Many scholars have discussed potential functions of music exclusively from a theoretical point of view. The most prominent of these approaches or theories are the ones that make explicit evolutionary claims. However, there are also other, non-evolutionary approaches such as experimental aesthetics or the uses-and-gratifications approach. Functions of music were derived deductively from these approaches and theories. In addition, in the literature, one commonly finds lists or collections of functions that music can have. Most of these lists are the result of literature searches; in other cases authors provide no clear explanation for how they came up with the functions they list. Given the aim of assembling a comprehensive list, all works are included in our summary.
Functions of music as they derive from specific approaches or theories
Evolutionary approaches. Evolutionary discussions of music can already be found in the writings of Darwin. Darwin discussed some possibilities but felt there was no satisfactory solution to music's origins (Darwin, 1871, 1872). His intellectual heirs have been less cautious. Miller (2000), for instance, has argued that music making is a reasonable index of biological fitness, and so a manifestation of sexual selection—analogous to the peacock's tail. Anyone who can afford the biological luxury of making music must be strong and healthy. Thus, music would offer an honest social signal of physiological fitness.
Another line of theorizing refers to music as a means of social and emotional communication. For example, Panksepp and Bernatzky (2002, p. 139) argued that
in social creatures like ourselves, whose ancestors lived in arboreal environments where sound was one of the most effective ways to coordinate cohesive group activities, reinforce social bonds, resolve animosities, and to establish stable hierarchies of submission and dominance, there could have been a premium on being able to communicate shades of emotional meaning by the melodic character (prosody) of emitted sounds.
A similar idea is that music contributes to social cohesion and thereby increases the effectiveness of group action. Work and war songs, lullabies, and national anthems have bound together families, groups, or whole nations. Relatedly, music may provide a means to reduce social stress and temper aggression in others. The idea that music may function as a social cement has many proponents (see Huron, 2001; Mithen, 2006; Bicknell, 2007).
A novel evolutionary theory is offered by Falk (2004a,b) who has proposed that music arose from humming or singing intended to maintain infant-mother attachment. Falk's “putting-down-the-baby hypothesis” suggests that mothers would have profited from putting down their infants in order to make their hands free for other activities. Humming or singing consequently arose as a consoling signal indicating caretaker proximity in the absence of physical touch.
Another interesting conjecture relates music to human anxiety related to death, and the consequent quest for meaning. Dissanayake (2009), for example, has argued that humans have used music to help cope with awareness of life's transitoriness. In a manner similar to religious beliefs about the hereafter or a higher transcendental purpose, music can help assuage human anxiety concerning mortality (see, e.g., Newberg et al., 2001). Neurophysiological studies regarding music-induced chills can be interpreted as congruent with this conjecture. For example, music-induced chills produce reduced activity in brain structures associated with anxiety (Blood and Zatorre, 2001).
Related ideas stress the role music plays in feelings of transcendence. For example, (Frith, 1996, p. 275) has noted that: “We all hear the music we like as something special, as something that defies the mundane, takes us “out of ourselves,” puts us somewhere else.” Thus, music may provide a means of escape. The experience of flow states (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009), peaks (Maslow, 1968), and chills (Panksepp, 1995), which are often evoked by music listening, might similarly be interpreted as forms of transcendence or escapism (see also Fachner, 2008).
More generally, Schubert (2009) has argued that the fundamental function of music is its potential to produce pleasure in the listener (and in the performer, as well). All other functions may be considered subordinate to music's pleasure-producing capacity. Relatedly, music might have emerged as a safe form of time-passing—analogous to the sleeping behaviors found among many predators. As humans became more effective hunters, music might have emerged merely as an entertaining and innocuous way to pass time during waking hours (see Huron, 2001).
The above theories each stress a single account of music's origins. In addition, there are mixed theories that posit a constellation of several concurrent functions. Anthropological accounts of music often refer to multiple social and cultural benefits arising from music. Merriam (1964) provides a seminal example. In his book, The anthropology of music, Merriam proposed 10 social functions music can serve (e.g., emotional expression, communication, and symbolic representation). Merriam's work has had a lasting influence among music scholars, but also led many scholars to focus exclusively on the social functions of music. Following in the tradition of Merriam, Dissanayake (2006) proposed six social functions of ritual music (such as display of resources, control, and channeling of individual aggression, and the facilitation of courtship).
Non-evolutionary approaches. Many scholars have steered clear of evolutionary speculation about music, and have instead focused on the ways in which people use music in their everyday lives today. A prominent approach is the “uses-and-gratifications” approach (e.g., Arnett, 1995). This approach focuses on the needs and concerns of the listeners and tries to explain how people actively select and use media such as music to serve these needs and concerns. Arnett (1995) provides a list of potential uses of music such as entertainment, identity formation, sensation seeking, or culture identification.
Another line of research is “experimental aesthetics” whose proponents investigate the subjective experience of beauty (both artificial or natural), and the ensuing experience of pleasure. For example, in discussing the “recent work in experimental aesthetics,” Bullough (1921) distinguished several types of listeners and pointed to the fact that music can be used to activate associations, memories, experiences, moods, and emotions.
By way of summary, many musical functions have been proposed in the research literature. Evolutionary speculations have tended to focus on single-source causes such as music as an indicator of biological fitness, music as a means for social and emotional communication, music as social glue, music as a way of facilitating caretaker mobility, music as a means of tempering anxiety about mortality, music as escapism or transcendental meaning, music as a source of pleasure, and music as a means for passing time. Other accounts have posited multiple concurrent functions such as the plethora of social and cultural functions of music found in anthropological writings about music. Non-evolutionary approaches are evident in the uses-and-gratifications approach—which revealed a large number of functions that can be summarized as cognitive, emotional, social, and physiological functions—and the experimental aesthetics approach, whose proposed functions can similarly be summarized as cognitive and emotional functions.
Functions of music as they derive from literature research
As noted, many publications posit musical functions without providing a clear connection to any theory. Most of these works are just collections of functions of music from the literature. Not least, there are also accounts of such collections where it remained unclear how the author(s) came up with the functions contained. Some of these works refer to only one single function of music—most often because this functional aspect was investigated not with the focus on music but with a focus on other psychological phenomena. Yet other works list extensive collections of purported musical functions.
Works that refer to only one single functional aspect of music include possible therapeutic functions for music in clinical settings (Cook, 1986; Frohne-Hagemann and Pleß-Adamczyk, 2005), the use of music for symbolic exclusion in political terms (Bryson, 1996), the syntactic, semantic, and mediatizing use of film music (Maas, 1993), and the use of music to manage physiological arousal (Bartlett, 1996).
The vast majority of publications identify several possible musical functions, most of which—as stated above—are clearly focused on social aspects. Several comprehensive collections have been assembled, such as those by Baacke (1984), Gregory (1997), Ruud (1997), Roberts and Christenson (2001), Engh (2006), and Laiho (2004). Most of these studies identified a very large number of potential functions of music.
By way of summary, there exists a long tradition of theorizing about the potential functions of music. Although some of these theories have been deduced from a prior theoretical framework, none was the result of empirical testing or exploratory data-gathering. In the ensuing section, we turn to consider empirically-oriented research regarding the number and nature of potential musical functions.
[The Montana Professor 20.1, Fall 2009 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]
We need music to survive*
The Boston Conservatory
One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not value me as a musician. I remember my mother's reaction when I announced my decision to study music instead of medicine: "You're wasting your SAT scores!" My parents love music, but at the time they were unclear about its value.
The confusion is understandable: We put music in the "arts & entertainment" section of the newspaper. But music often has little to do with entertainment. Quite the opposite.
The ancient Greeks had a fascinating way of articulating how music works. In their quadrivium—geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music—astronomy and music are two sides of the same coin. Astronomy describes relationships between observable, external, permanent objects.
Music illuminates relationships between invisible, internal, transient objects. I imagine us having internal planets, constellations of complicated thoughts and feelings. Music finds the invisible pieces inside our hearts and souls and helps describe the position of things inside us, like a telescope that looks in rather than out.
In June 1940, French composer Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There, he finished a quartet for piano, cello, violin, and clarinet, and performed it, with three other imprisoned musicians, for the inmates and guards of that camp. The piece ("Quartet for the End of Time") is arguably one of the greatest successes in the history of music.
Given what we have since learned about life under Nazi occupation, why would anyone write music there? If you're just trying to stay alive, why bother with music? And yet—even from concentration camps themselves, we have surviving evidence of poetry, music, and visual art—many people made art. Why?
Art must be, somehow, essential for life. In fact, art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are; art is one of the ways in which we say, "I am alive, and my life has meaning."
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a resident of Manhattan. Later that day I reached a new understanding of my art. Given the day's events, the idea of playing the piano seemed absurd, disrespectful, and pointless. Amid ambulances, firefighters, and fighter jets, I heard an inner voice ask: "Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment?"
Then I saw how we survived. The first group activity in my neighborhood that night was singing. People sang. They sang around firehouses; they sang "We Shall Overcome," "America the Beautiful," "The Star-Spangled Banner"; they sang songs learned in elementary school, which some hadn't sung since then. Within days, we gathered at Lincoln Center for the Brahms Requiem. Along with firefighters and fighter jets, artists were "first responders" in this disaster, too. The military secured our airspace, but musicians led the recovery. In measuring the revival of New York, the return of Broadway—another art form—was as significant a milestone as the reopening of the stock markets.
I now understand that music is not part of "arts and entertainment." It's not a luxury, something we fund from budget leftovers. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of things, a way to express feelings when we have no words, a way to understand things with our hearts when we cannot grasp them with our minds. Music is the language we choose when we are speechless.
Imagine a graduation with absolutely no music—or a wedding, a presidential inauguration, or a service celebrating the life and death of a close friend—imagine these with no music whatsoever. What's missing—entertainment? Hardly. What's missing is the capacity to meaningfully experience these events, as though eating great food without tasting it. Music functions as a container for experience—it augments capacity to grasp complex things. Without music, the events of our lives slip like water through cupped hands. Music increases our capacity to hold life experiences, to celebrate them, to survive them.
The performance I think of as my most important concert took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town. I was playing with a dear friend of mine, a violinist. We began with Aaron Copland's "Sonata," which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young pilot who was shot down during the war.
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. After we finished, we mentioned that the piece was dedicated to a downed pilot. The man became so disturbed he had to leave the auditorium, but showed up backstage afterward, tears and all, to explain himself.
He told us that during World War II, as a pilot, he was in an aerial combat situation where one of this team's planes was hit. He watched his friend bail out and his parachute open. But the Japanese planes returned and machine-gunned across the parachute chords, separating the parachute from the pilot. He then watched his friend drop away into the ocean, lost. He said he had not thought about that for years, but during that first piece of music we played, this memory returned to him so vividly that it was as though he was reliving it. How did Copland manage to capture that picture of internal planets so clearly?
People walk into concert halls as they walk into emergency rooms, in need of healing. They may bring a broken body to a hospital, but they often bring with them to the concert a mind that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again depends partly on how well musicians do their craft.
A musician is more of a paramedic than an entertainer. I'm not interested in entertaining you; I'm interested in keeping you alive. Fully alive. We're a lot like cardiac surgeons; we hold people's hearts in our hands every day. We just use different instruments.
What should we expect from young people who choose a future in music? Frankly, I expect them to save the planet.
If there is a future wave of wellness, of harmony, of peace, an end to war, mutual understanding, equality, fairness, I don't expect it to come from a government, a military force, or a corporation. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if we are to have an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As we did in Nazi camps and on the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.
*Editor's Note: Karl Paulnack is a pianist and director of the music division at the Boston Conservatory. This essay is adapted from a welcome speech he gave to incoming freshman. It was originally published in the 7 June 2009 issue of The Christian Science Monitor, p. 28.
[The Montana Professor 20.1, Fall 2009 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]
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