Art Works Blog

“Living” with Music: One Musician’s Perspective

A version of this article originally appeared in The Journal of the San Francisco Medical Society (March 2008).

In The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene’s introduction to theoretical physics for a lay audience, the author enthusiastically summarizes the essence of string theory—and its unique promise to unify Einstein’s general relativity with quantum mechanics—with a metaphor: “at the ultramicroscopic level, the universe would be akin to a string symphony vibrating matter into existence." Beyond the pride I feel in reading Greene’s conceptual alignment between the universe and music, the discipline that is my own life’s work, I am struck at just how common such metaphors are. Music as the window through which we can hope to better understand the world—or the universe—around us, appears as old as time itself. The first well-known exponent was Pythagoras, the Ancient Greek musician-mathematician, who according to legend first recognized the inherent link between these two disciplines, as manifest in the mathematical perfection of key musical intervals, as perfect numerical proportions: the Octave as 2:1, the Fifth as 3:2, and the Fourth as 4:3. Such beautiful symmetry was more than coincidence, the Pythagoreans argued, and must be an expression of a higher “harmony”—a Music of the Spheres—where the planets and stars move according to a musical logic, sounding the silent pitches of an endless celestial melody as they make their way around the heavens. From ultramassive stars to ultramicroscopic particles, music seems to make the universe more graspable and relatable to our lives.

An interest in exploring a more empirically verifiable connection between music and our lives has likewise burgeoned in recent years, highlighted by the popular success of such books as This is Your Brain on Music by Dan Levitan and Musicophilia by the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks. Both explore the neuroscientific basis of our fascination with and dynamic response to music, as a significant part of what defines us as human—psychologically and emotionally, as well as cognitively. Dr. Sacks employed his decades-long clinical work to document a wide and fascinating array of cases in which music exhibits a commanding presence in the human brain, producing at times strikingly therapeutic, and in other cases sadly disturbing, responses in patients—often in association with a traumatic event or the onset of a serious neurological condition. Clearly, music is hard-wired into our brains in a manner that defies narrow explanations of auditory reception or memory, lending Sacks to assert that “we humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.”

The idea that music forms an intrinsic connection to the human body, however, is like the metaphoric relationship between music and the universe, nothing new. The 6th-century Christian philosopher Boethius, perhaps the most revered musical authority of the Middle Ages, expanded upon Pythagoras’s notion of a musica mundana (heavenly music) with the term musica humana—defined as the music that runs through the human body, connecting the functions of the flesh with the actions of the soul and spirit. As such, Levitan’s research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the neural and metabolic (e.g., via the hypothalamus) responses to music, may be seen as but a modern corroboration of an ancient notion that music triggers a complex interplay between our minds, bodies, and spirits.

I am a practicing musician, and my perspective on the “power” of music is most keenly derived from my professional experiences with the medium: as a performer, musicologist, and composer. From this vantage point, the chief reality I perceive is that music—when conditions are right—is a living force, one that has the potential to transport us from our normal spiritual and physical confines to another realm, where clock-time disappears and where emotion and intellect merge to the point of being indistinguishable. But the rub, as I see it, is that like any transcendental experience, feeling the “living force” of music takes work; it is not a passive stimulus, like receiving a massage, but an active dialogue between that which resides within us and that which enters our awareness from the outside. It is a conversation between our expectations, our memory, and the visceral reality of what enters our ears. Even with repeated encounters with a familiar piece of music, the experience is never the same twice, provided we are actively engaged with it.

The overriding encounter is one of musical narrative—a concrete progression in “aesthetic time” without a concrete storyline, where the “subject” is sound itself. This is indeed the miracle of music: that tones, rhythms, harmonies, or timbres in succession can have meaning at all, one experienced as it happens, and where precise semantic translation is impossible or irrelevant. When the living musical experience is powerful enough, we can be truly lifted into an altered state, where a resonance imaging of our brain would undoubtedly reveal it as coming alive, triggering a myriad of salutary effects on our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In an age of increasing societal and personal stress, not to mention rising environmental risks, a counterbalance of engaged music listening seems a painless—indeed pleasurable—means to help ward off the prospect of cardiovascular disease or cancer. Think of it as musical exercise.

But once again, it takes effort. The Development section of the opening movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, K.467, for example, contains an extended set of musical sequences, rising one after another, like a huge row of waves slowly making their way to the sandy beach of the movement’s primary theme. The effect is amazing if followed intently passage-by-passage, though merely pleasant if listened to casually. Now, to be sure, there is nothing wrong with casual music listening; like a recreational massage, it can be wonderfully pleasant. But with “pleasant”, we will not quite rise to the heady and poetic powers assigned music by the writers noted above. A key ingredient here, of course, is education; the more one knows about music—historically, theoretically, practically—the more one can retrieve during one of those encounters. Perhaps, indeed, when conditions are right—whether “living” with Bach, the Beatles, or Dave Brubeck—we’ll glimpse what Pythagoras was really talking about.

Dr. Gasser will be participating in our webinar on September 16th that will explore how music therapy can benefit people facing cancer. The webinar will be hosted as part of our NEA Task Force on the Arts and Human Development. Click here to learn more, or to register for the webinar. Dr. Gasser is a composer, pianist, and musicologist. In addition to his role as chief musicologist for Pandora, he is working with Memorial Sloan-Kettering on an algorithm to match indvidual musical taste to particular cancer treatment ailments. 

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