On Music

Without music life would be an excuse. More insistently than all the other arts, music touches the place where emotions embrace the spirit of humanity. It needs no mediation. Words can reach the heart and paintings delight but music speeds fastest to the soul.

Neuroscientists tell us that music directly penetrates the brainstem nuclei and amygdala, the emotional heart of the brain.  The little almond belongs to the primitive stage of evolution, alive before the frontal component came on the scene to moderate its intemperance. The later arrival, which helps us on the path to wisdom, embraces certain sounds and conceives them as music, an art in perfect harmony with our emotional base. In the presence of music, the brain’s emotional, language and memory centres are all linked, the stimulating of one leading involuntarily to an experience in the others. Schopenhauer claimed music “reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.”

In his book, Musicophilia, the noted physician Oliver Sacks goes further – “while it is most closely tied to the emotions, music is wholly abstract; it has no formal power of representation whatever.”

Entering the space of abstract reality (as in Plato’s forms) allows the listener to sense individually and personally the mathematical perfection of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, the subtle melancholy of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the soulfulness of Blues, the exuberance of a Pop festival, the joy in the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. While the discipline of time is integral to musical composition, the abstract freedom of its form allows for the perception of infinity to emerge out of the more serious pieces, a quality which adds an affecting aspect to their reality.

So removed from the concrete, music can even be without sound, as in the case of hearing it mentally like Beethoven did when he was deaf, or little Mozart as he remembered the Miserere from the Vatican, or any of us with simple tunes, or Pythagoras when he conceived the geometry governing the movements of celestial bodies as a metaphysical form of music  – a conceit which for centuries was called ‘the music of the spheres’.

Music is so undeniably innate to human nature, operating from birth, and apparently even before, that anthropologists have long argued about whether language and music evolved in tandem or one preceded the other, and if so, which one. The dispute may never be resolved but its existence is indicative of how fully music has been incorporated into the essence of the human project from the earliest times.

The sounds of nature would have been present to the first hominids, and in a far more compelling way than they are to us, so distracted are we by the things of civilization. What our ancestors heard in their natural surroundings would have called forth the ineffable, sometimes in a frightening, sometimes in a beguiling way, but always in a manner that connected with their emotional roots. The sheer terror of the rhythmic rolls of African thunder against a dark and cracking sky, the wonderful whistling of wind through the forest or savanna, the gentle ping of raindrops on a still pond, the melody of birds, all demanded imitation for that is what the human animal did and still does. Imitation has the power to give comfort by reducing the horrifying roar to finite form and glean delight from embracing the softer sounds. And so our progenitors created music. It was the best way to make sense of what they heard. As Aristotle said in his Poetics, “Imitation is natural to us, and also melody and rhythm”.

There are still places where people can feel resonance with these prehistoric origins. The remote woodlands of Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north are one. There the Kambolgie sandstone, laid down a billion years ago, has been masterfully sculpted over time into a vast sun-reflecting escarpment with deeply chiseled gorges and weird shapes impossibly balanced on its heights. The Aboriginal locals call it the Stone Country. One of the oldest terrains in the world, it’s still clad in primeval wonder and is the home of a culture that has maintained its integrity for at least forty thousand years, even sixty thousand as new discoveries indicate. I camped there with Aboriginal elders and had the privilege of witnessing corroborees, the sacred dance accompanied by didgeridoo and music sticks and singing.

In the corroboree, music clothes the dance and dance clothes the music, inspiring the participants to apprehend the holy memory of their origins in the primordial domain of the Dreamtime. It takes concentrated effort to learn the songs and sing them in the proper way, with the right beat and pitch, effort like that required to learn hunting techniques; but it’s worth it. The rituals are essential in helping the people maintain the spiritual connection with the land that gives meaning to their lives.

The haunting rhythmic notes threading through the gum trees, sometimes base, sometimes treble, of the garnbak, the name the local Gagadju people give to the didgeridoo (a confected European word based on onomatopoeia), are formed by blowing into the opening of a eucalyptus tree trunk or branch where the interior has been eaten out by termites. This woodwind, which can also be a horn, may be the oldest musical instrument in the world. A few say it might be an adaptation of something that came from the northern archipelago over forty thousand years ago, but no one knows. Could it owe its origin to wind blowing through a hollow log lying on the forest floor in ancient Arnhem Land?

It’s not only the first Australians who felt the connection of music with a force beyond the visible world; the bible records the feeling. The psalms (Greek for musical instrument) do it with poetic beauty. Set to music and originally sung, the songs (written in Hebrew but surviving only in Greek and Syriac translations) fire up human emotions and guide them to a meeting with the divine. “Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp and the voice of a psalm”. They swell the human breast with anger against wickedness, with love and compassion, with comfort to those in the shadow of death, and bring the bread of heaven to the world below.

Sadly, the ancient music is lost, but perhaps not irretrievably. The Dead Sea Scrolls and later texts disclose a tantalizing presence of cantillation signs used to record the melody. So far attempts to decode them have not been met with unqualified success, but hope remains.

Much of the music written in Christian times has also sought to touch the fingers of God and with transcendental beauty arouse the spiritual sensibility of its listeners. The same is true of Islamic compositions.

So completely can music lift us out of our mortal coil and change our mood, even to the point where for the moment we can become a different person, or thing even, that the ancient Greeks turned their genius for mythology to conveying the sense of its power.

The Pierian slopes of Thrace inspired Calliope (the muse of epic poetry) to conceive from Apollo the musician whom Pindar called the father of song. Orpheus waved the magic of music at all he met. The sounds of his lyre and timbre of his voice could calm lions, smooth stones and make the trees dance. Even the pitiless Eumenides stopped tormenting the wicked in the presence of his melody and learned to weep.

On the centaur’s advice, Jason took him to Colchis with the Argonauts so he could drown out the Sirens with his song and save the crew. When his bride, Eurydice the beautiful dryad, was bitten by a snake in the woods on their wedding day and carried off to the underworld, stung by grief, Orpheus set out to rescue her armed with nothing but his lyre.  He paid Charon with a tune to row him across the Styx and entered the gates past Cerberus, which he calmed to sleep with his music.  Once in the land of shades he so softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone with the plaintiff song of his love and pain they allowed his suit. The rules of death were reversed and Eurydice was set on a path back to life, albeit with a condition that ultimately proved fatal.

Music can be vital in the material world too. Oliver Sacks and others have used it as therapy.  In the case of a patient with Parkinson’s disease (which compromises movement), the firm rhythms of a Chopin nocturne brought the natural rate of moving back to what it was before the onset of the illness, although only for as long as the music lasted.

Music’s effect on dementia patients can be even more pronounced. The aim in that therapy is to amplify the portions of the self that survive by addressing the emotions and cognitive ability through calling upon musical memory, famously known for its longevity. Sacks points out that “There can however be longer term effects of music for people with dementia – improvements of mood, behavior, even cognitive function  – which can persist for hours or days after they have been set off by music.”

It doesn’t have to be as severe a disorder as Parkinson’s or dementia for music to come to the rescue. Through stimulating the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin it can engender not only a sensation of joy but also what Nietzsche called a ‘tonic’ effect on the mournfulness of bereavement and the melancholy of depression, a state unfortunately increasingly common in today’s febrile social media world.  In such dark places, music can reach into the bottom of the emotional well where the soul lies bruised and with its cadence bring the comfort of resolution. Through its calming agency, all emotions merge and become as one and sadness melts away for the moment – and in some cases that moment will last.

I saw something like this happen in a video of Barack Obama at an African American church where a service was being held for nine churchgoers who had been murdered during a bible study in a race hate frenzy. In the middle of his eulogy, the President paused for a second, as if he was thinking of doing something, then started to sing the 18th century Christian hymn Amazing Grace, slowly and quietly with deep dignity. After a couple of bars, the congregation followed into song and the organ came on to steady the pitch and swell the sound. In a few moments, the mourners, some with soaking cheeks and all very tense, changed their expression utterly and seemed to relax into innocence as the melody seeped into their souls and exalted their spirits above the horror of the tragedy.

So integral is music to human life that Shakespeare puts into Lorenzo’s voice when he is instructing Jessica on the subject,

“The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treason stratagems and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are as dull as night,

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted”.


Tony Grey