Why Music Matters

Sunday, November 8, 2009
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 13, 2008

What Is It

There is something deeply mysterious about music. Why does it affect us so powerfully? Is it like a language, telling us something? A subtle form of communication? Are there universal interpretations of the emotions that various pieces of music expresses? Or does one need to be part of a music "community" in order to appreciate musical expression? John and Ken explore how music matters with musician and founding member of the Kronos Quartet David Harrington, in a program recorded live at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco.

Listening Notes

Throughout the program, our hosts and guest struggle to analyze the importance of something that persistently evades definition.  John speculates that perhaps any sound can be music, if it is presented in the proper context.  And surprisingly enough, our expert, David Harrington, to some extent, agrees with him.  He believes that music is completely personal, thus making any classification or evaluation of music completely subjective.  For him, music, good music, is whatever sound or note he finds magnetizing.  Whatever compells him.  Ken, John, and members of the audience voice challenges to this view.

Ken cites the fact that individual musical works can convey definite emotions, touching upon the mysterious conection between music and cognition.  Nobody, he tells us, can come away from the haunting, dissonant soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream thinking it was a happy piece.  If we can't have an objective standard of music-hood, how do we explain musical pieces having a basic, apparently universal interpretation?  An audience member contests David's assertion that any evaluation of a music must be subjective, saying there seem to be cases in which we can set personal taste aside.  Certainly a chamber piece written by Brahms is objectively better than the muzak playing in Walgreens.  And John says that if music is entirely subjective, we need some explanation for how we use the word "music" to make what appear to be objective judgements about the world.

Parallel to this debate is a discussion of the fundamental importance of music, with or without a solid definition.  The power of music over our emotions and behavior shows that music cannot be ignored.  Similar to the link between music and cognition is the link between music and identity: how we define ourselves, personally and culturally by what we listen to.  This observation of Ken's incites a discussion of music as language, and whether its entirely relative to musical communities, or whether it is universally comprehensible on some basic level.  The show resolves with the conclusion that music is a subject, "so deep that none of us can see the bottom, or the top."

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:16): Zoe Corneli interviews John Calloway, a San Francisco Unified School District music teacher.  He views his primary role not as to teach the mechanics nor technique of music, but to teach its importance to his burgeoning musicians.  It gives them the power to express and grasp what words cannot.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:26): Ian Shoales quickly covers three different theories of why music matters to us: one biological, one social, and one statistical.