Why music is the key

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” — Aldous Huxley

Music is the sound of everything. Birds do it, bees do it; even elephants and whales sing songs. Music is older than speech; it is the language of the womb and the nursery, the melodies and rhythms that pass between mother and child.

Music is the air given form. And it is no Zen paradox to say that without someone there to hear it, music does not exist. Unless vibrating air molecules find an echo on the eardrum and are reorganised in the cerebellum, is music really there at all?

But when it is there and you are, too, music has an undeniable effect on mood and behaviour. Think of soldiers marching into battle to the sound of drums and fifes; or demonstrators striding along, arms linked, a defiant hymn on their lips. Or picture a pop audience swaying to a sentimental rock ballad holding Bic lighters aloft. With words or without, a song speaks directly to the emotions.

An old song can transport us instantly back to the emotions of an earlier time when we first heard it. When David Bowie, in his song Starman, emulates the soaring octave jump that begins Somewhere Over the Rainbow, is he suggesting the celestial origins of his hero or just hitching a ride on a familiar melody, with all its poignant, nostalgic associations? Music is memory. And the memory of emotions.

Music is the key

“How strange the change from major to minor.” — Cole Porter

The most noticeable emotional effect of music and perhaps the easiest to recognise is harmonic: the distinct mood shift between major and minor keys. By the age of six or seven, scientists believe, Western children learn to associate minor harmonies with sadness. Major keys are more common and hence less emotionally specific, though a brisk tempo, rising intonation and high notes will certainly impart a feeling of exhilaration.

Even without Benny Hill’s hectic visuals, his theme tune (Boots Randolph’s 1963 hit Yakety Sax) would make most of us smile. Compare that bright, manic major-key sound with the solemn, even mournful tones of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, better known as the Moonlight. If that contrast seems cartoonish — if you think I’m comparing apples with oranges — consider the triumphant major melody of Ludwig Van’s Ode to Joy, the majestic final movement of his Ninth Symphony.

But this isn’t the whole story; the workings of harmony can be complex. One Sunday morning in a park in Memphis, Tennessee, as an onlooker to a Mother’s Day gospel meeting, I saw a woman first rattle all over her body then faint from the effect of the hypnotic, repetitive rhythms of an unmistakably major-key gospel number. Whether it was ecstasy or exhaustion, I couldn’t be sure.

In Bali, on the other hand, I’ve observed the measured serenity of a gamelan orchestra, its gongs and flutes marching steadily forward in what to Western ears is a distinctly minor tonality — yet the effect is joyous, reflective and not in the least mournful. (In most Asian cultures, from India to Japan, music consists of rhythm and melody with little or no harmony.)

Songwriter Cole Porter was a dab hand at juggling major and minor moods to achieve an emotional effect — in Love for Sale, I Love Paris and What is This Thing Called Love?, to name a few — and in the song quoted above, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, he famously echoes the lyric with an actual harmonic shift “from major to minor”. The effect is almost heartbreaking.

More than one commentator has suggested Porter, a midwestern Protestant, was consciously emulating “Jewish music” as a way to challenge the popular success of the likes of Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers. But I like to think he, no less than George Gershwin, implicitly understood that it’s the ambiguity between the minor (flattened) third and major third of the scale — the mi of do-re-mi — that puts the blues in jazz.

When we sing we begin with ‘do re mi’

To begin at the very beginning, the building blocks of music, as described in Daniel J. Levitin’s often fascinating, sometimes perplexing book This is Your Brain on Music, can be ordered as follows:


  • Pitch refers to the actual frequency of a tone as well as its place in the scale. A scale is series of tones based on cultural tradition. An octave is formed by halving or doubling frequencies. A chord is three or more notes played together.
  • Rhythm is derived from the duration of successive notes and their groupings into units.
  • Tempo is the overall speed of a piece of music.
  • Contour describes the up-and-down shape of a melody.
  • Timbre distinguishes one voice or instrument from another according to the different overtones each produces when sounding the same note.
  • Loudness describes the energy created by a voice or instrument.
  • Reverberation refers to the distance from us of a sound and the size of the room in which it occurs.


Levitin goes on to identify how these elements combine to form “higher-order concepts” such as:


  • Meter: the combination of rhythm, loudness and the way tones are grouped across time.
  • Key: the hierarchy of importance between tones in a scale or within a musical piece.
  • Melody: the main theme of a piece — the bit you sing along with.
  • Harmony: the relationships between different pitches in a tonal context.

These concepts are learned in a cultural context that leads us to anticipate the shape of a musical piece. A composer will either meet these expectations or, for artistic purposes, delay or violate them with surprise harmonic variations or with metrical shifts known as syncopations.

Say a little prayer

“We commit fewer musical sins in church.” — Igor Stravinsky

Although the ancient Greeks worked out the basics of our modern tempered scale more than 25 centuries ago (see box, The Music of the Spheres), for half its history the West managed to get along without harmony. If it got along at all.

Until the Middle Ages, churches reverberated to the sound of plainsong, sometimes called Gregorian chant: prayers chanted in unison — a one-note drone. Australian music historian Andrew Ford suggests polyphony, or harmony, crept into mediaeval church music when some monks or nuns gave up trying to sing the same high (or low) note as the better singers and selected one somewhere in between, most likely the fifth, a natural interval between the octaves. This sound — parallel octaves and a fifth (sometimes a fourth as well) — was pleasingly resonant in big cathedrals and became known as organum.

It was a slippery slope. Before long (well, within centuries) composers were writing hymns that brought singers as indecently close together as a third apart, an interval the church considered “imperfect” but which is perfectly familiar to our ears. After the Reformation, hymnists began to employ the complete harmonic spectrum of Classical and Romantic music, with the possible exception of the so-called “devil’s interval” (see box).

In the New World, where Protestant hymnody met African rhythms in the Baptist churches of the American South, a new style of church music was born. Variously called spirituals or gospel songs, the tunes were faster with short, bursts of praise swapped in call-and-response riffs. Just as meditation on a mantra can produce a state of bliss, the trancelike, percussive pulse of gospel music can transport both listener and performer — as in the case of the woman I saw faint in Memphis.

Besides its impact on jazz, this style fundamentally influenced popular music through artists like Ray Charles who, by turning a gospel song like This Little Light of Mine into This Little Girl of Mine, laid the foundations of soul music. While James Brown went down the road of pure rhythm, setting the scene for rap and hip-hop, church-educated singers like Aretha Franklin built towering edifices of melody and harmony that would lead to the elaborate “diva” stylings of the likes of Mariah Carey.

Nowadays, of course, churches are attracting a new congregation by using pop music to praise God, thus completing the circle.

The Devil’s interval

One sound the church never warmed to was the tritone, a so-called restless or unstable interval that spans three whole tones. (“Unstable” refers to the tendency of the third note of the tritone, the raised fourth or flattened fifth, to resolve upwards to a perfect fifth.)

Up until the 18th century, this rather pleasant dissonance was dubbed diabolus in musica or “the Devil in music” and was rarely used, whether out of superstition or because it’s devilishly difficult to sing. One far-fetched theory suggests the tritone got its bad reputation from faulty maths: three whole tones equals six semitones equals 666, the biblical “mark of the beast”.

But Classical composers such as Vivaldi and Beethoven toyed with it and the Romantics took to it with gusto. It’s hard to imagine modern pop or jazz harmony without the diminished seventh chord, an unsettling sound built on two tritones and familiar from its comic use in pantomime to accompany the entry of the moustache-twirling villain.

Probably taking their cue from Jimi Hendrix’s famous intro to Purple Haze, heavy metal musicians employ the Devil’s interval as gleefully as they make the sign of the Devil’s horns with raised thumb and pinkie. Small wonder then that Pope Benedict XVI called rock music “a vehicle of anti-religion”.

Music of the spheres

“There is geometry in the humming of the strings … there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” — Pythagoras of Samos

The origin of our modern musical scale is to be found in the work of the sixth-century BCE mathematician Pythagoras, whose fascination with numbers led him to study the properties of a vibrating string. Dividing it in half — as a guitarist might do, stopping the string with a finger — produces a tone an octave above the open string. Pythagoras then divided the string into thirds, creating the perfect fifth, and so on until he had fitted 12 notes into the octave.

We now know the ancient Greeks’ perfect numbers did not fit an imperfect world. By Bach’s time, musicians had evolved a “tempered” system of tuning that compensates for slight discrepancies when the octave is divided into 12 equal intervals. So, whereas Pythagoras calculated the fifth as the ratio 3:2, or 1.500, in the modern equal-temperament system the ratio is actually 1.49831, which should give you new respect for piano tuners.

Pythagoras and his followers found the same mathematical ratios that please the ear also please the eye, leading to theories of design that still hold true. They believed, too, that all matter, including the planets, not only moved according to these same harmonic ratios but also emanated musical tones.

Without getting too technical, their ideas are echoed by modern string theory, the so-called “theory of everything”, which postulates that the smallest components of the universe are not point-like particles but infinitesimal loops that resemble tiny vibrating strings. Hong Kong-born geneticist Mae-Wan Ho talks about quantum jazz, the subatomic rhythms that “dance life into being”.

Other cultures have evolved similar theories: Hinduism suggests the music of the spheres corresponds to shabda, the “audible life stream”, while Buddhists believe that meditation can open one’s third ear to the sound of gandharvas or the “celestial musicians”.

So from the Pythagoreans’ music of the spheres — or musica universalis — to 21st-century quantum physics, people have long believed the universe is an intricate pattern of musical vibrations. Or, to put it another way, that the same vibration that creates music may be the organising principle of the universe.

So what use is music?

“Without music, life would be an error.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

What’s the point of music? Well, put simply, it makes us feel good by stimulating a number of pleasure centres in our brains. Music, writes Canadian linguist Stephen Pinker in his book How the Mind Works, is “auditory cheesecake … an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties”. Pinker regards music as just a fortunate byproduct of the development of the modern mind rather than the evolutionary great leap forward that language was. Psychologist Dan Sperber famously goes even further, calling music “an evolutionary parasite”. But other researchers think it’s actually a vital part of language and communication in the same way that hand gestures are.

“Why is it that every group or tribe or nation has music as part of ceremonies and rituals?” asks Professor Alan Harvey, chair of the University of Western Australia’s neuroscience discipline. “I actually think that it has profound roles in human communication, especially group communication.”

The communication between mother and infant, for example, is essentially musical. In the sounds that babies make, scientists have even identified simple musical motifs that are common to all cultures.

Darwin argued that music preceded language and has a role in charming the opposite sex. He would have loved a recent study published in the journal Psychology of Music, which concluded that women were more receptive to a chat-up line from an “average Joe” after listening to romantic background music. (It was, of course, a French study.) But, beyond the bleeding obvious, Darwin was well aware that many species use vocalisations for courtship and other functions.

A more convincing experiment was conducted in various parts of Sydney and became famous around the world. Councils in Penrith, Parramatta and Rockdale found that playing Barry Manilow’s greatest hits in public places tended to discourage night-time hoons and graffiti vandals. An expensive sound system was actually cheaper and more effective than security patrols. In Palm Beach, Florida, authorities have had similar success with classical music.

Perhaps all it proves is that one person’s pleasure is another’s poison. And maybe the “evolutionary parasite” theorists are right and music has no useful function beyond firing a few neurons in the brain and making us feel good — or better. Or, in the case above, feel like going.

But what does it all mean? The great American composer Aaron Copland said, “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’”

Oscar Wilde called music “the art which is most nigh to tears and memory”. But in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray he noted, “All art is quite useless.”

With the recent passing of Dame Joan Sutherland, more than one person who had shared the stage with her spoke of being physically enveloped by the extraordinary sound waves her voice generated. So that’s it, really. We’re all just vibrating molecules resonating to the music of the spheres.

Chris Stafford is a musician, composer and writer. After more than 30 years as a professional musician, he still has no idea what music is.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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