Music is one of life’s great pleasures. But why? Why does it make us feel good? Let’s go to Aeon.co for some speculation.
Can a melody provide us with pleasure? Plato certainly thought so, as do many today. But it’s incredibly difficult to discern just how this comes to pass. Is it something about the flow and shape of a tune that encourages you to predict its direction and follow along? Or is it that the lyrics of a certain song describe a scene that reminds you of a joyful time? Perhaps the melody is so familiar that you’ve simply come to identify with it.
Critics have proposed variations on all of these ideas as explanatory mechanisms for musical pleasure, though there remains no critical consensus. The story of their attempts and difficulties forms one vital component of Western intellectual history, and its many misdirections are revealing to trace in their own right. In early modern Europe, theorists generally adopted a view inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics: they supposed that the tones of a melody could work together with a text in order to imitate the natural world. Music, in this view, was something of a live soundtrack to a multimedia representation. It could assist in an analogic way with the depiction of the natural sentiments or features of the world captured in the language of its poetry, thereby eliciting a pleasurable response. Determining specifically how this worked was, in fact, the elusive goal set out at the opening of René Descartes’s first complete treatise, the Compendium Musicae (written in 1618). Unfortunately, Descartes never made it past a simple elaboration of musical preliminaries. He felt that, in order to make the connection to pleasure and passion, he would need a more detailed account of the movements of the soul.
This didn’t discourage later thinkers from picking up where he left off. The idea of music as an imitative or mimetic medium eventually became a major component of 18th-century aesthetics. For some thinkers, music was naturally disposed to imitate the sounds of the emotions. ‘Just as the painter imitates the features and colours of nature,’ wrote the French author Jean-Baptiste Dubos in 1719, ‘so the musician imitates the tones, accents, sighs, inflections of the voice, and indeed all of those sounds with which nature exudes the sentiments and passions.’ Hearing these representations of the various passions was itself pleasurable.