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Life’s Music and Music’s Life

Posted on 26 April 2013

By Richard Gambino

In May 2012, scientists dated the oldest musical instruments ever found — flutes carved from bird bone and mammoth tusk — in a cave in southern Germany as being from 40,000 to 45,000 years old. People in every civilization, past and present, made or makes and appreciates music. I watch folks who eagerly come to pop, folk, jazz and classical music concerts on the East End — a nice number and variety of concerts from spring to autumn — and it’s clear they are moved, as I am, when the music is good.

But what is this being “moved,” and what does it say about us? What has evolutionary natural selection developed in us that accounts for music being so important that we spend so much time listening to it and spend so much money on concerts and recordings? Is music only a trivial artificial phenomenon — “auditory cheesecake” as Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker terms it? Or is it something natural and essential to our lives? I “go nuts” when deprived of good music, but I don’t go nuts from not eating cheesecake. And Neanderthals did not make music and went extinct some 30,000 years ago, suggesting the possibility that music gave our species some important survival advantages.

Some have speculated that music’s evolutionary advantage for our ancestors was to bring numbers of them into a larger social life — larger groups of humans being better able to survive and flourish vis a vis the challenges presented by nature, and by groups of other humans. But this begs the question of why humans enjoyed (and enjoy) music and so gathered (and gather) in groups to hear it.

I believe good music is a creative distillation of the tones and moods, melodies and harmonies, tempos and rhythms (and the varieties, degrees, tensions and contrasts within all of these) we experience (solo and in groups) as life, translated into intense, concentrated inventions of imagination so powerful that they touch the life force deep in us and move our human spirit(s) as jolts of electricity move our bodies. Paradoxically, this most abstract of all the arts, music, moves us more than all others — people do not move their bodies, not to mention their souls, by dancing, tapping their feet, swaying, humming, singing, etc, to painting or sculpture, or even to poetry, except to the extent that some poems contain rhythms, tempos, tones and other musical characteristics. In fact, I believe sometime Sag Harbor resident Billy Joel was on to something when he said, music “is an explosive expression of humanity.”

Music gives us as individuals and in groups the survival advantage of a way to deal with stresses. It also takes us through human experiences, joyful, sad, exhilarating, fast, slow, etc, to gain from the experience. (A process called “catharsis.”) But it does far more. Music also helps us, and indeed sometimes drives us, to reorganize, revitalize, re-energize, develop, and evolve the power deep in us not only to deal with life but also to thrive in the face of all of life’s challenges, and thus to grow into greater beings.  Attempts at music that fail in all this we call “bad,” “boring,” “dull” music. And, as with life’s energy in general, music can be wasted on junk, e.g., lifeless music, or perversely channeled, e.g., into misogyny in some rap music, or into much worse, e.g., the Nazi German anthem, “The Horst-Wessel Song.”

Music’s ability to renew us, revitalize us, and to drive our growth is, I believe, a great advantage given to us through natural selection — i.e., music developed in us an ability to create in ourselves great positive organized force to live and to thrive as human beings.

So, to paraphrase Shakespeare, if music be the food of life, play on!


RICHARD GAMBINO salutes conductor Riccardo Muti who this month brought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to a Chicago jail for 12 to 18 year old males, where attempted suicides are almost daily occurrences. The orchestra played Bach and Beethoven, and then its musicians helped the young inmates compose rap music about their lives. 

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