USS Clueless -- The mystery of music

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The mystery of music

How is it that the most abstract of all art forms is capable of inspiring such deep feelings in us?

To me, the best example of this is The Planets by Holst. Ostensibly based the Roman Gods whose names match the planets, it is in fact a study in the representation of emotions. Every part of that suite is a masterpiece; it is no surprise that it is one of the most popular pieces of music of all time. But three sections in particular represent to me the essential paradox of music: How can something so abstract speak to us on such a basic level?

Those three are the Mars theme, the Venus theme and the Saturn theme. They are respectively named "Mars, bringer of War", "Venus, bringer of Love" and "Saturn, Bringer of Old Age", but what they really are about is respectively determination and drive, tenderness, and despair.

Try for the moment to flush the music out of your head and think about the sounds themselves. We have people rubbing strings with horsehair, blowing over holes in metal tubes, buzzing their lips into one end of other metal tubes, striking pieces of metal and wood with hammers, and many other ludicrous things -- all according to a predetermined pattern, in a particular sequence. How can it be that we hear such things and instead of a cacophony, we hear music? Why does one such pattern make us feel tired and empty, another brings tears to our eyes, yet another fills us with joy?

I don't know how much of it is learned and how much built-in, and I'm not sure there's anyway to determine that. It's probably some of both; The Planets probably doesn't speak as strongly to someone who's never heard any classical music before than it does to me with my extensive background. But I venture that it would speak to them at least a bit. Two more highly contrasting pieces than Mars and Venus would be difficult to conceive of, and I can't think that they wouldn't say different things to any human listener.

It must be that they are tapping into some basic aspect of our cognition system, though I have no idea what. Certainly a composer like Holst knew what he was doing at least intuitively; a suite like The Planets does not happen by accident. On some level a great composer knows what certain abstract sounds do to us.

And yet, I still find it puzzling -- and wonderful -- that something as abstract as music can speak to us so deeply.

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