The Agony and Joy of Music.

I went out last night to see three of my friends play a show.  I don’t get out to shows much these days… I’ve just got too much to do… but attendance seemed compulsory last night.

I have very talented and brilliant friends.  They play music that can reach inside of you, pull your guts out, and put you together as a new creature.  I love music in general… I don’t remember a time when I didn’t.  I took piano, violin, and guitar lessons as a child, both because my parents expected musicality of their very gifted children, and because I desperately wanted to be musical.  Alas, there is no music for me but that produced by other, much more talented people… that’s fine, though.  The writhing masses of humanity have provided themselves with such a banquet of music.

Music is a thing that we human animals never tire of.  We have taken some relatively basic (but extremely moving and provocative) ancient forms and built them into almost infinite variety.  We have an innate love of music, and music does things to our brain that nothing else can really do.

Music, to me, is one of the most effective ways that we have of transmitting emotion.  I don’t mean expressing or communicating emotion, although music does that too, but music done well can make you actually feel things.  Angry things, sad things, joyous things, and sweet things.  It builds bonds of community and eases the slow sting of being alone.  It touches us in parts of our brain that prose and even poetry don’t reach… it hearkens back to times when we huddled together in caves, terrified of what lurked in the night.  When it ends, the effects stay with us, sometimes for days. In music, we live out the entirety of human history and are reborn.

No other animal connects with music on the same way that we do.  Other animals can create rhythm, for instance, and some animals can entrain rhythm, but we are the only animal that science knows of that can both create and entrain rhythm.  Some primates have used beaten rhythms to communicate with one another over long distances, and this behavior in our distant cousins may give us a clue as to where and how we were granted our enjoyment of rhythm and our unique capacity for it.  The human brain can detect a difference in rhythm of the same duration as a dragonfly’s wingbeat.  You may not notice it, but your brain does, and it’s why music played by a human musician and music created through a computer sound subtly different to us.  What’s more, we need those “imperfections” in the rhythm… it brings warmth and humanity to the experience.

Musical rhythm and linguistic rhythm light up some of the same parts of our brain.  This is a fact which led some to believe that the human love of rhythm and music sprang from speech, but Darwin thought it likely that music came from a much more ancient part of the brain, that before we possessed the ability to speak, that our ancestors would communicate through vocal tones and beaten rhythms, much like some modern primates do, and that our ability to speak grew from that.  The fact that music also stimulates the parts of the brain that deal with reward and pleasure, the same as food, drugs, and sex, also hints at more ancient origins… these systems encourage behavior that increase the likelihood of survival and procreation and as social mammals, anything that strengthens social bonds would increase an individual’s chances of survival and thus likelihood of procreation.  Even more so if our pre-human ancestors used vocal tones and/or rhythm to charm a mate.  Perhaps at one point in our history, the best singers were naturally selected for procreation.

Isn’t that a lovely thought?

Especially when you consider the fact that until recently, in fact as recently as musical traditions in the Appalachian mountains, singing was for the most part a male pursuit?

I admit to loving the sound of a man singing, and even among female singers, I tend to prefer low, smokey voices.

If only singing were still an expected component of human courtship.

If you’re interested, you can see my friend Sarah making beautiful, beautiful music here, and here’s Pete Irving… fine set of pipes on that boy.

I am very lucky.



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