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Where does music come from? Is it a mere luxury, a mathematical play of intervals or our vital instinct? | Photo: William White (Unsplash)
Where does music come from? Is it a mere luxury, a mathematical play of intervals or our vital instinct? | Photo: William White (Unsplash)
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Music is Not Rocket Science #1: Universal Instinct

What do you think, would aliens be able to enjoy and, more importantly, emotionally relate to Bach's preludes played by piano virtuoso Glenn Gould? In 1977, NASA's avid space scientists thought so as they sent two identical golden gramophone records into space on the Voyager 1 and 2, containing sounds and images that captured the diversity of life and culture on Earth. This content was intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form that might find them in the same way that a castaway finds a message in a bottle. It's quite amusing to imagine little green men or purple octopuses expertly rubbing their chins while listening to classical music... What do you think, is music just a purely human thing? Is there such a thing as a universal musical instinct? And how do we view the role of music in our society?

Isn't it fascinating that this complex mix of acoustic frequencies and amplitudes makes sense to us and can make us happy or move us to tears? Our brains are incredibly busy when we listen to music. It evaluates, filters, sorts and predicts – all with remarkable automation and the power of the subconscious. Music cannot be easily defined or fitted into a scientific theory. It is a totally unique blend of art and science, logic and emotion or physical laws and psychology.

So let's look at the three most common definitions of music and its role in society.

1. Music as a drug

In his book How the Mind Works (1997), Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker says: "Compared with language, vision, social reasoning and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once."

In his next statement, he compares music to cheesecake – it is nothing more than a pleasant by-product of the processes of evolutionary selection that is not necessary for human survival or reproduction. Naturally, this view of music has caused a storm of discontent. After all, music cannot be superfluous in human culture. Outrageous, Bach does not belong to the same category as a muffin or a shot of whiskey!

However, Pinker doesn't think we should measure the value of music by its usefulness for human evolution and survival. Literature is "worthless" in that sense anyway (my heart bleeds just typing that), because despite its undeniable practical benefits (storing complex information and stories), it's a few centuries old invention, and that's too short a time in the context of all human evolution. Homo Erectus was running around for 1.5 million years, and all he accomplished in that enormously long time was to learn to walk on two legs. Literature or counterpoint were totally beyond him.

Critics of the notion of music as mere pleasure most often argue that without the cultivating effect of music (and art in general), we would not be able to fully communicate emotions and ideas. A child brought up in an environment without music (without art) would still be capable of social interaction, but their development would be very limited. They would become a Homo Erectus who can walk on two legs and no longer climbs trees, but you wouldn't have much of a chat with them. And via this argument, we are getting to the second camp, the music snobs.

2. Music as a luxury good

This classic concept of music as something exclusive, intended for the enrichment of human life, can be found in the work of the Greek philosopher Plato. Here, music serves as a gateway to higher consciousness, a means of fulfilling one's intellectual and emotional potential. Plato sees the power of music in its ability to communicate emotions. In his Socratic dialogues, Republic, he toys with the idea that the listener can recognise all kinds of emotions, such as sobriety, courage, freedom, nobility and all their related and opposite manifestations.

When someone listens to music, they tune into its emotional wave and get in sync with it. Good (quality) music can thus not only move the listener but move him to a good and ordered emotional state. On the other hand, bad (low-quality) music, can have the opposite effect by having an insufficient or too strong impact. It may even move the listener towards weakness and evil.

Doesn't this view remind you of generational fights on music forums? Fans of "quality" musical styles (most often prog, classical or jazz) turn up their noses at the primitiveness, vulgarity and lack of invention of popular music or trends. This understanding of music as a higher principle is coupled with snobbery and an elitist approach when it comes to evaluating what is good or bad music. This only results in conflicts, unnecessary prejudices or sometimes even restrictions on creative freedom.

3. Music as instinct

Here we have no choice. Music is neither a cheesecake nor a cultural religion. Music is simply a product of human intelligence, it is in our blood, it is our instinct. We cannot imagine a human community without music, because it is impossible. We live with music because it is part of us, just like the need to breathe, see, hear or smell. The Roman philosopher Boethius knew this as early as the sixth century when he said that "music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it – even if we so desired."

Just as we don't eat just because we're hungry, but also because we're craving something good, ironically, music doesn't just exist for our entertainment. It may sound strange, but the pleasure derived from listening to or making music is not a cause but a consequence of the process. Our musical instinct will always find a way out, and if we enjoy ourselves in the process, that's only good. We can't escape it anyway.

Personally, I find this extremely liberating. I don't have to evaluate or compare a metal riff with a bebop solo or decide whether complex music is more artistically valuable than simple tunes in folk or pop. Dividing people into the talented ones, the less talented, and the complete morons limits musical education. There's no need to be ashamed of not being able to sing even "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" (the interval of perfect fifths) in tune for the first time, or read music or slap on the bass right away. If you refer to yourself as "not musical", it means you are "not alive", because as you now know, music is your instinct, an integral part of your personality. So don't be afraid to awaken it and discover what's inside you.

Sources: Philip Ball: The Music Instinct (2011), Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works (1997), Plato: Republic

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Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.