Music, mathematics, and the experience of Reality


 “Music has been reported to evoke the full range of human emotion: from sad, nostalgic, and tense to happy, relaxed, calm, and joyous. Correspondingly, neuroimaging studies have shown that music can activate the brain areas typically associated with emotions: the deep brain structures that are part of the limbic system, like the amygdala and the hippocampus, as well as the pathways that transmit dopamine (for pleasure associated with music-listening). The relationship between music listening and the dopaminergic pathway is also behind the “chills” many people report experiencing during music listening. Chills are physiological sensations, like the hairs getting raised on your arm, and the experience of “shivers down your spine” that accompany intense, peak emotional experiences.” (http://syncproject.co/blog/2015/7/21/music-and-emotion, n.d.)

Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Ravi Shankar, Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Beetles, and other great musicians have created works that transport us to realms of consciousness that mere words cannot. We know from neuroscience that music activates the brain areas associated with feelings, but the feelings that certain music evokes in us have a quality that is otherworldly and transcendental. There is magic in music.

Music that moves us has pattern and structure and movement and timing. “There is geometry in the humming of the strings; there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” — Pythagoras. “Counting, rhythm, scales, intervals, patterns, symbols, harmonies, time signatures, overtones, tone, pitch. The notations of composers and sounds made by musicians are connected to mathematics. The next time you hear or play classical, rock, folk, religious, ceremonial, jazz, opera, pop, or contemporary types of music, think of what mathematics and music have in common and how mathematics is used to create the music you enjoy.”[i]

Both music and mathematics are abstractions they cannot be objectified, yet they impact us in real ways. Their effect on us reveals aspects of ourselves that are non-physical and beyond the reach of our intellect; some call this our spiritual self or our soul. William James, the pioneering psychologist, and philosopher, describes this other aspect of our being thus “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch, they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final, leaving these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”[ii]

The effect that music has on us might be because music, in William James’ terms, is the “requisite stimulus” that connects us to this other consciousness that is so “discontinuous with ordinary consciousness.”

Lorenzo Candelaria[iii], professor of music history and literature at The University of Texas, writes

 “Painting, sculpture, and architecture might spur us toward holiness, but none can unite us quite like music. This is particularly true of singing — an art that invites group participation and can often arise spontaneously around a shared sentiment and a decent tune.”

Music plays a central communal role in every culture. Music is performed in churches, mosques and in temples because it entrains separate minds into producing a singular, powerful experience. A group of individuals becomes one. It becomes a spiritual experience for many.

“Without music, life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche on the Power of Music

Music is unique in its ability to entrain minds into producing a singular experience among all modes of expressing human feelings. The oneness of life that so eludes our senses can be experienced through music.

Music moves the soul.


[i] (American Mathematical Society, n.d.)

[ii] (Brain Pickings, n.d.)

[iii] (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/lorenzo-candelaria, n.d.)

2 Comments

  1. Dear Sunil Mehrotra,

    Thank you for having so much to mention about the roles and significance of music in the human world. I would like to commend you highly on your good coverage on those subject matters via your pertinent and cogently written post. Like you, I have distilled a great deal of observations and conclusions along similar themes in my posts. I hope that you might also consider that I am as worthy of your praise regarding my music as much as my writings. If you also happened to be an audiophile and connoisseur of fine sonic art, then you would be pleased by the availability of a fair amount of music on my blog, much of which comprising my musical compositions. These constitute only a fraction of my total musical output, as I have yet to find time to showcase the rest on my blog. Moreover, those published compositions are by no means representative of my musical oeuvres, which are very diverse. Hence, you may want to turn on your finest speakers or headphones, as some of my posts and pages will be playing music to you automatically. A good post to visit for a good sample of my music is entitled “🦅 SoundEagle in SoundCloud: Art, Music and Compositions about New Sensations, Love, Life, Country, Nature, Dreaming, Meditation and Spirituality 🏞🎼🎶” available at

    https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/soundeagle-in-soundcloud-art-music-and-compositions-about-new-sensations-love-life-country-nature-dreaming-meditation-and-spirituality/

    Please enjoy! I welcome your input and feedback there, as I am certainly very keen and curious about what you will make of my said post.

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

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  2. Dear Sunil Mehrotra,

    A few minutes ago, I submitted a long comment here. My comment seems to have disappeared. If the comment has been mistakenly identified as spam, please kindly retrieve and approve it from your WordPress spam folder.

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    Thank you.

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

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