This is the second part of a series, Sufficient to Explain, which explores the explanatory power of the Christian worldview.
No adequate description exists for music’s importance to human culture. We use it to teach young children rudimentary facts. Most of us devote hundreds of hours per year to listening to it. By the most recent estimate, we spend $16 billion dollars a year acquiring it. Yet, all of those pieces of information seem bookish and dispassionate, compared to the instinctive connection we have with music. Something so important to civilization ought to be understood comprehensively. But the most basic fact about music—its origin—lacks a compelling explanation. Unless, of course, you are a Christian.
Some explanations for the origin of music are too dissatisfying for the sentiments of music lovers. Daniel Dennett’s “The Evolution of Culture” is one of these distasteful theories. Dennett, a well-known and often-awarded philosopher, compares the products of human culture, “memes,” to phenomena such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Memes infect their human hosts and cause alterations and adaptations; thus, culture products perpetuate their own survival.
Dennett reconstructs a scenario for the origin of music. It all begins with one prehistoric percussionist.
One day one of our distant hominid ancestors sitting on a fallen log happened to start banging on [it] with a stick–boom boom boom. For no good reason at all. This was just idle diddling, a byproduct, perhaps, of a slightly out-of-balance endocrine system. This was, you might say, mere nervous fidgeting, but the repetitive sounds striking his ears just happened to feel to him like a slight improvement on silence. A feedback loop was closed, and the repetition–boom boom boom–was ‘rewarding’. … No musical appreciation, no insight, no goal or ideal or project need be imputed to our solitary drummer.”
This percussionist’s peers catch the bug, too, and imitate the “musical Adam.”
A striking feature of Dennett’s evolutionary view is the lack of value music brings to the task of survival. He jokes of the “familiar dream of musicians everywhere” that this proto-virtuosity enhanced the first musician’s opportunities for reproduction. Aside from the jest, Dennett entertains the notion that music detracted from humanity’s ability to subsist.
A perfectly pointless practice, of no utility or fitness-enhancing benefit at all, could become established in a community. It might be positively detrimental: the drumming scares away the food, or uses up lots of precious energy. It would then be just like a disease, spreading simply because it could spread, and lasting as long as it could find hosts to infect. … The drumming virus is born.”
I hope everyone finds this reconstruction as perplexing and unappealing as I do. The explanation is coherently distressed: if music did not valuably contribute to its hosts’ survival chances, then the probability of the descent of musicians seems quite low. Furthermore, the idea that intricate aural beauties, to which we are beholden and besotted, are a useless, perhaps even deleterious, infection is repulsing.
Explanations more flattering than Dennett’s are available. One competing account is more hedonistic and more likely to be appealing. Allow another philosopher—this one happens to be the front-man for Led Zeppelin—to do the explaining.
The whole idea of music, from the beginning of time, was for people to be happy.” — Robert Plant
— Amazon Music (@amazonmusic) June 17, 2014
The desire for happiness is an attractive hypothesis of the origin of music. Humans, however long ago, cultivated the abilities to melodize, harmonize, and percuss for the sake of pleasure. Even heavyweight intellectuals acknowledge the satisfaction of music. In his biography of Einstein, for example, Walter Isaacson gives much attention to the physicist’s lifelong love of the violin.
Though I am prone to prefer this kind of explanation, I have reservations about its sufficiency. Certainly, at the micro-level, happiness is a driving force of music performance and consumption. What about the big picture? Is music merely a by-product of our addiction to serotonin?
We often emphasize the subjective dimensions of music. De gustibus non disputandum est. Tragically, we overlook the objective beauty, for example, of the final crescendo of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Listen to it and begin to wonder, “Is music something greater than our personal enjoyment?”
Part of Our Formation
The Christian worldview brings a unique perspective to the discussion of music’s origin. Various portions of scripture indicate that music is not a uniquely human creation or experience. We are not the universe’s sole consumer and creator of music.
In fact, the art of song precedes our arrival and exists independently of us. As God confronts Job and asserts his preeminence as creator, he asks, “[Where were you] … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Angels sang not only at creation, but also at the incarnation (Luke 2:13-14). Heavenly beings sing in the visions of John (Revelation 5:9). Even God is described, in what may be an anthropomorphism, as singing: “… he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
Humanity’s cross-cultural appreciation for music would seem to derive from our God-imitating personhood. As God fashioned the earth, he made beauty and delighted in it. He created everything with the power of his words, and then he saw everything as good, even very good. He was both artist and admirer. In creating us in his image, he gave us the capacity for these roles, as well.
Now, think again of the cultural significance of music—how we allocate the resources of our money and time to it and how we use it for the purposes of communication and entertainment. Only one explanation is appropriate to the scale of music’s importance. Is it an infection? Is it merely an expression of our affections? Or is our penchant for music a part of our formation?
The lover of music is likely to find the Christian understanding of music deeply resonating. Orchestrated sounds with the power to fascinate us remind us that music is much bigger than we are. What better endorsement could there be for the value of music than this: the one whose opinion cannot falter—God—and his uncorrupted servants—angels—make use of and find joy in this medium.