“If we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements.” So wrote Edward Bellamy in his 1888 utopian novel “Looking Backwards : 2000 - 1987”.


His wish for unlimited and instantly available music has certainly come to pass, but it has hardly brought about universal happiness. Perhaps music is not as important to human beings as Bellamy thought. Yet he has hardly been alone in attributing an almost divine aspect to music. “Without music” said Friedrich Nietzsche “life would be an error.” Joseph Addison concurred


“Music, the greatest good that mortals know,

And all of heaven we have below.”


Part of the reason music inspires such ecstatic praise is its inherent mysteriousness. Words are for expressing thoughts and pictures for representing things. But why does man make music? What purpose does it serve?


To Geoffrey Miller, author of “The Mating Mind”, making music is an adaptive behaviour facilitating sexual selection - men make music to attract women. “It is universal across cultures, and kids are motivated spontaneously to learn how to play music around puberty”. In a recent jazz study he found that male performers outnumbered females ten to one and their peak age was 30. Musical talent, he says, can indicate many covetable qualities in a mate: the mental competence to learn notes and lyrics, the social intelligence required to co-operate with an orchestra, creativity and energy. He may be right, for popular musicians attract more young females than any other group of men.


However Steven Pinker disagrees with Miller. In “How the Mind Works” he says “Music shows the clearest signs of not being an adaptation”. To him it is essentially “auditory cheesecake”, a confection of sounds put together to tickle faculties that our brains already possess. “Compared with language, vision, social reasoning and physical knowhow, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” He too has a point. For music teaches us nothing about the human experience. Who ever learned anything from music except the emotional power of music?


Well you pays your money and you takes your choice. But one thing is certain, music is not a uniquely human expression. Researchers have found that whales, birds and humans all sing in much the same way. Humpback whales, for example, use rhythms similar to those used by humans, mixing percussive sounds with pure tones in the same proportion as western symphonic music. And like humans, whales use variations on basic themes to create longer songs that contain repeated refrains. Birds are said to use every fundamental rhythmic effect found in human music. Some birds even use “instruments” to produce sounds that are not possible vocally. The palm cockatoo of Northern Australia shapes a drumstick from a twig and beats out rhythms on hollow logs as part of its courtship ritual.


Birds, whales and humans also share the ability to memorise and learn musical patterns. These patterns may be handed down from generation to generation, or individuals from the same generation can learn from each other. To some these marked similarities suggest that the three types of animal may share a common evolutionary musical ancestor and that music has a more ancient origin than language. This could explain why we find so much meaning and emotion in music, even though we cannot say why it makes us feel the way it does. As Thomas Carlyle once asked “Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us?”


Some claim music is the universal language. But to the western ear Arabic or Chinese or Hindu music is as incomprehensible as their languages, and vice versa. Even the western musical world is divided into the popular, jazz, classical and other sub-universes which themselves splinter into finer spheres like country and rap, bebop and dixieland, and opera and symphonic. How many people listen regularly to both Mahler and Bounty Killer?


One of the biggest and most intriguing musical divides is that between vocal and instrumental music. The human voice is undoubtedly our oldest musical instrument and remains the most natural and universal. Which is probably why vocal music has an immediate visceral impact that pure instrumentals lack and is much more popular. We all sing, if only in the shower, but few of us can play the guitar or violin. And while sung words can have a definable meaning, instruments alone can only create moods.


Yet while the mass of men prefer sung music, instrumental music can be refined to a greater degree and tends to more easily transcend time. Though in their eras they were admired only by an elite minority, the instrumental music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven has outlived nearly all the works of their more popular vocal rivals. (Though of course Mozart was uniquely great in both areas.) Perhaps the same might happen with persons like Miles Davis and John Coltrane.


Someone once said that vocal music is melody and attracts the heart, while instrumental music is harmony and appeals to the mind. This is undoubtedly an overgeneralization, but there may be something to it. Instrumental music simply does not have the immediate force as that which is sung. Yet often it is those very songs that move us to spontaneous laughter and tears that we tire most quickly of. Ideally of course we should be moved intensely on all levels. But perhaps this tradeoff between visceral and intellectual appeal is unavoidable. Maybe in music - as in every other human sphere - we can’t have it all.


Yet there is one maker of supremely emotional music for the voice whose work has remained popular worldwide for over one hundred and fifty years. He is the great Guisseppe Verdi, undoubtedly the most popular and likely the greatest vocal composer of all time. For opera is the most lasting vocal music yet known to man, and Verdi is by common consent its pre-eminent creator.


No composer for the human voice has ever been so popular in so many lands for so long. No one has ever expressed human emotions so convincingly in music. And no more beautiful vocal works than his Nabucco chorus and Rigoletto quartet exist. January 27, 2001 was the 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death, but his music will live as long as men sing. Viva il Maestro!

Comments (0)

Post a Comment
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
(not publicly displayed)
Reply Notification:
Approval Notification:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image:
* Message: