What is the value of music?
Norman Lebrecht asked a month or so ago, “Why can’t we articulate the value of music to society?” His question and a few recent experiences have caused me to obsess on the following:
Why do we bother with music?
You will often hear claims that music is not intrinsically valuable for survival, unlike water or shelter. Admittedly true. Furthermore, it’s true that the immediate benefits of music are not practical in the way, say, driving a car is. Driving at least gets you from point A to point B.
But people do pay for the stuff; they buy recordings, concert tickets, and iPods to carry a gazillion songs in their pockets. Audiophiles invest enormous sums just to hear music recordings more clearly. People travel great distances to hear the artists they love. People from all walks of life and cultures spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to become good at making music, and many uproot themselves and struggle for years attempting to make music professionally. Massive cultural institutions are created for music. Every culture makes music, and music seemingly seeps into every nook and cranny of human life.
It clearly has value. And this value is so obvious, simple, and important, that we might not want to acknowledge it.
That value might make us feel like heathens or unserious or even boring. It sounds gooey or mushy. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that will convince other people to help us with money and support. And if we’re being honest, minimizing the importance of music makes it easier to underpay working musicians.
At the same time, the manifestations from that primary value are legion, and we mistake those as the value itself. As a result, we see these trotted out as the primary value of music. This is missing the forest for the trees, and it’s like being told that the value of our spouses is the kiss after getting home from work.
Some of this is innocent, but some of these efforts clearly seek to minimize the importance of music. You might hear that music is merely a pleasant background to the actual valuable activities of our lives. This is summed up in this quote from a recent article by Steven Hyden discussing the decline of music purchases:
“Music is an accompaniment, to add to your jog, your workday, your prep in the kitchen,” James L. McQuivey, an analyst for market analysis firm Forrester Research, told the Times last week. “But it’s not something you’re eager to pay for if you don’t have to.” Does this statement depress you? It depresses me.
It is depressing because that’s such a limited view of what music is. That analyst has confused a single manifestation for the value, and in so doing has reduced music to sonic wallpaper. Music can definitely be a terrific accompaniment, but it can be nearly anything.
Another genre of manifestations-as-value are those arguments that treat music as an intermediary step for the actual valuable activities of our lives. The “Mozart Effect” and other bullet points about how music improves collaboration skills, language skills, reasoning and so on have one thing in common: they assist some serious sounding but ultimately non-musical goal.
And, please, don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of non-musical benefits of music. But – again – these are individual manifestations, they’re not the primary value. They aren’t the valuable kernel that starts our relationship with music and makes us stick with it long-term. The non-musical benefits of music are like the potential health benefits of wine: wine drinkers are happy they exist, but they’re secondary.
So what is it? What is the primary essential value of music? What is the value that drives all of its other uses?
I feel a little silly writing it, to be honest. Remember the scene in Almost Famous where the rock star’s final words of “I dig music” are met with middling approval? He’s a human being: of course he digs music.
Ding ding ding. We dig music. Sans 70’s slang:
We love music.
That’s the value.
Corollaries grow from that love that make it richer and more complex. The richest is this:
Other people also love music.
“Love” is the only word that can cover the breadth of the what music adds to our lives. All the manifestations and corollaries of that value jumble together into a kind of harmony, and from this, we humans have created a rich and living jungle of innumerable musical possibilities.
Crowds of people will begin laughing, smiling and dancing because of a song and a really good band. I’ve seen grown men burst into tears at a chord change. Movies and television communicate their meanings more clearly with the right music (30 year old spoiler alert). Music can help people sleep. Opera singers and an orchestra can make an audience feel like demigods. A good beat can make the drudgery of the commute feel like freedom. Mothers sing to their children, and the children will sing right back. A teenager will sing for someone they like and get a date. A packed stadium will roar songs for their team. People recovering from heartbreak can find songs letting them know that they aren’t alone. Vets with PTSD can find some relief with music therapy. Hip hop can be a protest. A pair of headphones and a good recording can be an aural roller-coaster ride. A parody can let people laugh at themselves. A Josquin mass or a Bach Passion aria or some Gospel might be more inspiring than any sermon. Tibetan monks meditate while chanting and playing percussion. We even relax to and enjoy birdsong.
This biased list is obviously paltry compared to the endless variety of music. In the same way that there’s no one correct way to love other human beings, there’s no one way to do music. You might have completely different tastes than me, and that’s perfectly ok. We define and redefine our relationship to music as our tastes, needs and lives change, and we continue to love it and look for reasons to insert it into our lives.
And when you hear that music isn’t necessary for survival, know that music is itself a motivation to be alive.
 Pablo Neruda:
y así como no tuvo nacimiento
no tiene muerte, es como un largo río,
sólo cambia de tierras y de labios