What is it about music?

July 31, 2015

Over three days from July 24th, I attended the Splendour in the Grass music festival just north of Byron Bay, with about 28,000 others – Australia’s biggest winter music festival. There were over 100 acts to see across multiple stages, as well as seminars and sermons, yoga, meditation, and much shopping. But the biggest question I walked away with was “why?”.  It poured down with rain, the entire showground and campgrounds were suffocated in thick, deep, unabating mud, my tent was flooded and every warm item I had became sopping wet, there was a constant battle against the crowds, everything was dirty, neighbouring campers stayed up all night yelling and dancing, it was impossible to rest, my friends fell sick from mere exhaustion… And yet, I would do it all again. Why?

Pigs in mud

Music, especially live music, has an intangible allure.  Most humans fall victim to the attraction of sounds arranged into patterns, and yet it’s difficult to rationalize the reasons why.  Physician and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia, “What an odd thing it is to see an entire species – billions of people – playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music’.” And still, I find this quote mildly annoying for its inference that music is meaningless.

Music beyond doubt affects and infects us.  At some point in our lives, everyone has experienced music as emotion, memory, movement, imagination, identity, and thus expression at its most abstract.  Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”  It gestures at our innermost being, but is entirely abstracted from the reality of being.  In this way then, it’s fitting that we find it inexplicable; it gives shape to the things we find shapeless.

Florence Welch of Florence & The Machine, 

This sentiment also explains, to a certain extent, why some people are so drawn to particular genres or artists; there’s an internal necessity that drives them.  For instance, I absolutely love Florence and the Machine – to me, Florence’s music is incredibly powerful, emotional and downright beautiful. I pushed right to the front for her performance at Splendour and it was utter bliss; I really identified with the shape it took.  On the other hand, one of my Splendour accomplices prefers artists such as Royal Blood and The Delta Riggs, music that is gutsy and punchy and loud, and these bands were the highlights of his Splendour experience; they were what he identified with.

Either way, by the end of the three days in Byron Bay, I recognized more sharply than ever that live music has the capacity not only to – according to Schopenhauer – “reproduce the emotions of our innermost being”, but indeed to subsume our sense of being.  And this isn’t even taking into consideration the effect of the crowd, the anonymity and oneness of being a speck in an ocean of people.  Talk about losing yourself.

In being able to hear and feel the shape that music takes, in losing ourselves, we are unconsciously able to anchor ourselves – anchor what we find shapeless – in the tangible world of reality. In this way, the mud and the rain and the exhaustion merely add to this realness and rawness.