Theories About Music


Music, in its vast profusion of forms, permeates every human society. Its power to evoke emotion and affect the mind has spawned a variety of theories, some speculative and some empirical, about how it works. Scientific studies involving brain imaging have revealed how our bodies and minds respond to organized sound. Theories about music draw upon a wide range of academic disciplines. Whether scholarly or popular, they usually involve some combination of formalist, symbolist, and expressionist ideas.

Musical sounds evoke emotions and trigger physiological responses in the human body. They have a unique capacity to stimulate the brain in ways that words and images cannot, and their impact on the mind is often felt long after they are heard or played. For these reasons, many people feel a deep connection with specific songs and genres of music.

The history of music mirrors the evolution of human perception and expression, from primitive chanting and drumming to the orchestral forms that are now so familiar. Along the way, music has become more and more complex. Each of its core ingredients—pitch, rhythm, timbre, and melody—can be altered subtly or dramatically to produce different effects. Musicians employ these elements intuitively and intentionally to create a variety of aesthetic, emotional, and cognitive effects.

Throughout its history, music has been a vehicle for philosophical, religious, and political beliefs about the nature of existence. Theorists ranging from Plato to Rene Descartes have sought to define music’s essence and explain its effects on listeners. Some have tried to analyze music in terms of acoustic properties and mathematical relations, such as the Greek philosopher Aristoxenus (408-340 bce). Others, like the Italian acoustician and mathematician Pietro Tacca (1601–1674), attempted to link melodic patterns to the movements of heavenly bodies, delineating the “music of the spheres.”

Others, including the Romantics and the modern composers, viewed music as a symbolic art that is closer to the inner dynamism of reality than are other artistic objects. This led to ideas of transcendence and mysticism in the work of Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and Frederick Chopin. Even the avant-garde compositions of Arnold Schoenberg and Claude Debussy built on tonal foundations.

Although no perfect definition of music exists, anthropological and ethnomusicological perspectives suggest that humans share a universal cognitive and neurological basis for their deep connections to organized sound. Moreover, the fact that music is present in all cultures points to some level of cultural universality that transcends differences in sound. The varied uses of music in psychotherapy, geriatrics, and advertising demonstrate its power to influence both the individual and society. Musical diversity, however, also testifies to the fundamental resiliency of our innate responses to organized sound.