Why is music so connected to the human experience? Minds greater than mine have pondered this question; yet, like the haunting notes of a stirring musical score, this inquiry is recurring and timeless. Why is music so inextricably linked to humanity? The harmonious and discordant sounds of the world as well as the notes of actual music greet us practically from the first moment of our existence in the wombs of our mothers. Even if by some bizarre circumstance we somehow were to live our whole lives without hearing any man-made music, we would still be serenaded by nature’s music, so lauded by poets, namely, the whirring of the insects, the chirping of birds, and the roaring of the wind.
I daresay that the majority of people have an opinion on music; there are certainly differing viewpoints on what constitutes good music, on what music is appropriate for certain times and places, and, undoubtedly, there are extreme variances in musical preferences.
A myriad of musical genres exists, and it is a good trait to have a cultivated and eclectic taste in music. There is no harm in enjoying classical, rock, country, and pop music. Nevertheless, some music, arguably, is objectively superior to other music. To paraphrase one of my former philosophy professors at Franciscan University, one can recognize the musical superiority of a Bach or a Beethoven and still simply prefer the music of the Beatles.
Yet all of this discussion still has not answered our initial question regarding music’s relationship to humanity. It is a somewhat cliche saying that “music is a universal language.” However, cliches become cliches because they are true, so what is it about music that makes it universal?
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, music is described as an attribute of heaven. Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the greatest musical geniuses that the world has ever known, said the following statement: “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom
and philosophy.” Hans Christian Andersen of fairy tale fame, said, “When words fail, music speaks.”
In each of these descriptions of music, there seems to be an appeal to a transcendent quality. Is this the universal characteristic by which music is united with mankind? Is it that music appeals to our higher nature, to the spiritual part of us that is connected with God? And is this why even people who profess no formal religious beliefs sometimes claim to find spiritual expression through music?
Along with those who have considered these questions before me, I would answer with a strong affirmative. Music can be a channel through we come to a greater self-discovery as well as to a deeper realization of the meaning of our lives. Moreover, music relates to beauty, which leads to God; therefore, music is a vehicle by which we begin to discover our relationship to God. Finally, music also has the ability to facilitate a greater understanding between persons.
Firstly, let us consider how music can lead us to a better knowledge of ourselves and of our lives. St. John Paul the Great in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” (which is a worthwhile read for everyone, not exclusively partakers in the arts) states,
“Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.”
These eloquent words exemplify the truth that an artistic intuition, which includes musical intuition, is an encounter with beauty and a means of transcending the mere sensory world to see something mysterious and unifying about reality.
How often has someone listened to a particular song or musical composition that seemed to afford a release and an outlet to feelings that were inexpressible otherwise? Music can be a catharsis and help a person to recognize pains or graces that were previously ignored or unnoticed.
Over and over again in this inspiring letter, our late pope speaks of beauty. Beauty awakens a yearning within us.
“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence . It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…”
And God is beauty itself.
St. John Paul continues, “Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.”
Music is art, and, thus, it has the power to shed light on man and on the world, subsequently leading to the transcendent end of faith and of God for Whom man was made. Certainly these are some of the reasons why music contains such potency and importance for mankind, why it is a universal language. Music bespeaks of mankind’s Creator, Who knows how to speak to the hearts of each of His creatures through His creation. God can use music as a means to call us to Himself.
Secondly, music can provide insight and understanding between persons. In the “Letter to Artists,” St. John Paul writes,
“Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.”
Thus, this is also a way in which music is universal: we feel connected to one another through music because each composer, each singer/songwriter infuses some of his very self, his soul into his art, and we cannot help but come to understand him better and to grasp more fully his view of the world than through listening to his work. This builds communion and unity with one another and preserves the story of the past for future generations.
Whether it is the Russian nationalist music of Tchaikovsky or songs from the 1960s and ’70s protesting the Vietnam War, we have a musical record of people’s feelings towards events that were changing their personal worlds and the world at large.
Music is a wondrous thing. Music has the ability to transcend, to lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other. Music can be a meeting with beauty, which leads us to a meeting with God. These qualities of music are, I think, solid answers to our initial queries. Yet, there are many more answers that are just as worthy, so let us conclude as we began–with thought-provoking questions: How has music been a part of your life? Have you felt the beauty of music? Have you been drawn closer to God and to your fellow man through a musical composition? How has the universal language of music influenced and changed the notes of your individual life’s song?
NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of a piece that I originally wrote for The Gadfly, a student publication at Franciscan University of Steubenville, in 2014.