Why Music?

Some things are easy to understand, and some are not. The taste of ice cream, or the feeling of sunshine on my face, those things are easy to understand. Here is one that, to me, is not. Why does music, even apart from the cognitive content of the lyrics, make me feel good? Indeed, more perplexing, why is it when I play an E major chord on my lovely Gibson C-2 Classic guitar, then move one finger on the fingerboard to change one note, transforming the E major to E minor, why does this new sound make me feel, well, a bit of sadness or melancholy.

Let me be clear: music is a mystery to me. Not the fact of its affect, but the source of it. I stare at my collection of 1,000+ CDs (Who collects those any more? Well…I do.) and contemplate the tremendous emotional panoply contained therein just waiting to be unleashed. But, again, why? Is there anyone not affected by music or any culture devoid of music, in one form or another. It is a birthright of humans. In fact, some cultures incorporate a tonal aspect into their language. I think this is fantastic and should be expanded upon. I would love to be sitting in a restaurant and hearing all of the patrons singing their thoughts to each other instead of talking. That would be a Puccini opera gone happily mad!

In looking for a few good answers, I came upon these articles.

First, my question is not, why does anyone like the music they like. But if that was my question, and it is a good question, then I would direct them to this interesting article by Theresa Patzschke in the United Academics Magazine, a publication from Amsterdam. She states that music is fully a physical matter, in both its source and effect, and one that begins from the first moment. She says, “…we start to collect those (musical experiences) before we are born. Already certain natural rhythmic patterns, which one experiences in the foetal period, can partly modify the future music taste.”

Secondly, more to the point of this post, is this next article, again, by Theresa Patzschke. Ms. Patzschke asks, then answers these questions: What exactly is music doing to us? And what is music actually? This is the heart of the matter. She states, “Music perception is hence highly physical. Medics take advantage of this fact. They already developed treatments against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and spasticity. In the field of surgery, medics hope that in future they will be able to reduce the dosing of drugs with the help of music. It could possibly serve to decrease the pre- and postoperative stress.

Thirdly, there is an article in Wikipedia called “Cognitive neuroscience of music.”. This article is not cluttered by sweet anecdotal information about the pleasure the author received from singing in his church choir as a child. It is an article of biological focus. In this article, the author states that “For each pitch there is a corresponding part of the tonotopically organized basilar membrane in the inner ear which responds to the sound and sends a signal to the auditory cortex.” For “each pitch”? Remarkable. Perhaps this offers the beginning of help in understanding why the “feeling” of the E chord seems different that the “feeling” of the E minor chord.

Does this mean music is merely an expression of deterministic structural mechanics? Not at all. And here we are back where we started. From the physicality of the basilar membrane to the vast ambiguity of human emotion, music becomes a specific expression of what makes us human and we are helped in our understanding of why music so powerfully evokes and projects those emotions.

- Joe Falkner

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