The Sound of Music

“Without music,” Friedrich Nietzsche said, “life would be a mistake.” Without music, maybe life wouldn’t even exist. To that point, if someone is given an MRI while listening to music, the portion of the brain that produces euphoria “lights up.” This is the same limbic region that tells a person that food is good and so is sex; music creates dopamine-drenched happiness.

It’s no surprise that food and sex induce joy; both of these are necessary for the survival of humanity; pleasure is a built-in reward, nature’s way of perpetuating the species. But how did music find a home in this same part of the brain? Music isn’t a life-sustaining necessity is it? Well, yes, it turns out it is.

Return to the ancient African plains with deadly predators lurking in the shadows; the primordial American forests with who knows what traipsing about in the woods; the jungles of Asia or the tundra of the Arctic for more stalking threats: What did early humans do to survive these harrowing times? They relied upon shelter, fire, and intelligence, of course. But a key strategy was socialization: People gathered in community, depending upon the safety of numbers.

Now, in this context, music might have originated from the singing of a mother to a baby – comforting the child as she could not hold him or her while she worked. Music may have been a form of group identity, a language unique to a particular community. It may have emerged from the unquenchable desire to communicate the deepest emotions; or it may have developed as “differentiating noise.”

That is, human noise is different from animal noise. The sounds made by a predator in the jungle or the darkest night were recognizable and terrifying. The sounds of community, of others to whom a person belonged, were recognizable as well. But these sounds – this music – was the comforting sound of home.

Even now, think of all the songs that have “home” as a theme! There are songs about going home, losing home, missing home, and being home alone. There are sweet homes, long ways home, homes to be taken to tonight, homes with green grass, homes on the range or by the sea, and homes with nobody there. 

As it has been for thousands and thousands of years across generations, cultures, and languages, just play the music of home – be it an Irish reel, a nomadic Romanian melody, an Appalachian gospel song, or an African American spiritual – and if that song belongs to you or your community, it cuts right to the heart. The music sounds; the memories flood; and the tears fall. 

This brings to mind an obscure but telling line from the Hebrew Scriptures: “God has set eternity in our hearts.” If this is true, and I believe that it is, then eternity has the ring of a song to it, and the shape of well-turned line of poetry. Always follow the music, and you will find your way home.