The Essence of Music

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

It is with some hesitancy that I put these words together because why use words when there is music?

Like other forms of expression, music has been around for as long as we have been moving and communicating. Its beginnings predate recorded history and it may well have preceded speech. 

After all, some of the core elements of music such as sound, rhythm and melody, can be found in nature. Our bodies, too, are a constant swell of sounds and rhythms, most of which we are unaware of, but for our reliance on the steady beat of our heart.

One should look at how small children react to music to understand its essence: they will often express surprise and joy and will not be able to resist moving their bodies. As if music were a way to express and externalise our inner motions. 

Sadly, many of us lose that sense of freedom as we grow up, become self-conscious and lose that connection to our bodies. But music retains the ability to move us, to speak to our senses as it “takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart,” as Nietzsche said.

In fact, the power and role of music has been extolled by many great thinkers. Arthur Schopenhauer who believed music was a universal language, said “the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than […] that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.”

Many of us use music as a tool to soothe or express emotions, whether it be grief or rage, melancholy or heartbreak. Music can help us to think differently, to listen better, to observe, to feel, and that in itself influences how we behave in the world.

It is often during adolescence, a period of life that is often emotionally confusing and tumultuous, that we consciously seek refuge in music. 

Neurologist Oliver Sacks said that, in his forty years of medical practice, he had “found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

It also has a strong social element. Music can be a form of dissent or used to foster patriotism, religious belief and solidarity. Indeed like other forms of storytelling, music is in rituals, dance, entertainment; it can build a sense of community. 

While the creation of music is often a solitary one, its expression or interpretation can involve many people: from the composer, to the instrument designers and builders, to the conductor and the musicians in an orchestra, to the audience and listeners. Like in other types of ecosystems, these elements require forms of leadership and collaborations in order to work in harmony.

But like most things of value, music and the artists have been commodified, commercialised, controlled – or even owned – to mostly enrich a few in the industry. And it is always the artists who lose out, as we have seen during this pandemic, where musicians have lost their main source of income and have to rely almost entirely on royalties from streaming platforms, which never pay them fairly. 

The upside of technological developments is that we are now able to discover music from all over the world that we would otherwise not have access to. It is also enabling more people to create music. Where previously you may have needed instruments and teachers, today a laptop or even a phone may be all you need to participate in the creation of music. In turn, new forms of collaborations and interactions are emerging.

Music is play, it engages our senses, it comforts us, it heals us, it provides refuge and it brings us closer to each other. More than that, it can provide a place to think. Composer Max Richter who created a musical interpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said: “it is clear we all have some thinking to do at the moment. We live in a hugely challenging time and, looking around at the world we have made, it’s easy to feel hopeless or angry. But, just as the problems we face are of our own making, so their solutions are within our reach.”

It is in this spirit that we invite you to join the closing event of our month-long festival and the beginnings of our musical adventures at The Rights Studio, with a live music finale with producer, performer and educator Mel Uye-Parker, who will be turning the crowdsourced everyday sounds you have shared with us throughout the festival into audio magic, revealing the power of collective sharing, learning and listening.

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes