Auditory Cheesecake?

A little while back I read in Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works that he thinks music is “auditory cheesecake,” and “it could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” The obvious poverty of that idea struck me again as I was reading Barth on Mozart.

Interesting that the greatest philosopher of the Western tradition and the greatest philosopher of the Eastern tradition, Plato and Confucius, both spent a shockingly large portion of their lives reflecting on music. Confucius was the Alan Lomax of his day, traveling around China to collect its remaining folk music, because he believed that it sounded “the tones given off by the heart,” which any humane system of ritual and government would have to coordinate gracefully. In Book III of the Republic Plato, who deals with music throughout his philosophical work, spending the most of amount of time on it in his most overtly political dialogues, says with his typical perfection:

[M]usical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the sound, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful: and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.

Both Plato and Confucius understand that music expresses, effervescently, a total style of human existence, which can be ennobling or degrading, glorious or wretched. They understand that music is deeper than politics, philosophy, religion, and even language; and if our words and ways can’t tap into its energy, then they can’t sustain us. If we have to bring in neurobiology to certify what should be obvious, then I call on Dr. Oliver Sacks who says in Musicophilia, “We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.”

My hunch is that those like Steven Pinker with their earbuds full of “auditory cheesecake” are deafened by the prejudices of our consumer society, which considers music an expendable “special” in education and stuffs all music–cantatas, marches, dirges–into the category of “entertainment.” Holding that music is all about entertainment is like holding that marriage is all about sex: it’s true to a degree, perhaps even truer than is intended, but there’s so much more to the story. Teenagers, among others, have always known intuitively that Plato and Confucius are right: music is decisive for existence, one of the staples of the human soul. If music were to vanish from our species, civilization would be drained of all color, if not crumble for lack of foundation.

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