Music? Why?

Music is the great perplexity of the ages. It seems not to serve any discernible purpose. It doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t build bridges. It doesn’t have wheels, or wings, or rudders. It doesn’t play any part in the daily hustle and bustle of the trade or barter of commonplace commodities. It doesn’t have words to describe it adequately. What is its place in the wider scheme of things? Why is it (except for those who are erroneously dubbed tone deaf) a cherished part of our life?

Despite its apparent irrelevance, its enchanted vibrations leak via our ears into our brains, often remaining in our skulls for hours/days/weeks as what we call ‘ear-worms’. Ear-worms can be produced by inane ditties, their presence inevitably a source of great irritation to their unwitting victim. Or they can come from music of great profundity. Much of the music of Robert Schumann is a source of ear-worms for me though, I might add, generally in a pleasurable way.

Now, when I invite you to examine ‘music’ here, I don’t mean you should confine yourself to studying the physical structure of the instruments or voices by means of which it is conveyed to those listening. That’s more in the realm of physics (or anatomy?) than of music. Most musical instruments, including the human larynx, rely on resonances and the like for their operation. That’s where the physics comes in.

Nor do I mean you should study musical notation, including the notion of tempered scales. Such considerations lead you directly into the realm of mathematics.

No. I don’t mean the mere mechanics of the music. I mean the essence of the music, that quality mysterious ephemeral and (some would say) spiritual, that quality not amenable to study by physics or mathematics, that quality capable of engaging and sometimes entrancing us, that quality remaining after the mechanisms of its production are discounted.

Take an example. My favourite piece of music bar none is the Diabelli Variations of Ludwig van Beethoven. When I confine myself to the musical essence of this piece sans the mechanics, it will inevitably knock my socks off. There’s no physics or mathematics here, just an epiphany that takes me to what feels like another universe entirely. I am overwhelmed, feeling emotions I didn’t know existed, swept up into a transcendent world of wonder. Why?

On the assumption that I run the risk of rendering these variations tame by excessive repetition, I make a point of rationing my exposure to them. This is how precious to me this astonishing piece of music is. So far, its effect on me has not diminished over time and, b’Jesus, I have known the piece since the 1980s.

Let’s speculate on a rationale behind this ‘musical essence’.

Some like to think that, in one way or another, music is a sympathetic and synchronous reflection of our mammalian heart-beat. I’m not convinced. If your heart is thumping away in 3/4 time or similar, then you are in serious trouble. I’d advise you to seek medical advice urgently.

Perhaps music can be regarded as a voyage of discovery, with what is there to be discovered vague or unknowable. (But, as the cliche reminds us, it’s the journey that’s important not the destination.)

Apropos of ‘voyages of discovery’, consider those epic efforts made by 15th and 16th century mariners to reach the Indies by (counter-intuitively) travelling west from Europe. The outcome of their efforts would have been in the nature of a lucky dip right from the get-go, especially since it was by no means universally accepted that the world was (roughly speaking) spherical. And the unexpected outcome of their voyage was that they discovered the West Indies. As opposed to the East Indies, damn it, where the exotic spices they coveted were to be found.

Could a musical voyage of discovery solve our mystery – that is to say the mystery of why we’re so hooked on this thing called ‘music’ – in similar fashion to the way Columbus and company came up with their solution to a problem of geography? And with equally unexpected result?

Consider another voyage of discovery, i.e. that of the Beagle in the 19th century. This nautical adventure played out in parallel to an intellectual one. Charles Darwin was grappling with the concept of a mind-numbing number (measured in millions or perhaps billions as we now know) of species of earthbound life with few obvious interconnections. Famously, Darwin uncovered a rationale behind this chaotic mystery. Known to us these days as the Theory of Evolution, such theory being one of the cornerstones of modern science, it is spelt out in his seminal publication, The Origin of Species.

Could it be that if we were to launch a voyage of discovery among the myriad musical compositions, we might find some unifying principle that explains them? A theory of their evolution? An origin of musical essences?

Now, if you find my flights of fancy too heady for your tastes, please don’t read any further. Because I’m about to make another even more outlandish suggestion as to the rationale behind what I have dubbed ‘musical essence’.

Currently, I am reading a novel, if you could call it that, by one of my favourite writers, Italo Calvino, whose specialty is flights of fancy. The book I am reading is The Complete Cosmicomics. Read it if you dare.

In one chapter, entitled The Spiral, Calvino imagines – whimsically as is his wont – life as an ancient mollusc, in an era before sighted creatures had evolved. This mollusc was nothing more than a blob of jelly clinging to a rock by the sea. In response to an amorous exchange, and as a defence against predators, this mollusc secreted a goo that duly hardened into a shell. This shell was ornate in structure, potentially beautiful in both form and colour. I say ‘potentially’ because its beauty could not be realized unless someone or something was around with eyes to see it. Which was not then the case.

Fast forward a few million years. There is now an abundance of sighted creatures. Eyes are commonplace, if not de rigueur. Now the beauty of the shell can be appreciated, whereas before the beauty seemed to have no point.

Do you see where my argument is heading? Are you getting my drift?

Perhaps I’ll have to spell it out for you.

I’d like to draw an analogy with Calvino’s story. We, creatures of this primitive era in which the 21st century is embedded, have developed an ornate structure (viz. music) whose essence is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps some more highly evolved creatures, creatures slated to come on the scene millions of years hence, will have developed the apparatus (a sixth sense mayhap?) to resolve the mystery. And then all will be explained.

You don’t buy this? Never mind. We’ll know who’s right about this a mere couple of million years into the future. So, hang in there. Preserve yourselves in patience.

And why don’t you just listen to the music of your choice while you wait? I’d recommend it.