Music is not essential for humankind. Unlike air, food, physical safety or reproduction, music is not a precondition for survival of the species. We are unlikely to ever read that the cause of death of a healthy young person found lifeless somewhere in an apartment was “music deprivation”.
Yet virtually all people in the world passionately engage with music. Almost every culture has music of some kind, and more often of many kinds. Some have moral or religious restrictions on music, others flaunt it whether you want to hear it or not. What is music to some is horrible noise to others: across cultures, generations, corridors …
But still, all humans (except for those with a rare affliction known as amusia) have the amazing capacity to structure and make sense of the complex sounds, timbres, pitches and rhythms (and often words) that we tend to qualify as music.
Finding a definition for music is challenging, though. It seems to slip away as we try to grasp it too closely, and has for thousands of years. Not all cultures even have a word for it. Indeed, trying to put into words what music is may be nigh impossible because of its very nature: diverse, multifaceted, and ultimately intangible.
In order to understand its prominence in our lives, it may be more fruitful to consider what music does. To make my point I would like to argue that music primarily serves as people’s Global Positioning System (GPS), an essential tool to define ourselves and our place in our environment. Let’s consider this proposition:
As children we learn from our parents, interact with our peers, express our creativity, comfort ourselves, and start to make sense of the world through music. As teenagers we emphatically seek to construct our identity through our individual or collective choice of music (often to the horror of our parents’ finely-tuned ears).
Every new generation seems to invent a new genre to achieve this: from the sensuality of crooning to the anarchy of punk to the sexism of much rap.
As lovers we try to lure future mates (I Want to Hold Your Hand), celebrate our conquests (Tonight I’m Loving You), bitterly condemn (I Will Survive) or beweep (Without You) passions lost. Much music across genres with broad appeal is based on intensity and turmoil, from blues to country music to Italian opera.
Remarkably, we rarely sing about the extended calm joy of stable relationships, although The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four comes close.
We also use music to establish and celebrate links with our families, our ancestors, and our communities, as in much African music. We mark our ties to our country, in ways that range from national anthems to Aboriginal song. We use music to connect with our favourite places: spiritually, emotionally, or playfully.
We embrace our friends and allies through song and criticise those who we feel do wrong, at a personal level, or in more general terms through protest songs. We use music to dispel fear from early childhood, and try to scare our enemies, on the battlefield (Turkish military music is an impressive example) or in the football stadium (We are the Champions).
We use music to connect with the divine or the spiritual, whether as a shaman invoking healing spirits, Bach calling out to Jesus Christ, or Janis Joplin pleading: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”.
We all have music we hold very dear. It allows us to withdraw, go on journeys, feel intense emotions: very real in some sense, but at the same time delivered wondrously free from the actual grief, torment, or suffering it may refer to.
Even the most self-avowedly “unmusical” among us treasure their music collection. Many who don’t read or play music will claim a lack of musical sense or distinction (especially in the West). Yet, offer to exchange their CDs or MP3s with a random other collection of equal size and they will be up in arms.
The music we choose allows us to celebrate our humanness in the intimacy of our headphones or the exuberance of the Last Night of the Proms. It nurtures us as individuals, as members of communities, as inhabitants of this planet.
In political debates, we are often told we need stronger economies, infrastructure, borders, education, and health care. All those are worthwhile. But in the complexities of the 21st century, it is perfectly possible to feel completely lost with all of these in place. That is where the arts come in, as a place to reflect who and where we are.
Let’s get engaged
We know of no great civilisation that did not have a thriving arts scene. In fact, we tend to remember great artists more than influential politicians or successful business people of any era. In addition to its own substantial economic value, music has the power to provide a sense of belonging and connection to others, and through that feed into sustainable development.