Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Uncertainty of Our Being and the Four Purposes of Music

Scott F. Madey, Dean D. VonDras

Music is a universal phenomenon. In all cultures we find music, where the penetrating message of the lyrical melody and the rich harmonies of the instrumental ensemble communicate the apprehensions of the individual, family, and society. Viewed from a psychological perspective, these apprehensions reflect the uncertainty of our being, and are recognized to motivate and direct our feelings, thinking, and actions. When we examine closely the uncertainties of life, we confront the four pillars of our existential anxiety: Death, and how to understand the limits and overcome the anxiety of our often too-short temporal existence; freedom, and how we might escape pain and find comfort, satisfaction, and happiness in life; isolation, and how we may be united in love and find connection with others; and, meaninglessness, how we might express an identity that proclaims an importance and purpose for our living. Thus, while it is recognized that music has many styles and countless sonic and expressive idioms, music’s real purpose and human invention is to help us in reducing and resolving these existential anxieties. Given these life concerns then, we may posit that there are four basic purposes of music.

The first purpose of music is to allow us to escape the finality of death. Music of this type might reflect the majesty and power of an Ultimate Authority, and be recognized in the sacred music from all cultures that heralds the divinity and authority of a savior. It holds the promise that we might yet live beyond the suffering of our limited number of days, in another realm or another existence. Or be reflected in the simple and plaintive expression of the psalmist’s harp and prayer that announces faith and hope, despite travelling through the valley of death. We might also see this pillar of existential anxiety addressed in martial music, where trumpets and drums heroically and excitedly exclaim our chances of survival, despite the long odds and deadly battle that surrounds us.

Another purpose of music echoes our steadfast hope of becoming, free to live as we like, with personal dignity and in comfort. Music of this type expresses desires for our self-determination, the attainment of pleasure, and enduring happiness. We might recognize this purpose of music in energetic dance pieces, where the rhythms inspire us to tap our foot or dance and sway, creating physical movements that mirror the arching freedom of the melodic lines and syncopations of the beat. Or in the songs that proclaim our free action, such as Paul Anka’s “My Way.” Songs of freedom may also express our intentions to resolve other pillars of our anxiety, that is, to possess love and to be recognized. Or, perhaps with disdain, also convey our unhappiness like the Mick Jagger and Keith Richard song, “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction,” that in its performance or listening may provide some relief from the existential anxiety surrounding the curtailment of our personal freedoms and desires.

Music is also purposely intended to allay our anxiety about living alone, separated and isolated from others, and to voice our hope for intimate connection and communal involvement. Certainly, the folk song that promises an undying fidelity to one’s beloved, or, as another Paul Anka’s song asks, to “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” are of this type. But musical pieces that express a union with and a belonging to others, such as a country’s national anthem are of this type as well. Similarly, music that announces a desire that all human-kind may be as one, also expresses our hopes for belonging and connection with others.  And, while we might recognize many examples of this type, there is also music that expresses an “us versus them” motif, so that given some unique social or cultural disunion, we might experience a more exclusive sense of belonging. Again, we may find this existential subject addressed in folk songs, like Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome,” that suggests all who join in the chorus bear similar hopes and interests, or in the spirited school alma mater that proclaims the virtue of the organization and all those who pledge their allegiance share this virtue, or perhaps in a rock anthem like Twisted Sisters’ “We’re Not Going to Take It,” that echoes a universal desire to join together and stand against an opposing force.

Music also serves to announce and express an overcoming of a meaninglessness in life, noted in the proclaiming of our individuality, independence, or interdependence and connection with others. An example might be Bill Conti’s “Gonna’ Fly Now,” the heroic and victorious theme song for the protagonist Rocky Balboa in the film “Rocky.” Yet, music is intended to be heard by others, so each note sounded and lyric sung reflects the musician’s intention to express meaning in their music making. Like the bird song that calls for a mate, music is intended to tell others about ourselves, and in this way begins to address our concern for meaning and purpose in life.  Music that functions to resolve the pillar of meaninglessness may also overlap with the concerns of the other pillars of existential anxiety as well. For example, the sacred music that describes how our faith may provide us “true” identity and spiritual connection in that we are personally known by a Divine Being, or may suggest that through our faith we have an existence beyond death and are promised a place in heaven or, perhaps, some other secular place or reality. Similarly, music that announces interpersonal connection and sharing of love for another, may also address concerns for meaning and purpose in one’s life, like Mary J. Blige’s, “I Am,” that describes how one’s very existence may be defined by the love that one holds for and expresses to their beloved.

Life is complex, but the role that music plays in resolving our uncertainty of being is rather simple. Indeed, extending beyond the signal alert, mating songs, and coos of comfort and wellbeing and belonging that are found within other species, as we consider the uncertainty of our being, of our humanity, there are four basic purposes of music—to extend our hope of overcoming death; to assert and desire our personal freedom, comfort, and happiness; to describe our love and belonging; and to convey our personal meaningfulness and identity. 

The following internet links contain music recordings that provide listening examples of these four purposes of music for the reader’s consideration.

Music allows us to confront and overcome the anxiety of death:

In this video/audio recording, the Malian Wassoulou musician Oumou Sangare sings  “Saa Magni (Death Is Terrible).” The plaintive libretto, melody and choral accompaniment express the loss of a loved one.  For the musician and listener it offers the opportunity to contemplate a power and force beyond one’s self, and the positive emotions of love and gratitude that are uncovered in the deeper reflections on separation, death, and processes of bereavement.

Music expresses our hope for freedom:

In this video/audio recording, the Jamaican musician Bob Marley sings the “Redemption Song.” Through its shifting guitar chords and lyrical melody, we are asked to comprehend the power of music to lift us beyond chains of oppression and to sing of freedom and hope.

Music connects us with nature and others, and expresses the comfort that we find in our supportive communal and love relationships: 

In this video/audio recording, Phillip John “Aarnaquq” Charette performs “Cherokee Love Song” on flute from the album “Artic Voices.” Like the drum and rattle, the flute is one of the oldest musical instruments, and is played in all cultures. It expresses a melodic voice that is capable of being soft and airy, poetic and venerable, warm and ethereal, as well as penetratingly sharp and shrill, echoing bird songs, the whistling wind, and other sounds of nature. Further, the flute’s soft and warm sound is recognized as calming and relaxing, and used by First Nations and Indigenous Peoples as part of sacred healing ceremonies. In the “Cherokee Love Song,” the flute’s soft meditative expressions invoke deep inner reflection, and its shrill chirps brings forth connection with nature and all of life, and a transcendence beyond one’s self.

Music is used as an expression of identity:

In this video/audio recording, Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar performs “Jaat Kahan Ho,” a Hindi song and classical raga from India. The raga is a musical form designed to allow boundless improvisation, with the musical intention of effecting the deepest emotions and aspect of mind. This musical work uses rhythmic drumming and plucked stringed harmonies to support an embellished chthonian-like melody that sings of a fair maiden who travels on her life’s journey. Expressive of the universal concern and hope parents’ have for their children, this piece reflects music’s role in defining, directing, and celebrating life in all cultures.

Music, Wellness, and Aging by Scott F. Madey and Dean D. VonDras

Title: Music, Wellness, and Aging

Authors: Scott F. Madey and Dean D. VonDras

ISBN: PB – 9781108948739, HB – 9781108844697

About The Authors

Scott F. Madey

Scott F. Madey is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. He has taught courses in the history of psychology, multicultural health psychology, ...

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Dean D. VonDras

Dean D. VonDras holds a B.A. in Music and Ph.D. in psychology. He plays piano and has been a member of bands and ensemble groups since elementary school. He is currently Professor ...

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