The Economist, of all possible publications, takes up a question I’ve been thinking about for years in the article Why Music? The article discusses several hypotheses regarding how and why music has emerged as an important feature of human culture. What purpose or function music had in early societies is still an open question. When you think of it, however, it should not surprise anyone that music is important to such an intelligent life-form as humans; the use of sound, singing and even dancing is quite common throughout the animal kingdom. That the modern human has developed rather abstract forms removed from the primitive uses of music and sound is neither a surprise. ‘Developed’ is a key word that I’ve not really thought much about when pondering the power of music. Maybe ‘evolved’ is a better word; given that music at some point became a central part of human culture evolution has made sure that music is ingrained deep into our genes. Simply enough, the most musically able humans have had an advantage when it comes to mating and consequently reproduction. Being musically able may also be a sign of good health, a quality one often looks for in a mate. Anyway, there seem to be a strong link between music and sex, at least in modern culture.
There is a different hypothesis, however. Music may sate an appetite that nature cannot; the (early) scarcity and luxuriousness of music lead humans to evolve a strong desire for it.
Singing is auditory masturbation […] Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.
The last section of The Economist article discusses one of the most mysterious things about music, namely its ability to manipulate our feelings. Certain sounds lead to sadness, other to joy; a feature composers and musicians have exploited for centuries. Scientists are only beginning to understand how music influence the brain and how emotions are formed. To cite the article again, “[…] many natural sounds evoke emotion for perfectly good reasons (fear at the howl of a wolf, pleasure at the sound of gently running water, irritation and mother-love at the crying of a child) […] music may be built on emotions originally evolved to respond to important natural sounds, but which have blossomed a hundred-fold.”
The article concludes, however, that nobody yet knows why people respond to music. A bit frustrating, of course, but it is also exciting that the question is open to discussion, and music may still be just magic!