Most of us (unless we are musicians) probably don’t think too deeply about music. But imagine for a moment, if you can, a world without it. Imagine a film with no sound track. A wedding where the bride walks in to the church in complete silence. Or a Six nations rugby match where the anthems are simply spoken rather than sung.
In one sense life could continue perfectly fine without music. The story line of the film would be unaffected. The couple would still get married. The game would still be played.
Yet in a deeper more profound way we would have lost something precious. While the soundtrack to a film is not something we are always consciously aware of, it plays a huge part in helping us to ‘feel’ the emotion of what we are seeing. The music accompanying the bride’s entrance to the church deepens the beauty and solemnity of the moment. And as for singing the anthems… I’m sure that for the Welsh rugby team at least, the sound of 80,000 of your compatriots singing the anthem is worth at least at 10 point head start!
Music is powerful. It can stir our emotions, awaken our desires, and instil courage.
But where does music come from? Why is it so important to us.
How you answer that question depends on how you view the world more generally. If life is simply the result of the evolutionary process (and nothing more) as many atheists believe, then accounting for the beauty of music is problematic.
The analytical philosopher, Patricia Churchland expressed her view of the world this way: ‘The principle chore of brains is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. A fancier style of representing the world is advantageous as long as it enhances the organism’s chances for survival.’
In such a view a thing is only really good in as much as it helps us survive. But does music exist simply exist to enhance our chances of survival?
At one level it might explain some things. Perhaps, for instance, the ability to create music might make one more attractive to a potential mate? Perhaps that would explain why among my friends during my teenage years, so many of us learnt the guitar?!
Yet like so many evolutionary explanations, while this may explain why some people might make some music, it seems a fairly poor as explanation for everything from Bach to Bon Jovi.
While this line of argument may seem satisfactory to some, interestingly it doesn’t seem to convince many musicians. I was recently chatting a friend who, like myself, works in universities across the country. They commented that while they have met many atheists in studying many different things, they were yet to find one that was studying music. I’m not saying that there aren’t therefore any musicians who are atheists but, anecdotally at least, it would seem there aren’t so many. Why is this the case?
In my own work in universities one of the big reasons I have heard people give as to why they don’t believe in God is the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world. How can God exist in a world that seems at times to be so utterly futile? This is a good question and one that deserves an article all of its own.
But, if the presence of so much ugliness in the world turns us away from the idea of God, what do we do with beauty when we stumble across it? Music seems to have a way of tearing us away from the mundane futility of life and confronting us with beauty.
An example of this happened to me on a school trip to London many years ago. I can’t remember the main purpose of the trip but I do recall very distinctly a moment in Covent Garden at the end of the day. We happened to walk past a string quartet just as they were starting to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I had never heard the piece before but I remember being struck by the incredible beauty of the music as it filled the air. The bustle of the passing shoppers seemed to diminish as I became enraptured by what I was hearing.
Without a word being spoken I had somehow been reminded, even in the midst of a busy market, that there is real beauty in this world. It’s a memory I will never forget.
The 20th century author, CS Lewis also spoke about how a childhood experience of beauty spoke to him powerfully later in life. He was, for much of his life, an atheist and one of his main reasons for not believing in God was the unnecessary suffering he saw in the world. Yet for Lewis, the memory of that experience of unnecessary beauty haunted him. That moment had created a deep sense of joy that he found hard to shake. It was this experience of beauty and the joy that it produced, that was one of the main influences in him eventually coming to embrace the Christian faith. He later wrote about this experience in his book ‘Surprised by Joy’.
Could the beauty of music awaken us to our desire for something beyond what we can see, touch and even hear? Could our experiences of beauty be, as Lewis said elsewhere, ‘the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.’
It seems that beauty, experienced through music has a way of challenging even the most sceptical to reconsider their view of the world. The philosopher Paul Gould explains how music has been doing that in Japan. In a country that has traditionally been unreceptive to the claims of the Christian faith he explains that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach now plays a key role in promoting the Christian faith in the country. He comments that ‘…many Japanese are considering or even converting to Christianity after hearing his music.’
But why? He explains ‘The beauty [of Bach] has prompted the Japanese to ask: How can Bach exist in a world full of despair and loneliness? Answering the question has set several Japanese people on the path to Jesus, who is source of Bach’s inspiration and the source of beauty itself.’
Yet, you might ask, why do we need to bring God into it? Can’t we just be thankful to the composers who created such music? But do we really just create music or do we in some sense also discover it? As I child I loved to create things with Lego (ok, I’ll admit it – I sometimes still do!). But I didn’t create Lego – I simply work with the pieces that have already been made. In a similar sense it seems that might be what we are doing with music – working with what we have already been given to create something that can be beautiful. Therefore, behind the beauty of the music could it be that we are invited to discover not just the genius of the composer or artist, but also the ultimate composer and artist that stands behind it all?