Thank You for the Music Why do we love music so much? And what role does it play in our lives?

Read more Last updated: September 2020
In collection Music
Reading duration: 8 minutes

British author Julie Reid explores the emotional benefits of a playlist.

The purpose of music

The neuroscientist and writer Dr. Oliver Sacks opens his book Musicophilia with a reference to another book – Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End.

The Overlords, a group of highly cerebral aliens, visit Earth for a concert but find it completely unintelligible. Dr. Sacks paraphrases the Overlords’ perspective:

‘What an odd thing it is to see an entire species – billions of people – playing, listening to meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call “music”.’ When looked at objectively – dispassionately, scientifically – this thing that is central to many of our lives is meaningless from a biological or evolutionary standpoint.

Darwin himself wondered about the purpose of music, writing in The Descent of Man: ‘As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man...they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed.’

Thankfully, we don’t only look at things objectively, dispassionately and scientifically.

The joy of music

We enjoy music for the pleasure of listening to it. For the satisfaction we take in learning how to play it. And – perhaps most universally – for the way it makes us feel.

‘The inexpressible depth of music,’ Schopenhauer wrote, ‘so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.’

Most of us have those favourite songs or albums that we reach for when we are performing certain tasks. We play music with a strong beat and quick pace when setting out for a run or a high-energy training session at the gym. The music connecting with our bodies subconsciously, moving us forward as it goes, giving proof to Nietzsche’s assertion that ‘we listen to music with our muscles’.

We may have a certain playlist for when we have to drive long distances. Something big and expansive, mirroring the countryside we’re driving through, sparking feelings of adventure and excitement. And when we’re feeling a bit low, we may reach for those songs that help us find a place to put our loss, our regret, our grief. Music can create a safe space to experience the emotions that might overwhelm ‘in real life’.

Fortunately, music can also – almost always – pull us out of this hole again, and we soon find ourselves moving our minds and bodies along to a happier place, humming along with the melody.

‘After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.‘

Aldous Huxley

A vital part of life

Music has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. It's always there; sometimes it seems I can't escape it even if I wanted to! It's in the shops as I'm trying on clothes, it's used as mood music at the coffee shop or in restaurants. And I've worked at trendy digital agencies where the music is playing all day – so loud you have to go to a different room to take a call.

When something is constant, it can be easy to take it for granted. But for people with hearing loss – when the music stops – they feel its loss keenly. I was curious to hear from a few who had experienced this.

What happens when the music stops?

Laima lost her hearing due to encephalitis as an adult, after years of studying and playing music. 'It was the hardest period of my life. I was in complete silence. At that time, I could not even cry because all the pain gripped my throat, and to be honest, I was just afraid to cry. I was afraid that I would fall apart.

'I asked the doctor, with the greatest hope and faith, whether I would ever be able to play and hear music. Unfortunately, the doctor’s verdict was that I would never hear music again. It was really hard to take this news...'

As she recovered, Laima researched her options, looking for a way to return to music. She learned about cochlear implants – a small electronic implant designed to mimic the functions of a human ear – and decided it was right for her. After she received implants in both ears, she was able to hear music again, playing piano onstage at a festival and finding a job as a piano teacher.

'Music means everything to me,' she said. 'It’s connected to experiences in my life, it’s my good and bad emotions, the joyful and sad times I’ve had.'

Although it was not certain for Laima that she would ever be able to listen to music again, she made her passion even her job - as a piano teacher.

Bring back the music!

Two other people who have used cochlear implants to recover lost music were Ilan and Mary-Beth and they shared the intensity of feeling that Laima had as the music came back into their lives.

Ilan, a New Yorker who retired from a career in law and business, was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type II (NF2), which causes benign tumours throughout the body and affects the auditory nerves. He went deaf in one ear and gave up listening to music altogether out of frustration over how it sounded, ‘blurry and mushy’. The cochlear implant restored the richness of sound.

'As soon as I started to listen to music, I was carried away with emotion and cried because it was the first time in several years that I could enjoy music to the same degree as before I went deaf in one ear! It was so beautiful: I could now hear specific instruments and notes, and over time I could once again appreciate the complexity and colour of music.'

Thanks to his cochlear implants Ilan can now enjoy music again.

Mary-Beth had progressive hearing loss since she was a teenager, the world getting quieter and quieter. She realised 'the music had truly disappeared from my life’ as she sat at a friend’s wedding, watching people dance to music she couldn’t hear.

After receiving her cochlear implants, she was able to hear music and even picked up the piano again, which she’d enjoyed playing as a girl.

'One of the greatest gifts of this new hearing is the return of music to my life. Waking up with a song in my head is such a wonderful way to start the day. Listening to music that gives me goose bumps makes me so thankful to once again enjoy the powerful emotions of music.'

Mary-Beth has even rediscovered her former passion. As a child she loved to play the piano.

Music, an emotional mirror

When I first moved from America to England, I discovered a long-running radio programme called Desert Island Discs. A notable person – celebrities, politicians, scientists, artists, writers, and the like – joined a host to share the 8 musical tracks they would take with them if cast away to a desert island. They also choose a book and luxury item, but it’s the music that takes centre stage.

The tracks people choose reveal something of their personality, the way they experience and interpret life and the emotional state of mind they inhabit. So many of the songs chart the course of their life, starting with the music they remember from childhood and then acting as signposts – auditory memories – of significant life events.

I’ve often looked at my own collection of tracks, wondering which ones I would take if I knew they would be my only company on an island, acting as the backdrop to the sands and waves and stars. What feels at first like a simple task quickly becomes almost insurmountable as I scroll through my extensive music library, reliving the memories and emotions of my favourite songs.

But the thought has been planted and I’m determined to make my selection, though it may change again as soon as this piece goes live!

‘Without music life would be a mistake.’

Friedrich Nietzsche

My Desert Island Discs:

Moon River (Audrey Hepburn): Accompanied only by a ukulele, Audrey Hepburn sitting in the window of her Manhattan apartment in Breakfast at Tiffany’s singing Moon River captures all the longing, nostalgia and hope I felt as a young woman dreaming of my own big city adventures.

Brazil (Pink Martini): One of my favourite songs from my favourite band. The song starts slowly and quietly, then builds to a full orchestra with a beat and rhythm that is infectious. Nothing can surpass the live experience of this – sharing the moment with thousands of people, connected by the music.

Georgia on my Mind (Ray Charles): This song is summer to me. Warm nights with a faint breeze, fireflies over freshly cut grass, the promise of what could be thick in the air. It has love and loss and yearning.

Where Do I Begin / Love Story (Shirley Bassey And Away Team): This remix of the great Shirley Bassey’s power ballad takes me back to the early days of my relationship with my husband, when I was first starting to believe that I’d found my own love story.

Another Day of Sun (La La Land): There is something inexplicably joyful about this song to me. No matter how blue I’m feeling, this song can put a smile on my face and next thing I know, I’m dancing around the room while the dog looks at me like I’ve gone a bit mad.

I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor): Everyone needs an anthem. This song has helped me get back on my feet after I've been knocked down, and it can always pull me onto the dance floor with my girlfriends.

Yachts (A Man Called Adam Mix): If my life were a movie, this would be my theme music. A fusion of gentle jazz and house rhythms, this music makes my day feel more expansive, glamorous and romantic than it probably is.

Happy Days Are Here Again (Barbra Streisand): This song inspires in me a defiant assertion that this moment – with whatever challenges and sadness it holds – will pass and that the blue sky will return, I will come out stronger and that happiness will return.

The Overlords may not have been able to make much sense of the music they encountered on Earth, but I’m grateful that we humans retain the ability to be moved by these ‘meaningless tonal patterns’.

For me, Plato sums it up best:

'Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.'


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