The Magic of Music
How can we account for the power it has?
I think it’s fair to say that music is as much an obsession of the Beyond Belief collective as the mind or spirituality is.
I’m sure you can see why. Even though modern societies are saturated by images, since these so effectively grab our attention, from the point of view of the perceiver music remains probably the most moving and personally involving art form. As is well known, some people even shape their identities around a given genre or artist: think of the circles that formed around certain classical composers in the 19th century, or of countercultural movements like the Swing Youth of the 1930s and the punks of the 1970s.
Even if not everyone goes to such extremes, music has an arguably unrivalled artistic power to awaken emotion in us, transport us to different states of mind and tap into moments or periods of our lives. For me, hearing any of the first few Oasis records instantly takes me back to the late 1990s, lying on my elder brother’s bedroom floor and reading the CD booklets to follow the (not always child-appropriate) lyrics. Even now, decades on, I can feel the texture of the carpet between my fingers just by recalling the opening chords of Acquiesce or Some Might Say.
I’m sure everyone has dozens of similar memories drawn from across their lives. So what – philosophically speaking – is going on? How can we account for the power that music has to human beings?
The philosophy of music
Image: The Music of the Spheres, pinterest.com
The great power of music was not lost on the earliest Greek philosophers. Pythagoras held music in such high esteem that he argued it was directly created by heavenly spheres, the very foundational components of the universe. Pythagoras believed that when these spheres rotated they produced the music heard in scales and harmonies (hence the ‘music of the spheres’). About 150 years after Pythagoras, Plato – arguably the greatest of the Greek philosophers – argued that music could either lift or corrupt our souls by drawing us toward virtue or vice and gave it a place in his theory of moral education for that reason.
Perhaps the philosopher who has taken music most seriously, however, is Friedrich Nietzsche. At one time a member of Richard Wagner’s inner circle, Nietzsche argued in his early work that music could serve as the perfect expression of both the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of human nature. According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian dimension is our need for order, reason, and balance, whereas the Dionysian is our desire for ecstasy, intoxication, and tragedy.
In great music, Nietzsche thought, these two sides of our psyche came into a productive tension: Apollonian structure making Dionysian emotions bearable. He even went so far as to say that great music could compensate for the harsh truths of existence. “Without music” - Nietzsche said – “life would be a mistake”.
In different ways all of these thinkers connect music to reality: they offer what we might call metaphysical interpretations of music, arguing that it either reflects or can lead us to, (what they regarded as) the real world underlying the world that we directly experience.
There is a huge power in their theories. The one disadvantage of interpretating music in this way, however, is that we might not share Pythagoras’ or Nietzsche's understanding of reality. If that’s the case, then – however admirable their advocacy of music – Pythagoras or Nietzsche’s interpretations are necessarily less convincing.
So what alternatives that anyone could accept are available?
Music as atmosphere
A less grand but perhaps more persuasive account of the power of music is to understand it as something that unfolds in the connection of self and world. What I mean by this is that, when we try to locate the effect music has on us, it appears to be neither fully ‘out there’ in the objective world of sound, nor entirely ‘in here’ in the mind. The force of a musical performance can’t be reduced to the piece’s formal qualities of pitch, tempo, rhythm, or even harmony.
These are insufficient in and of themselves, as we all know from musical performances that meet these basic requirements but are nevertheless emotionally lacking. Equally, the fact that people’s reactions to a piece of music often cohere suggests that the power music has over us is not entirely subjective, at least in an arbitrary sense.
Instead, we could understand the force of music as its ability to generate atmospheres. An atmosphere, understood in this sense, is not an objective or subjective phenomenon, but rather part of the way human beings encounter and live in the world. It’s the feeling or vibe something has for us – one that is based on certain things in the world, to the extent that it can even seem as though the atmosphere is part of those things, but in fact, it only unfolds for the people who are there to experience it.
Put another way, we could say that music uses pitch, tempo, volume, harmony, and various other sonic qualities to create atmospheres for us. It opens up a dimension of experience that goes beyond basic aural qualities – which are quantifiable parts of the objective world – and extends to a space of vibe, meaning, even magic.
Awakening the spirit
To illustrate this idea allow me another personal reflection, on one of my favourite bands.
Earlier on I mentioned that music was as much a focus for Beyond Belief as the mind or spirituality. Sometimes, of course, it’s possible for these topics to coincide, as when a piece of music is written to bring about a spiritual experience or state of mind.
While many musicians from different world traditions have mastered this ability, for me the modern band that has been best able to do so is the German progressive rock collective Popol Vuh. The group generally used standard rock music instrumentation – guitars, drums, piano, synthesizers, and so on – but sought to infuse their compositions with a religious sensibility by drawing on musical structures and modes typically found in Asia. The aim, according to band leader Florian Fricke, was to fuse aspects of Western and Eastern culture in the pursuit of global spirituality.
While it’s difficult to pick a single song that best meets this lofty ambition, if pressed I might select Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts from their 1978 album of the same name. Over the course of nearly twenty minutes, the listener is taken from minor key Gregorian-style chanting, through to a major key oboe-led section, before Fricke’s piano settles into a raga-like melody played over and over with little variation until the culmination of the piece.
The effect is almost trance-inducing, the atmosphere conjured transcendent. To be sure, any description of music will at some point bleed into the strictly subjective, and for me, Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts never fails to evoke images of the Indian subcontinent and Himalayas in particular. Even if this is only my personal response, the feeling or vibe of the piece is unmistakable. It is an attempt, as Fricke said, to create “meditative music” that “corresponds to Western thinking”, so that “when someone listens to the music they are elevated by it”.
This is perhaps one of the noblest aims a musician can have: creating a piece of music that conjures an atmosphere of spiritual awakening and elation. Even if this atmosphere is not there in the formal qualities of the music, but rather a dimension of our encounter with it, it is no less forceful, or real, for all that.