Why music?

Every decade or so, a different approach to analyzing music comes around, each trying to explain what it is about the idea that develops independently and uniquely across every culture. We’re asked regularly to consider “What is music?” or “Why is music?” as performers, in order to better understand our own art form and convey… whatever we’re trying to in our musical attempt.

Pleasure is something that the author S. ruminates on. As they wrote their letter to the editor of The Monthly Magazine, and the American Review with nothing more substantial for a signature, their identity is entirely up for question. This is not uncommon; the magazine was compiled from letters to the editors, commentary, and bits of philosophic thoughts about all sorts of topics ranging from orations of American Independence to church sermons to shavings (it is quite an interesting read). Specifically, S. focuses on the pleasure of music and where it originates from: the notes themselves or the ideas they incite? S. goes out of their way to talk about how “simple sounds are agreeable or disagreeable according as the vibrations they produce in the ear arrive at, or are above or below the pleasure point of action”1, which can be summarized by the following example:


For those still confused, S. is essentially theorizing that some sounds are just naturally terrible, that there exists an invisible bar that denotes the bare minimum of human tolerance, and that no sounds below it can exist with any form of musicality. They are, in essence, pointing out these sounds for the only purpose of ignoring them, as nails on a chalkboard (or anything similar) perhaps should never be included in a musical composition.

Therefore, the primary part of S’s argument focuses on ideas that music incites. They theorized that music acts as the starting domino in a long chain, setting off a cascade of ideas. When listening to a piece of music that perhaps invokes ideas of mountain rivers and chirping birds, it is actually the listener that is giving the song those meanings, even if it had been composed with the intent to inspire such ideas. S. notes this is extremely obvious with national music, citing a “Swiss Air that is forbid even to be played to their troops in foreign service, as it always produces the most unrestrainable desire to return [home].” Yet of course, if one has no particular love for the Swiss, they would most likely clap and move right along.

This notion comes to a head with the music of Native Americans. S. discusses this in brief, referring as an example to the Creek nation, which is now known as the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, where an observed song contained only three notes. To the unenlightened observer, such ‘music’ would have been laughable, however to those who have somber thoughts of war and strife associated with the slow, despondent melody, there is deeper understanding and shared meaning.

Extrapolating this to class readings and conversations, we return to the idea that ‘everyone lacks context’. When Frances Densmore, an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, recorded the traditional songs of Native American tribes during the early 1900s and carefully noted their meanings, there was lost context and understanding. In compilations of early colonist opinions regarding native music, there was lost context and understanding (made even worse by the lack of a shared language). Even recorded songs that can be heard in full inspire new domino-chains of thought that perhaps are not what the original composer or culture intended.

This, perhaps, is not a bad thing, as music can be shared between cultures and grow and change with each new person who ascribes meaning to it. But it lends certain doubt to that traditional sentiment: “Music is a universal language”.


1. S. 1800. Letter 2 — no title. The Monthly Magazine, and American Review (1799-1800). 02, pg. 85. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/letter-2-no-title/docview/88855456/se-2 (accessed September 21, 2023).

The entire collection (volumes 1-3) can be found publicly available at HathiTrust at the following URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009018879.

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