The Utility of Music

Music doesn’t feed me. It doesn’t put a roof over my head. Music doesn’t listen to me. Music consumes a large part of my time. Why on earth do I bother with something so seemingly lacking in utility?

Whether one is playing music or listening to music there is no directly observable material advantage. In fact one is generally sitting still and giving their full attention to fanciful ideas and neatly arranged sounds. This seems a rather absurd activity in a world where war, disease, and famine aren’t uncommon.

The case could be made that respite is a necessity. But is music about respite? Is music necessary for rest? Or is it a luxury? Something extravagant like a leather couch.

The latter doesn’t seem to be the case. There is a lot of music that can best be described as laborious. With the ear and soul struggling with its complexity. Some music is aggressive or crushingly sad. Who wants to be angry or sad?

The utility of music is questionable. The answer to that question lies in the name Music. To muse is the end of music. To feel, to think, and to dream that is the product of music. Feeling, thinking, and dreaming are each appealed to on different levels depending on the sort of music.

For instance the intricacies of counterpoint and the elegance of Bach even in its wildest moods is definitely thought provoking. It makes one ponder the vastness of creation. There is a huge well of emotion brought to the surface by the likes of Elliot Smith. There is a folksy dreaminess to the music of Nick Drake.

These are of course the author’s interpretations of the music. Even if they are correct do they really have utility in the classical sense of the word?

A bridge has utility, a farm has utility, and a hospital has utility. There is a clear empirical advantage to these things. One allows you to see your neighbor and get access to goods and lands. The second keeps you fed and clothed. The third tends to your illness. But music whose end is to make one muse simply makes your mind whirl. What’s the use of that however elegant or sublime?

There’s more to a man than what keeps him fed, clothed, and healthy. There is something like a soul even if solely for linguistic convenience. That soul and the mind inextricably linked to that soul both require nourishment. There are many paths to health, wealth, and happiness. They are not all equal.

It is thought that allows us to improve our situations and ourselves. Thought is of paramount importance. Thought has abundant utility. Music makes one muse which is to think, to dream, and to feel. It is therefore useful as an instrument for refining thought and understanding.

It is something that should be treated with as much care and respect as a farm, bridge, or hospital. It feeds the spirit, bridges time and space, and heals wounded hearts.

This isn’t merely a mawkish appeal to sentimentality. Music has objective worth. The objective worth of being a sieve for thought and feeling. What mathematics did for engineering music has done for culture. Let us not forget the objectively precise ratios involved in intervals. Let us not forget that an uninspired Einstein is merely a patent clerk.

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