Notes by Jon Harnum

Introspection's from our friend Jon Harnum BA, MA, PHD

Why Is Music?

Why does music exist? That begs the question of what is music, but let’s sidestep that fascinating question. For now, let’s just say music is whatever you think it is: birdsong, Zeppelin, or the hiss of background radiation from the birth of the Universe. Or Air Supply. Whatever. Like Louis Armstrong said, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” Definitions don’t matter if we can all agree that music exists. Can we agree on that? Good.

So now, why? One important and useful reason is that music builds cohesion and community. When we make music with others, we blend ourselves in a way that is impossible in any other form, including sex. We sing or play together and our individualities, our individual sounds, merge to become one thing, a sonic unity in the form of a song, a sound, a chant, a lament. And in that union, we experience belonging. Not the word or the concept, but the feeling of belonging, the is-ness of belonging. Words will always fail to convey that sensation, and the irony of this fact is not lost on me as I scratch out these words.

Sure, you may say, that makes sense, but if I’m just listening, what then? It’s the same, I would say. The listener, even the most ambivalent one, is caught up in the sound such that their actual physical form vibrates along with those producing the sound: the tympanic membrane vibrates (as do other bones), the cochlea converts those vibrations into electrical signals which are conveyed to the auditory cortex in the brain and, like it or not, the sounds are inside of us in every way that matters. 

And that unity, that togetherness in sound is a powerful community-builder. Community = co-mingled unity. In my experience, this sense of belonging is most powerful for those of us who create sounds together, whether in a choir, drum circle, yogic chanting, powwow, or whatever. When we sing along with our favorite songs, whistle our favorite symphonies, tap out rhythms while we listen, we are in a sense, One with those sounds, those people, those musicians. 

And here’s the thing: that sense of belonging, however slight or profound, is absolutely crucial to our physical, mental, and spiritual health. We are tribal creatures, and music is a powerful tool evolved to bring us closer in ways that literally nothing else can. Paired with dance, the merging is profound and lasting. Some cultures don’t have separate words for “music” and “dance.” They are one thing. Makes sense, right? There is no music without some kind of movement.

Social cohesion is a fine strategy for survival, and some theorize that music’s evolutionary benefit is exactly that: a tool for tighter social bonds, a tool that has been selected for in humans (and other species, too), over countless generations. The 40,000-year-old bone flute carefully tuned to the pentatonic scale is just one small piece of evidence for the staying power and the benefits of music. Grok the caveman was a musician, perhaps a shaman/musician. Nobody knows. But he/she played. And taught music, too.

So, why does music exist? Community. Belonging. Group cohesion. A method for experiencing a deep sense of togetherness that lies beyond spoken or written language. And here’s the “so what?” part: In a world that is connected in fascinating new ways (I’m looking at you, digital realm), and disconnected in even more new and puzzling, if not disturbing ways (I’m looking at you, phone-zombies), community--actual physically present, flesh-and-bone community--is now-more-than-ever more important and necessary for our health and well-being, individually and societally. For me, and for many of whom I know and love, music is a way to connect meaningfully with others. It works.

Skill is irrelevant. The noob who struggles to find the beat or the pitch is fully able to participate in a meaningful way musically, given the right setting and participants (say a drum circle, or an open mic). Go visit an open mic around town (The Commons, The Lot, Northside Bar & Grill.... There are many to choose from). Just listen. Show appreciation. You don’t have to play or sing, just listen. You’re equally a part of the magic and unity when you listen. Listening and audience are an essential component of music. Again from Louis Armstrong: “...the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public.”

So if you want to participate (and why wouldn’t you?), go to Just Joe’s Music or your local music store and rent yourself a horn or a fiddle. Get some lessons, or fiddle about on your own, just exploring the sounds you can get. You don’t have to be good to benefit. In fact, if you want to be good at anything, you first have to be willing to suck at it. 

You don’t have to do it alone either. In fact, it’s much better to fiddle about with a friend or two. You’ll soon experience the very thing I’m trying--and mostly failing--to describe: community, belonging, and how music evokes both. If this concept is new to you (and I truly hope it isn’t), you’ll be amazed and tickled at how much closer you’ll feel to those with whom you make music. Tell me how it goes, I‘d love to hear about it.

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