Why Do We Love Music?


I love music. I have over 500 CDs of Dave Matthews Band concerts, and I have vivid memories of specific moments in my life listening to them. For example, I remember listening to the long build up of “Seek Up” in June 2004, while driving to a dinner event at the church I was working at in Chattanooga. It is burned into my memory as if it were yesterday.

Most of us have similar memories. When we think about favorite music, whether it be classical or country, Beethoven or Bono, most of have memories and associations that touch upon the deepest emotions and experiences of of life.

Recently I wondered: why is this? As someone who studies theology, I’m interested in the philosophy of music. What does music mean? Is it merely pleasant—in the words of Steven Pinker, “auditory cheesecake”—or does it actually have a significance that corresponds to its effect upon us?

As a thought experiment, I’m thinking today about two different ways to answer this question. (Of course, there many be other answers beyond these two.)

In a nihilistic worldview, music is like an opiate to a man about to die

Neuroscientists note that music accesses the same parts of the brain as sex, food, and addictive drugs. At the same time, they recognize that there is no obvious evolutionary basis for our enjoyment of music (as there conceivably is, for instance, with food, sex, and sleep). Its not clear how music could help our ancestors survive. So, from an evolutionary standpoint, why do we like it?

One of the most popular theories on the market says its all about anticipation: the brain expects what is coming next, and gets dopamine when its right. In other words, its about pattern recognition. Another hypothesis is that music mirrors speech, and thus essentially fools our brains into reacting to it the way we react to speech (in which we often mirror the emotions of the person speaking). These ways of trying to explain music all approach it as essentially what Stephen Jay Gould called an “evolutionary spandrel”—something that is not directly the result of an adaptive process, but rather its byproduct. It’s a kind of “spin off” of evolution. In other words: it’s an accident.

Most of us find these explanations deeply unsatisfying, even if they tell part of the story. Just listen to this and try to imagine: I only like this because it helped animals survive. If the tides had rolled in differently, I might not like it:

Or try it with this:

Beautiful music like this communicates a sense of transcendence and significance. Music whispers to us: I mean something. I am telling you about something Profound and Beautiful. But meaning and transcendence are, of course, precisely what a nihilistic worldview disallows. Thus, when nihilism is confronted by the power that is conveyed through, for instance, the work of Hans Zimmer, it must ultimately interpret this experience as illusory.

In other words, if reality is blind and indifferent, and human life is ultimately meaningless and insignificant, then music is, in a way, deceiving you. Its like an opiate: its value is numbing you, directing you away from reality.

If a Trinity spawned the world, music is like a window to a man in a cellar

One way to define music is as an organized combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm. But surely this cannot encapsulate all that music means, anymore than love simply means chemicals in the brain, or time means the noises of a clock. What is the essence of music?

If a Triune God created the world as a work of art—not out of necessity but out of love and freedom—then music can be understood, along with everything beautiful in the world, as a faint reflection of the pre-temporal glory of God. It is a tiny echo of what was happening before time and space. What things like rhythm and harmony are trying to do, albeit imperfectly, is trace out something of that love and joy that has been forever pulsating between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Viewed in this way, music is not a distraction away from reality, but rather a clue towards it. It is not like an opiate to dying man, but like a little window to a man in a cellar—a light shining into the darkness, revealing something Beyond. In this respect I associate music with art, reason, and sex—they are like little windows through Transcendence touches our lives, whispering to us of a world we have never dreamed.

Something of this worldview is implicit in Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous quip: “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” In a way, this is an eloquent way of expressing a non-physicalist view of music: its more than the notes. Its something God is doing through the notes.

My friend Joel Chopp reminded me today that Tolkien portrayed the creation of the world in the Silmarillion as, essentially, a work of music:

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lyres, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

Thus, what effects the transition from the “Void” to a state of “not void” is, basically, harmony. And, of course, Tolkien portrays the intrusion of evil as strikingly, a kind of discord and monotonous unity, with Melkor’s desire for self-glory producing a “clamorous unison as of many trumpets braving upon a few notes.”

What does all this mean? Perhaps not that music proves God (though that might also be true, for all I know—smarter philosophers than I, like this one or this one, have used aesthetic considerations to further theism). What I am saying is something more like this: if you believe in God, you have a framework for the enjoyment of music that is more satisfying to heart and mind, and more authentic to the actual experience of that enjoyment.

So imagine that man in the cellar. It is dark. Stuffy. He has no idea what the outside world is like. He has never seen redwood trees soaring into the sky, or thundering cascading waterfalls, or the sky lit up with stars on a clear night. He knows nothing of this. But he can look up and see the light pouring in through the window, and sense, “there must be something more.”

What if music, and the nostalgic stab of longing it provokes, is like that window? What if we are the man in the cellar?

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  1. Hey Gavin,
    I very much appreciated your thoughts here. You put into words what I know to be true when I listen to music such as what you posted here (I was listening to the Lord of The Rings soundtrack while reading this!). I think one effect of listening to music that has this stirring effect is being reminded that the light is still shining through that window, as in your illustration, no matter how long we have been in the cellar. Thank you for this encouragement – I needed it today.
    I appreciate your thoughtfulness in general – I stumbled on your articles through the Gospel Coalition. Your writing tells of someone who has has first been a good listener and truly taken into account not just what someone has said, but who the person is, before speaking. Your personality, as least as far as what comes through in your articles, reminds me of several close friends, who I don’t get to see much of anymore (families, jobs, distance).

    Maybe this is a weird, random word press shot in the dark – but I’d be curious to know if you’d have any recommendations for other books/articles that are about encouragement, or that you specifically found encouraging? Maybe something that speaks to hopefulness as the music in the article does.

    In any event, thanks for taking the time to write this and keeping up your blog. It’s a bit of fresh air for someone who’s feeling pretty stuffy, down in the cellar haha.

    1. Good to hear from you Jeremy. I don’t really know anything on this topic, but you might check out Austin’s recommendation just below (and buy him a copy?). :)

  2. The universe is all process, pattern and frequency. As a part of the universe we might appreciate music because of this!

  3. It was a good article and I am posting a link to it on my blog. However, I noticed that you approached music from the perspective of listening to others perform music, not from the perspective of making music, especially making music together, either with our voices or musical instruments or both. Among ancient peoples and even in folk cultures today
    music is largely a communal activity. It ties a group together, helps to transmit the culture of the group – who it is, what it values, how it has dealt with difficult times in the pasts, what its hopes and dreams are, and so on, enables the group to celebrate its “good fortune” as well as deal with tragedy and loss, and strengthens its communal bond. In these ways the making of music together helps the group to survive. It may not do so on the lowest level of Maslow’s pyramid of needs but it does on the psychological-emotional level. In a way the view that you express in your article reflects modern culture which has to a large part lost its ability to make music communally and leaves the making of music to specialists and relegates most of the community to listening.