I love music. I have more than 500 CDs of Dave Matthews Band concerts, and I have vivid memories of specific moments in my life listening to them. For example, I remember listening to the long buildup of “Seek Up” in June 2004, while driving to a dinner event at the church I was working at in Chattanooga. It is burned into my memory as if it were yesterday.
Many of us have similar memories. When we think about favorite music—whether classical or country, Beethoven or Bono—we have memories and associations that touch on the deepest emotions and experiences of life.
Recently I wondered: Why? As someone who studies theology, I’m interested in the philosophy of music. What does music mean? Is it merely pleasant—“auditory cheesecake,” as Steven Pinker puts it—or does it actually have a significance that corresponds to its effect on us?
As a thought experiment, here are two different ways to answer this question.
1. In a nihilistic worldview, music is like an opiate to a dying man.
Neuroscientists note that music accesses the same parts of the brain as sex, food, and addictive drugs. At the same time, they recognize that there is no obvious evolutionary basis for our enjoyment of music (as there conceivably is, for instance, with food, sex, and sleep). It’s not clear how music could help our ancestors survive. So, from an evolutionary standpoint, why do we like it?
One of the most popular theories on the market says it’s all about anticipation: the brain expects what is coming next, and gets dopamine when it’s right. In other words, it’s about pattern recognition. Another hypothesis is that music mirrors speech, and thus essentially fools our brains into reacting the way we react to speech (in which we often mirror the emotions of the person speaking). These ways of trying to explain music all approach it as essentially what Stephen Jay Gould called an “evolutionary spandrel”—something not directly the result of an adaptive process, but rather its byproduct. It’s a kind of “spin off” of evolution. In other words: it’s an accident.
Most of us find these explanations deeply unsatisfying, even if they tell part of the story. Just listen to this and try to imagine: I only like this because it helped animals survive. If the tides had rolled in differently, I might not like it.
Beautiful music like this communicates a sense of transcendence and significance. Music whispers, I mean something. I am telling you about something Profound and Beautiful. But meaning and transcendence are, of course, precisely what a nihilistic worldview disallows. Thus, when nihilism is confronted by the power conveyed through, say, the work of Hans Zimmer, it must ultimately interpret this experience as illusory.
If reality is blind and indifferent, and human life is ultimately meaningless and insignificant, then music is, in a way, deceiving you. It is like an opiate: its value is numbing you, directing you away from reality.
2. If a Trinity spawned the world, music is like a window to a man in a cellar.
One way to define music is an organized combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm. But surely this can’t encapsulate all music means, any more than love simply means chemicals in the brain, or time means the noises of a clock. What is the essence of music?
If a triune God created the world as a work of art—not out of necessity, but out of love and freedom—then music can be understood, along with everything beautiful in the world, as a faint reflection of the pre-temporal glory of God. It is a tiny echo of what was happening before time and space. What rhythm and harmony are trying to do, however imperfectly, is trace out something of that love and joy that has been forever pulsating between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What rhythm and harmony are trying to do, however imperfectly, is trace out something of that love and joy that has been forever pulsating between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Viewed in this way, music is not a distraction away from reality, but rather a clue toward it. It is not like an opiate to a man on his deathbed, but like a window to a man in a cellar—a light shining into the darkness, revealing something beyond. In this respect I associate music with art, reason, and sex. They are like little windows through which transcendence touches our lives, whispering to us of a world we have never dreamed.
Something of this worldview is implicit in Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous quip: “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” This is an eloquent way of expressing a non-physicalist view of music. It’s more than the notes. It’s something God is doing through the notes.
Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lyres, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.
What effects the transition from the “Void” to a state of “not void” is, basically, harmony. And Tolkien portrays the intrusion of evil as a kind of discord and monotonous unity, with Melkor’s desire for self-glory producing a “clamorous unison as of many trumpets braving upon a few notes.”
What does all this mean? Perhaps not that music proves God (though that may also be true, for all I know—smarter philosophers than I, like this one or this one, have used aesthetic considerations to further theism). What I am saying is more like this: If you believe in God, you have a framework for enjoying music that is more satisfying to heart and mind, and more authentic to the actual experience of that enjoyment.
If you believe in God, you have a framework for enjoying music that is more satisfying to heart and mind, and more authentic to the actual experience of that enjoyment.
So imagine that man in the cellar. It’s dark. Stuffy. He has no clue what the outside world is like. He has never seen redwood trees soaring into the sky, or thundering cascading waterfalls, or the night sky lit up with stars. He knows nothing of this. But he can look up and see the light pouring in through the window, and sense that there “must be something more.”
What if music, and the nostalgic stab of longing it provokes, is like that window? What if we are the man in the cellar?