“If music be the food of love, play on!” With these opening words of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare captured an essential bond between two things without which no human being should have to do, but — at least in the case of the latter — many people regrettably often have to do without. Nietzsche once observed that, without music, life would be aimless, and I tend to agree. The question is: Why? What is it about music, among the arts, that makes it so indispensable for humans? So much so, that even those who are not loved can find solace in music.

I doubt whether many people would disagree with the claim that music is important in their lives — and music, of course, spans many different genres and styles. Some people love heavy metal, or maybe grunge, others dig jazz and blues, or perhaps something “alternative”. Others still cling to their “golden oldies”, or fancy country and Western (too sentimental for me), while a surprisingly large number of folks remain “classical music” aficionados. But whether your taste is catholic, spanning a broad spectrum of musical genres, or is concentrated in the field of pop, or in that of serious music, some kind of music is bound to appeal to your taste.

Within the kinds of music one loves, you are also bound to have your favourite pieces, or songs. A classical music buff may, for example, vigorously defend the claim that Beethoven, or Mozart, is the greatest composer who ever lived — as if there were a way to determine this!

A friend of mine believes that Sibelius has never been given the credit he deserves as a composer, but also loves the off-beat Canadian blues of The Cowboy Junkies. Then there is the lady I know who simply loves to dance to Latin American music, especially as played by the Gipsy Kings (and she is irresistible when she wants to dance) — have you listened to their Spanish version of the Eagles classic, Hotel California?

Another friend, who has a predilection for slow jazz and blues, prefers to single out specific songs that are sung inimitably by specific singers — The Waters of March, for example, being sung to perfection, in her judgement, by Susannah McCorkle, although Basia and Art Garfunkel also give good renditions of it. Moreover, the same friend finds, in the gentle rhythms of McCorkle’s rendition of this song, combined with the poetic lyrics, the epiphany of a desired (re)union with a lover. (I must admit that she has impeccable taste, to my mind, as further confirmed by a shared love, on the part of both of us, for Diana Krall’s version of Six Minutes of Heaven. The lyrics say it all, but no one sings it quite like Krall, she insists.)

As for myself, if pressed on what music I love, I would have to admit to having very catholic taste — I like music across a wide spectrum — but at certain times I am inclined this way or that. For instance, I have of late had a special affinity for the music of Philip Glass — the soundtracks of the Qatsi film trilogy, especially the second and third, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, are hauntingly beautiful, and Glass performing his own music on solo piano is a treat. More demanding to listen to is his opera dedicated to Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance, Satyagraha, but the more one listens to it the more it claims you. (Needless to say, given the fact that I have devoted a post to his music, Leonard Cohen is never far from my ears … )

Two contemporary thinkers, both of whom give one clues to the answer to my initial question, why music is indispensable for people, are Heidegger and Adorno. The latter regarded the transient nature of music as an instantiation of its intimate link with temporality itself. In this regard, Susan Buck-Morss (in her wonderful book on Adorno and the Frankfurt School of 1979 — The Origin of Negative Dialectics) observes of Adorno’s acute historical awareness:

“Music, which has often been called the most abstract of the arts, is in the historical sense the most concrete. For no art is more integrally related to the dimension of time. The composition is itself history: the sense of each transient note both determines and is determined by that which has been and that which will come. Musical sound unfolds in a continuous, transitory present.”

Human life, too, “unfolds in a continuous, transitory present”. In light of this, my first answer to the question of music’s never-ending allure for people would be that it is precisely its embodiment of the rhythm of time — its ebb and flow, as it were — that speaks so powerfully to us. In this, it is a metonymy of life itself, which ineluctably consists in rhythmic alternations between birth, growth, decay and death. Hence one’s attraction to music probably derives from an intuitive awareness that, by listening or dancing to it, one is joining oneself to the wellspring of life. And every step of the way, life invites one to be more than one has been, to overcome previous stages of one’s development as an individual and, in striving to transcend these, give meaning to one’s life. Adorno himself puts it this way (in Buck-Morss’s book):

“Music is, as temporal art, bound by its very medium to the form of succession, and therewith as irreversible as time. Once it commences, it is obliged to go further, to become something new, to develop itself.”

One of Adorno and Heidegger’s predecessors, Schopenhauer, claimed that it is the blind, irrational will, and not reason — as traditional philosophy would have it — which operates in, and explains everything from falling bodies to the irrepressible nature of life, including sex and love, and even the arts. Among all the art forms it is music, according to Schopenhauer, which embodies the will to live directly, instead of indirectly through some idea, as in the other arts. In metaphysical terms he confirms what Adorno says without recourse to metaphysics.

Turning to Heidegger, one finds an irresistible indication of the source of the magnetism exercised on humans by music — one that is located in humans themselves. Among what Heidegger (in Being and Time) lists as the fundamental ontological traits of human beings, or what he calls Dasein (“being there”; “there-being”), one finds Befindlichkeit, translated as “moodness” or, to my mind better, as “attunement”, which is an appropriate musical metaphor for what Heidegger seems to have in mind here. What he means seems to be the curious state of affairs, that any person is invariably “found to be” in some or other mood or affective state, such as equanimity or calmness, excitement, anger, irritability, fear, or anxiety. And the reason for this is that human beings are inescapably always already receptive to whatever it is in their world that “affects” them — whether it is good news, or bad news, or a threat, or a promise. And what “affects” one, modifies the fundamental “state-of-mindness” (the capacity to have a mood of some kind) into a recognisable mood.

This, I believe, explains why we, as humans, are susceptible to the soul-affecting capacity of music. It is no accident that music may be composed in a major or a minor key — the latter “attunes” (or perhaps “tunes”) one’s mind differently, invariably in a relatively melancholic manner, compared to music in a major key. And different instruments also affect one in different ways — for myself, no instrument can quite parallel the sense of melancholy that emanates from a cello (especially when played by Yo-Yo Ma), or, in the case of some concertos, a violin. The same is true of (the timbre of) voices — there are certain operatic arias that no one can sing as movingly as Maria Callas does, while Sutherland, for example, does others more convincingly. And is it an accident that the vast majority of songs — popular songs as well as “serious” lieder — are love songs? I believe not. Music resonates with human attunement or “moodness” because it requires listeners, just as a person requires an “other” — perhaps a “significant other” — to feel complemented, “completed”, albeit intermittently instead of conclusively. In fact, it appears that, paradoxically, one persistently fails in the quest of “finding oneself” unless one finds “an other” in the act of love — so beautifully demonstrated in the film As it is in Heaven (a film in which music is central to the narrative).

Hence, if anyone were to ask me what the connection between music and love is, one possible way I could answer is to say that, once one has discovered music that appeals to two lovers — that is, for which one shares a love with someone you love — sooner or later it dawns on you that, through the music, it is as if one touches one’s lover’s soul, as it were. This may happen when you are dancing together to a song or melody you both love, or just listening to it together. But if it is true that one way of conceiving of a meaningful existence is to say that it requires someone, somewhere, to have “found you” in a profound sense, to know your “real”, most secret name, I would add that this often happens through a shared love of specific music. After accepting an invitation to attend a “musical” in which I had a singing role years ago — Romberg’s The Student Prince — an old friend of mine was moved to remark that he believed the first verse of the Gospel according to John should be rewritten to read: “In the beginning was the music, and the music was with God, and the music was God.” Today I believe I finally understand why he thought so.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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