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Music and what it means to be human

Music is a human construct. While sound may exist as an objective reality, for that sound to be defined as music requires human beings to acknowledge it as such. What is acknowledged as ‘music’ varies between cultures, groups, and individuals. The Igbo of Nigeria have no specific term for music: the term nkwa denotes ‘singing, playing instruments and dancing.’ A definition in Oxford Dictionaries is ‘vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.’ To define music in these terms depends on subjective judgements of what constitutes beauty of form and expression of emotion, which of course vary from individual to individual. Indeed, some may argue that what constitutes ‘music’ for them is neither beautiful nor expressive of emotion. Their definition of ‘music’ may be based on different criteria. The proliferation of musical genres in western cultures in recent years, and group identification with them, has led to challenges and questions about what really constitutes music.

Music is universal and found in all cultures. Some have suggested that it is at the very essence of humanity, like language, distinguishing us from other species. Some have argued that music exemplifies many of the classic criteria for a complex human evolutionary adaptation, with evidence for the existence of music tens of thousands of years ago. The earliest musical instrument so far discovered, a bone flute, is estimated to be about 50,000 years old. Even this may have been predated by singing. Music may have a role in relation to mate selection, social cohesion, group effort, perceptual and motor skill development, conflict reduction, safe time passing, and trans-generational communication. However, not all authors agree that music has an evolutionary purpose. Some suggest that music, along with the other arts, has no evolutionary significance and no practical function.

prehistoric music: bone flute
Prehistoric music: Aurignacian flute made from an animal bone, Geissenklösterle (Swabia); José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

In societies today, music has a multiplicity of functions which operate at several levels, from the individual, through to the social group, and society in general. At the individual level music can be a vehicle for emotional expression. Ideas and emotions that might be difficult to convey in ordinary verbal interchanges – love, jealousy, grief – can be expressed through music. Music elicits physical responses, aiding relaxation or stimulating activity, and is particularly effective in changing our moods. Involvement in music provides opportunities for individuals to experience aesthetic enjoyment and be entertained.

At the group level music can be viewed as a means of communication. Music can serve to provide shared experiences and understandings that help to bind together social groups and shape their identity. Used in work contexts, music can facilitate an appropriate level of stimulation for mental or physical activity. Emotional expression can also be important at the group level, for instance, in protest songs. It provides a means of expressing feelings towards subjects that are taboo or where there are inhibitions regarding the expression of emotions like love, whether that’s romantic love or love of God, country, school or institution.

In society as a whole, music provides a means of symbolic representation for ideas and behaviours – whether the state, patriotism, religion, bravery, heroism, or rebellion. Music also contributes towards the continuity and stability of culture and perhaps most importantly to the integration of society. Songs, for example, can encourage conformity to social norms and play a major part in indicating appropriate behaviour and providing warnings to others. Music may also play a major role in inciting challenges to those social norms and can define groups in conflict. It provides validation of social institutions and religious rituals and plays a major part in all major ceremonial occasions, from weddings and funerals to military functions and the Olympics. In a more sinister turn, we can also see the power of music in attempts by states to exert control over it, from mass rallies in Nazi Germany to the censure of the music of Shostakovich by the Soviet government. During the Cultural Revolution in China, western music was denounced as decadent and forbidden.

And so as psychologists, we must keep these shifting definitions in mind when examining music in the context of the origins and functions of music; music perception, responses to music; music and the brain; musical development; learning musical skills; musical performance; composition and improvisation; the role of music in everyday life; and music therapy.

Featured image: ‘the audience is shaking’. Photo by Martin Fisch. CC BY-SA 2.0 via marfis75 Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Magdalena

    I find music inspiring, uplifting, and soothing. Sounds surround us, and if we can hear the melody of everyday life, it gives hope.
    Which is something we miss so much today.

    Great article.

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