Music: A crucial gift
Published: 6 February 2018 (GMT+10)
Scientists recently discovered that our brains are made for music—that a deep musical appreciation is a foundational aspect of being human.1 Why do we have this special relationship with music, yet apes and other large-brained ‘higher’ animals don’t make, or even desire, music as we do? Like speaking and writing in grammatical language, music is a peculiar and distinctive trait of human beings only. Where did this mysterious habit and liking of ours come from?
A new study
The scientists found that people with advanced dementia can suddenly and markedly improve in cognition when music they love is played back to them. Even when much of the brain is gone, music can wake it up, sometimes with truly ‘magical’ and inexplicable results. The sufferers ‘come back’ for that moment. The scientists who made this finding described music as like an emotional proto-language—for instance how a mother and father talk with their baby. The results were in many cases so astounding that the researchers themselves were readily swept up in the powerful emotions expressed.
Interestingly, music appreciation appears to be embedded or wired into nearly all regions of the brain. The scientists found that music seems to be tied in closely with love and relationships—that there is a clear, powerful physiological effect of music on social bonding. They concluded that music is so important to our brain’s physical makeup that it is an indispensable part of what makes us human.
The meaning of music
Harmony and melody both involve unchanging scientific and mathematical laws,2 thus written into the very fabric of the universe—but it is only human beings that are capable of caring that this is so. Since Darwin’s evolutionary theory became popular, scientists have tried to come up with solutions to the mystery of why man finds meaning in music, and why he strives for it.
A common theory first raised by Darwin was that males used melody to woo females. Despite the paucity of evidence for it, the idea resurfaces from time to time, along with other unsatisfactory proposals to try to solve the mystery.
There is simply no evidence that the striving for art and music has anything to do with the pragmatic requirements of survival and reproduction. Our music serves no purely functional, biological purpose, and is a truly creative endeavour, unlike the preprogrammed learning of songbirds.
It is only people who pursue music, and while we can adapt music to communicate—e.g. an army bugle—we overwhelmingly engage in it for emotional, spiritual and artistic reasons.
Emotion and soul
Darwinism, being a materialist philosophy and not a science, is powerless to explain the meaning of music. Music is capable of overwhelming us with emotion because it is linked with our spiritual side, and is good evidence for the existence of the soul. If we were merely soulless biological machines, as evolutionary science claims, why would we care for music, or indeed cry with emotion or laugh with joy? We care because we are in part spirit—made by God, who is spirit (John 4:24).
Many people, of all backgrounds and beliefs, have spoken of music’s ‘soul’. Bono, the lead singer for popular band U2, has said that “music is a matter of the spirit.”3 Itzhak Perlman, the famous classical violinist, said, “When you’re dealing with music, you’re dealing with the soul of a society.”4 And the Christian writer Vishal Mangalwadi noted, “Denying the reality of a spiritual core as the essence of every human being makes it hard to make sense of music, because music, like morality, is a matter of the soul.”5
The human body
The human body is as if made for music. As bipedal, upright creatures, our hands are freed for skilful and creative work—a desire for which is driven by our minds and hearts. We play difficult instruments such as the violin, guitar and piano, compose complex music, and sing, because our brains and our personalities strive for expression in this spiritual format of music.
Our hands are miracles of design, perfectly engineered for the finest movements and most sensitive of touches, and are marvels of “ingenuity, flexibility and mobility, with fingers built and set in an ideal way” for playing musical instruments.6 E.g. simply tapping then pushing takes very fine nerve and muscle control, to switch quickly from motion to force just before contact.7
For instance, the violinist must perfectly coordinate the movement of the bow with the note-forming fingers and get the pitch and timing exactly correct, in order to create something beautiful, human, powerful and meaningful. This would be impossible if the hand were poorly formed for making music.
Our ear is also an expertly-designed precision instrument for receiving and transmitting musical sounds. Its intricately-connected bones form a delicate drum mechanism, with acoustic chambers perfectly engineered for the shaping of fine tone. We also have vocal cords that are capable of the best musical tones imaginable. Much of instrumental playing is inspired by, and seeks to emulate, the human voice.
Music is a special gift for people, all made in God’s image. It is meaningful because originating from a source much greater than ourselves, it transcends our being in a way that even unbelievers can perceive. Famous musician Ray Charles said, “I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me—like food or water.”8
Music is an ineffable thing. Perhaps Victor Hugo said it best: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”9
The Bible says music was already there on the first day of creation,10 even before Adam and Eve were made, as the angelic hosts expressed their rapture at Earth’s formation when “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7).11 In many places the Bible tells us that music is very special: “Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp” (Psalm 81:2).
It’s plain for all who care to see it that music is physically and spiritually part of God’s wonderful design for the creation.
References and notes
- See the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Catalyst TV episode Music on the Brain; youtube.com, accessed 2 January 2018. Return to text.
- Fauvel, J., Flood, R., and Wilson, R. (eds), Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003. See also Reilly, R.R., The music of the spheres, or the metaphysics of music, home.isi.org, 2001, and also Rehmeyer, J., The geometry of music, sciencenews.org, 4 March 2008. Return to text.
- Mangalwadi, V., The Book That Made Your World, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, p. 7, 2011. Return to text.
- In the Fiddler’s House (DVD), EMI Classics, 2006. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 7. Return to text.
- Gerle, R., The Art of Bowing Practice, Stainer & Bell, London, 1991. Return to text.
- Ainsworth, D., What gives us fingertip dexterity?, University of Southern California—Viterbi, School of Engineering, viterbi.usc.edu, 6 February 2008; Catchpoole, D., Fingertip control, Creation 31(2):31, 2009; creation.com/fingertip-control. Return to text.
- Charles, R. and Ritz, D., Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, Da Capo Press, Cambridge MA, p. 8, 2004. Return to text.
- Hugo, V., William Shakespeare (essay), Part I, Book II, Chapter IV, 1864. Return to text.
- Or maybe the third day, if the erets was referring to the dry land called ‘earth’. Return to text.
- A classic example of Hebrew parallelism, both lines say the same in different ways; the ‘morning stars’ are also the ‘sons of God’ (bene Elohim = angels elsewhere in the OT) who, as created beings (Exodus 20:11), were made earlier that day. Return to text.
Well written article. Many good points. Much food for thought. You make a strong argument for the existence of a creator God through the existence of non material matter or 'spiritual matter' that is linked into the very fabric of physical matter. If the basic principals of music are not something that has evolved (and I struggle to see how that is even possible), then it is equally hard to conceive that primitive life forms could have foreseen the need to develop - in such a complex and unique way required - as to be able to interact with music on such an advanced level. I like your point that highlights the sensitivity and dexterity required to play demanding musical instruments, that humans have many of these abilities. Cosmic coincidence? I think not.
Excellent article. However, I question whether humans are the only species to appreciate music? When I listen to blackbirds (Turdus merula) singing in the spring, I can't help thinking that they are singing just for the joy it. Also, I have read of studies that suggest that cows give more milk when they are played music at milking time. There are even reports that cows respond better to certain kinds of music, rather than others.
Psalm 148:7 commands all living creatures to praise God. Listening to the Blackbird, I wonder if that is exactly what he is doing! In song.
Thank you. I suspect, like you, that many birds sing just for the joy of it, and that they are, in their own way, praising God as they do so. Some scientists believe that birds sing merely because they are territorial but I don't agree. There's much more to it than that. Yes, animals can respond well to music. We once had a wild bird come to visit many times, not a bad singer itself, and it would often land outside my window while I practiced an instrument, and listen intently and sometimes thoughtfully whistle along with interest and appreciation. However, the relationship that people have with music is far more creative and in-depth than it is with animals, as I'm sure you would agree. A cow can quite happily get through life without ever hearing music, yet it is understandable that cows might be more contented when hearing joyful and pleasing sounds. They would no doubt pick up the 'feel' of the music, and the mood of the people milking them. Speaking of God's gifts, I would say that birdsong is another of them.
Some evolutionists argue that our brains differ from chimpanzees' by mere 1-2% of genes, yet this minor difference is enough to give us symphonies, art masterpieces, heartfelt poetry, novels and stunning movies. All these are solid evidence we were created in the image of the Creator - with the desire and ability to create.
Indeed. Given the total number of genes, 1-2% is huge and cannot be explained by evolution, i.e. by variation and natural selection over millions of years. However, the 1-2% value is a myth. The similarity when all the DNA is included is more like 87% (or arguably 70%). See The myth of 1%: Human and chimp DNA are very different.
Couldn't say it better than this article does. May God bless your ministry.