The Mystique of Music

Music is an art that, in one form or another, permeates every human society. It has been credited with the power to stimulate, inspire and even heal emotions. From the simple folk song to the most complex electronic composition, it is an art of combining vocal and instrumental sounds for beauty of form or for emotional expression according to cultural standards of rhythm, melody and harmony.

Historically, it has been believed that the harmonies of musical pitch and the patterns of their repetition convey the order of the universe. This belief has inspired the practice of astronomical tuning in ancient cultures, the use of planetary cycles to construct melodies, and the idea that melodies may be based on geometrical shapes or mathematical formulas. It has also led to the belief that music reflects or mirrors character and has been used in ceremony, drama, and courtly love to demonstrate the virtues of a person or group. This mystical dimension to the art has also been exploited in popular culture, most conspicuously today in advertising and psychotherapy.

The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 550 bce) developed the first musical numerologist and founded the science of acoustics. He discovered a correspondence between the length of a string and its pitch, and also made a number of other fundamental discoveries in physics that laid the foundations for modern sound engineering and acoustics.

Although he regarded the music of his day as deficient in aesthetic and intellectual values, he also emphasized the role that it played in the moral life. For him, the harmonies of music reflected the harmony of the cosmos and that of people. He urged a disciplined practice and warned that too much complexity in music leads to disorder.

Plato (428-348/347 bce) saw a direct relationship between character and the kind of music that a person hears, and that he or she should listen to only pure music and avoid vulgar or dissonant sounds. The Stoics and Epicureans gave more credit to sensation, but they shared Plato’s concern for the functional nature of music.

Since the early 19th century, technological advances have permitted composers to work directly with machines that produce and record sounds that were formerly beyond human ability to produce or imagine. The ability to synchronize multiple instruments electronically has further broadened the scope of musical composition and improvisation.

Until the later 20th century, it was widely accepted that there is a distinction between “high” and “low” forms of music, with classical symphonies being deemed more “art” than rap and soul concerts held in nightclubs or arenas. However, scholars studying this perceived divide have found that it is primarily based on the socioeconomic status of performers and audience members. For example, classical symphony audiences are generally more likely to be wealthy, while the audience for a hip-hop show is often drawn from lower income groups. Similarly, as different world cultures have come into greater contact with each other, their indigenous musical traditions are often able to merge.