OK history buffs, here’s a question for you:


Q- Why was (ancient Greek philosopher) Socrates put to death by his fellow Athenians?

A- Because he was “corrupting Athens’ youth population”. Or so the verdict said.

To be sure: history’s most phenomenally lame verdict! But if the word “corrupting” evokes debauchery, apparently this wasn’t quite the case. Rather, Socrates was put to death because he promoted the (unabashed) pursuit of rational thought as the highest goal in life for men!

From our standpoint, being put to death for asking tough questions is totally incomprehensible. But as historians now know, Socrates was working hard at uncovering some of the deepest taboos of his society. Indeed, his whole raison-d’être was to undermine received ancestral wisdom, to shine the light (of reason, knowledge) on what had been until then venerated as a deep, dark and hallowed mystery (that is, the who-what-when-where-why-and-how’s of life, the universe and everything).

don’t spoil the magic, man!

Now, speaking of deep, dark and venerated mysteries: as musicians and/or lovers of music, have you ever had “a Socrates moment” with regards to this creature we call “music”? I mean, have you ever asked yourself: “Hey, what is this music thing about, anyways? Not just for me, but for everyone? What is it? And why is it so meaningful for (most of) us humans?”

Music! An experience so common to us, so much part of who we are, and yet, in those odd moments of detachment and speculation, so bizarrely indefinable, so mysteriously out of our intellectual grasping that even our most basic questions about it flounder in disgrace.

And behold! This may surprise you (as it did me), but the usual academic body of theory we employ to understand the elements and structures of music doesn’t do much in explaining what musicality is… and why it’s such a big part of who we are.

In fact, I’d even suggest that “foundational” questions about music (i.e. what is it?) are still for the most part taboo today, especially among musicians and music educators.

to love it is to know it, right?

Well, c’mon, you say: I’m not a philosopher or scientist, I’m a musician! I have lots of experience listening to and playing music, and that counts for some pretty solid knowledge of music. So what if I can’t tell you why music exists in a more general sense, or what it is as a “category of human experience”.

Fair enough. But doesn’t it bother sometimes you how flaky musicians can sound when talking about the meaning of their occupation, and how this undermines the respect that they deserve for their achievements and efforts? What I’m concerned with is how chronically sloppy thinking can garner so much respect – even authority – in the field of music, where in other fields of human endeavor it is clearly unacceptable to have such an attitude.

every breath you take, every move you make

Fortunately, there are some dedicated eggheads who’ve made their passion in solving just such a problem – the problem of this difficulty with making basic assumptions on the nature of music.

Ever heard of “music science”? New Zealand author Philip Dorrell has spent the last twenty years crafting a scientific theory of music, working within the framework of our biological origins and purpose.

Aside from his theory – and most satisfying to me – Dorrell has also taken stock of the many ways in which we’ve avoided trying to answer basic questions about music. In so doing, in my view, he’s shed some well-needed light on our phobia of “over-intellectualizing” music.

five ways to skin a cat

Dorrell has outlined the five ways we have typically “answered” the question “what is music?”. Here’s a summary of his analysis:

1. “… don’t know, don’t care!”

Similar to the layman’s approach to the question of consciousness. We all “know” what consciousness is, but can’t explain it… nor necessarily care to. This is the “it’s a given” mentality – or approach – to knowledge, where experiencing something precludes the need to explain or understand it.

2. music theory

When you learn music, you learn what it’s made of: rhythm, pitch, notes, melody, harmony, chords. Concepts from the science of acoustics – timbre, frequency, amplitude, etc. – are also now part of this traditional body of knowledge. Caveat: Dorrell points out that music theory describes music very well, but it doesn’t explain it, i.e. tell us what it’s for.

3. subjective experience

The “In my opinion…” school of educated guesswork. You can try this out with friends using the “sampling test”: prepare a cross-selection of musical recordings for listening, with an emphasis on variety. Upon listening to each track, simply ask the question: “Is this music? How so?”

Though this exercise won’t get you any clarity on the nature of music, it will show you that music has everything to do with what we value… and abhor.

(Btw found an entertaining example of such headache-inducing debates in the comments section (see esp. the comments by ‘indigencia’ et. al. on pages 10-14) of this YouTube video. So much of this stuff on YouTube, ugh…)

4. poetic invention

For those who like one-liners, this is your bus stop. Indeed, science can be so demanding and tedious that many people prefer resorting to insightful zingers in lieu of systematic hypothesis-hatching.

5. scientific examination

Another surprise for me: the extreme fragmentation of all existing scientific approaches to music. Dorrell cites some of the most popular scientific explanations of music, as examples of this:

  • It helps members of a society bond with each other.
  • Men use it to attract women (or vice-versa).
  • It evolved either from or into language.
  • It has something to do with how mothers interact with their children.

Dorrell is quick to point out that none of the above hypotheses do much in explaining “what makes music so musical for people” – and I’d have to agree once more.

nothing is as practical as a good theory

What to do about this state of affairs? Is learning the art and craft of music sufficient in itself to guide our understanding? Or, as Dorrell suggests, we could at least try to investigate what has prevented us from making valid assumptions about the origins and nature of music, to see if some satisfying answers emerge from this exercise?

Though I am unsure as of yet if I agree with Dorrell’s own assumptions (and therefore, his research conclusions), I must say at least that I pretty much agree with his assessment of our strange habit of mystification towards all things musical.

And finally, beyond the need for useful theories, I also believe that so long as we’re openly exploring what music is for, we’re approaching music in a grounded fashion, tying in our experience of music with our need for purpose in life.

One thought on “that no-good, stupid mystery we call music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *