One Good Thing About Music


I know I should probably be thinking more about WiFi everywhere, but sometimes I just can’t resist getting involved in apparently irrelevant philosophical discussions. And this occurred while reading Martin’s blog this morning about what makes us like music. According to Waya, we are attracted to music based on its association to something from our past. A different opinion was given by a 13 year old as being the reaction to certain hormonal stimuli. Although this is essentially a psychological versus physiological debate (or even nature vs. nurture), both are good answers and actually quite compatible. Believe it or not, the reasons why we are attracted to any given art form (and the variations thereof) and simply being attracted to anything in general is something that I often think about. Here are my impressions:

I believe there are various different reasons why we are attracted to music and different types of music. In accordance with Waya’s “nostalgic” vision of music, or what we could call the nurture view, music stimulates a memory of something that comforts us. This is similar to my view of how we are attracted to gestures, as I have written in a previous post on the subject called “Bill Clinton, Elvis, Milan Kundera, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, and my Grandmother“.

Based on Kundera’s quote that there are many gestures and few people, we are attracted by those gestures that are shared by people that we already know or have known. Thus, when we meet a new person, we often associate them with other people we know by their shared gestures, and this is done subconsciously. In this way, we psychologically and unknowingly are prejudiced in favor of those gestures that remind us of things that we loved in the past, and we reject those unpleasant ones. This often means that, despite what we believe we are attracted to, we are “turned on” by the subtlest of gestures as opposed to the more apparent physical qualities.

Thus, according to Waya’s psychological/nostalgic/nurture viewpoint, we are attracted by those sounds and combination of sounds that stimulate our association with things we love.

On the other hand, the 13 year old’s physiological view would probably postulate that there are certain sounds that inherently when heard stimulate our brains in a certain way and therefore produce hormones that give us a positive or negative reaction, or better yet, alter our mood in a particular way. Because we are generally discriminating beings with free will, we actively seek out certain music to receive the desired affect. Thus, when we want to be happy, we listen to music that we know from experience reinforces our happiness, and when we want wallow in our sadness, we listen to sad music.

Along these lines, I have a theory about why we listen to a given type of music at a given moment. This I wrote about in a post called “On Music and Somnolence” where I argue that music serves as a psychological defence mechanism to either foment our thought process or muffle it. For example, sometimes we do not like what is going on in our minds, so we put on very loud music with lots of lyrics to drown out the thoughts in our heads. We use music to avoid the stress that we are living with just like babies need sleep to avoid the stress of having received so much new stimuli during their waking hours. Other times when we are not afraid of our thoughts, we listen to music that is compatible with our thought pattern and does not cover it up. And when we want someone to do the thinking for us, say when we are depressed or broken hearted, we listen to music whose lyrics describe what we are feeling. It is like the saying that we read to know that we are not alone. In sum, music can serve the function of empathy, compassion, escapism, and also act as a catalyst or medium for thinking.

As I have said, these psychological and physiological views are not necessarily incompatible. There are many different factors that make us enjoy a particular stimulus. There is also the question of learned taste. Because certain tastes are learned, people react to stimuli differently. This is true, not just of music, but also with everything else sensory – visual arts, tastes, smells, etc. And because people are different and have different experiences and cultures, we produce different reactions to similar stimuli.

In general, I believe that the relationship between art and beauty is found in the struggle to recreate the world around us, and the more accurate the representation, the better the art. Therefore, we like music when a particular sound captures our understanding of the world around us at a given moment, either through subconscious association or hormonal stimulation. What I particularly find interesting is how we seek out music precisely to produce the desired affect – to hide from ourselves, to hide in others, or to be comfortable with ourselves. All in all, what I find so interesting about music is not what is essential in the music itself or what our biochemistry tells us about music, but what the music we are listening to tells us about who we are at any given moment.

As Bob Marley signs in “Trenchtown Rock”, “One good thing about music, when it hits you’re feeling no pain.”



Filed under Digressions

3 responses to “One Good Thing About Music

  1. Randy Bergmann

    How does your theory explain your intense interest in jazz?
    Uncle Randy

  2. eric

    Good question. I think on all fronts. I grew up with my mother’s piano playing and family history of classical music. This could be the nurture side. Jazz is also incredibly rich in diversity. So with some Jazz I am able to think and reflect. Other Jazz, such as Thelonious Monk, distracts me. While Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday are better suited for my “have someone else think for me” moods.

    Still there are two other things that I cannot quite explain. The first one is why certain tastes in music evolve over time. For example, it takes a while to appreciate say John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy and now they are my favorites. The other has nothing to do with Jazz, but rather with opera. There was a time when I was particularly fond of certain Italian arias. My two favorites were never played in the house before, but when I played them, my father told me that they were his paternal grandmother’s favorites. Coincidence? Genetic? Intra-historical? Or simply the innate quality of the music? I don’t know.

    But I do believe that your surroundings affect your appreciation of certain genres of music, especially whether you are more concerned with the quality of the musical technique, as opposed to simply the message of the musicians. And of course, as I have argued, that we seek out music to cover our immediate psychological needs. Notice that teenagers tend to be attracted to louder music as they are going through probably one of the most psychologically trying periods in life.

  3. Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, for everyone can see and few can feel. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.

    Niccolo Machiavelli

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