Music is all around us in our day-to-day lives. It emanates from the ceiling speakers at clothing stores it is projected from the portable amplifiers of street musicians busking at busy intersections. It often gets stuck in endless loops in our heads.
Many of us have grown up around music and see it as just another part of our lives. However, some believe that music serves a distinct purpose. Today we will examine various perspectives on “What is the purpose of music?” and attempt to narrow down a universal answer.
What is Music?
Before looking at the different perspectives surrounding the main topic of this article, it is worth understanding what exactly music is. Depending on who you ask, you may get different answers. For example, one person may give a simple answer such as, “The Beatles are music.”. Others may prefer to give more technical definitions such as “Music is a collection of pleasing sounds arranged and presented in a rhythmic fashion.”
The latter answer is similar to the following definition given by the Cambridge Dictionary:
“Music – A pattern of sounds made by musical instruments, voices, or computers, or a combination of these, intended to give pleasure to people listening to it”.
The above definition tells us a lot about what music consists of. It contains musical instruments, voices, as well as computer-generated sounds. However, the latter portion of the definition may be up for debate depending on who you ask.
After all, many people certainly do listen to music because they find it pleasurable. However, some types of music may serve other purposes such as distracting listeners, keeping them calm, or helping them follow along during a physical task.
Music for Creative Expression
Music is considered one of the primary artforms along with literature and the visual arts. If physical artwork such as paintings or sculptures decorate space, music can be said to decorate time. This also makes music an important form of creative expression.
If art’s purpose is to invoke a reaction with those experiencing it, music certainly does fit the bill. Composers can create musical pieces using an array of musical instruments such as pianos, violins, flutes, and percussion. When put together, such arrangements could convey complex emotions that would be difficult to channel with words.
Many listeners also gravitate to music because they would like to experience another person’s creative expression. For example, one could say the entire jazz genre is held up by listeners with an active interest in getting into the musician’s mind and observing what they have come up with.
Many people may also listen to music to observe the different ways in which it has been arranged. After all, a single melody could be presented in numerous ways using different tempos, instruments, or vocalists.
Computers have also expanded the music composition and production capabilities in the 21st century. It is now possible for composers to create alternate arrangements for their compositions without having to rely on a suite of musicians. Each of these arrangements could be considered a different type of creative expression.
Music in Religious and Cultural Rituals
While most of us enjoy listening to music for the joy it brings us, it serves other purposes in certain religions and cultures. For example, many historians believe that music was used in religious functions in the pre-Christian era. In fact, certain musical instruments such as horns were specifically created for ceremonies.
Music in Religious Ceremonies
Music has been used in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. People in Zimbabwe often use music in their ceremonies to express gratitude towards their God and thank them for ushering in a fruitful harvest season.
Similarly, music has become a staple part in many Christian religious ceremonies. Many of us are familiar with musical and choir performances at different Churches. Such music may not necessarily be used for pleasure, but to elevate the spirits of church-goers and make the act of worship more exciting.
Music in Cultural Ceremonies
Music is also intrinsically linked to the cultural identities of many communities around the globe. For example, music is considered a social activity in many African communities. Locals are expected to participate in such ceremonies which feature lengthy musical performances. Music may be performed at events such as weddings, births, or ceremonial rites of passage.
Music can be a symbol of pride for different regions in Indonesia. Certain types of traditional music were born from specific tribes in the country, and therefore hold a special place for such cultures.
Music for Political Expression
Music has also been used as a tool for political expression for many generations. One of the most famous examples includes the anti-war protests in the United States in the 1960s. These protests included many musicians who composed music with anti-war or pro-peace themes. Such music was often branded as “hippie music”. However, it was a powerful tool that encouraged peaceful rebellion against a towering status quo.
In the 1950s and 1960s, writers from the “Beat Generation” aimed to sexually and spiritually liberate society and promote counterculture lifestyles. Their works inspired plenty of musicians in the UK who began creating music that could be considered counterculture. This included acts such as Steely Dan, Tom Waits, and Soft Machine.
Music for Meditation and Therapy
Music can also be used to accompany meditation or therapy sessions and assist in improving your mental health. Many artists compose works specifically for this purpose.
Such music often features a peaceful and serene feel that allows your mind to calm down. This can be useful for patients with hypertension or anxiety who have trouble controlling racing thoughts.
Many therapists also recommend that patients learn to play a musical instrument. This is because the activity can help them ward off negative emotions while learning a useful skill that they can show off.
Music for Exercise
Conversely, music can also help you get charged up and ready to move your body. Such music may be played or performed at dance events. However, it can also be used to accompany exercise sessions. You don’t have to look very hard to find music mixes designed for workout and calisthenics routines.
Exercise music is great at keeping your mind active and engaged with the exercise you are performing. It adds a touch of fun to an otherwise exhausting activity, making it the perfect accompaniment for any workout routine.
Music for Work
Scientists theorize that humans have an innate urge to follow along with musical rhythms as it helps make group activities more efficient. For example, workers in a workshop can work more efficiently if they hammer items along to a rhythm or beat. This can also be observed in army marching formations in which soldiers move in-time with a drum beat.
As you can see, music has many purposes beyond just providing a source of pleasure for listeners. The music we listen to today is an evolved form of an ancient artform. However, this music will likely continue to evolve into the future. Nobody knows how music will be used in the future, but we’re sure somebody will find new and novel uses for it.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.