m sure we can all recall a time when a certain bit of music has contradicted our prevailing mood, suddenly and dramatically altering it. I can readily recall being dragged from dumpy pensiveness into sublime energy by the outro solo of Hendrix’s Bold as Love. It kind of felt a bit like I was ascending into heaven. And what that Jimi Hendrix experience demonstrates is that music has certain distinct properties and is rule-governed in a way such that its not as simple as context-association. It is this feature that made Beethoven a creative genius, rather than a defier of paradoxes. Moreover, context-association begs the question: why would anyone initially and immediately emotionally respond to music.

In every other dimension of life we only ever think of human beings as able to express such rich and complex sentiments as music can. We do not, for example think of rocks as being reflective or melancholy. A rock may be able to make us feel those things, but it is only through association with some other entity or memory. Perhaps the coarse contours remind you of an old man who barked profundities at you, or a similar rock that crushed your teenage sweetheart. But it is only humans we think of as expressing anything in and of themselves.

This realisation leads to an absurd-sounding conclusion: that we think of music as a human being. Like I said, it sounds absurd – but follow me on this one. Notice I didn’t say ‘music is a human being’, that would be crazy. But rather, we treat it as one for some utility. Suspension of disbelief is a key operative in most of the arts – think about how complacently we accept unfolding events on a stage lit with a purple wash; or how readily we silence our scientific protestations that Nicolas Cage can’t literally take his face off and put Travolta’s on. What causes this impulse? That the state of affairs it proposed is in some way more interesting or preferable to the daily drudgery of reality. Or in the latter case, simply permits 90 minutes of uninterrupted hilarity.

If music imitates man, then it must imitate his most expressive inborn tool: his voice. After all, our main reason for supposing that the sacks of meat and circuitry we share society with are conscious is that they express things verbally. Observe a person who isn’t speaking – they almost immediately look twice as mechanical.

In music usually thought of as sad we observe quivering notes, descending melody lines and violins. Quivering notes imitate the cracked, quivering voices of the mournful; the fall of pitch in descending melody lines eases out like a sigh; the sound of a violin bears an uncanny resemblance to assorted wails. Heavy metal is full of hoarse, roaring guitars that resemble amplified shouts of the enraged. And why should the voice take all the credit? The body’s natural metronome, the heart, could explain a great deal. The quickening staccato riffs of ska music can easily excite us through their correspondence to quickening heartbeats. The smooth unimposing BPM of hip-hop relaxes by easing us into a sedentary mode. If we understand music in this way, it is no more surprising that we find music emotive than that we are moved by any art form.

And even this tentative solution seems incomplete and problematic. There seems to be a plethora of background factors we haven’t even touched on – the intended expression of the artist, its communal production and even evolutionary considerations to name but a few. There seems to be too much to factor in to come to a definitive solution. No matter how engrossing the project, if no solution seems possible it must be futile, and should promptly be abandoned. But why, exactly, should we reject the futile? After all, as Santayana points out “music is useless – but so is life”.

Baz Ramaiah

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