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What is the Purpose of Music? - by Kim LaCoste
That is a hard question. How can you really answer that succinctly? From what I have learned, I’ve come to believe that music is the dividing line between sanity and madness. In that respect, if I had to come up with a short reply, I’d say that the purpose of music was to keep us humans from “losing it” and also to keep us in touch with things that are greater than we are, such as the firmament, looking at the wonder of the Swiss Alps or our oceans. We have corruption and violence in many forms, but one’s favorite music provides a reprieve from the reality and ugliness that our world reveals. Music helps us to continue to have the courage to move forward and see the beauty in living when events (personal or otherwise) paint a darker picture. Music speaks for us when words can’t articulate our thoughts.
Music is being used for patients with Alzheimer’s disease to help them re-learn hand-and-eye coordination. The thought processes in music involve multiple tasks: reading and understanding a time signature; one's knowledge of accidentals; interpreting a melody, chord progression or rhythmic pattern. These tasks are sometimes performed simultaneously. Doctors have most likely found that there is something in those thought processes that help to combat the disease. I had a couple of finches years ago, and I'll never forget how they used to respond whenever I played records by the late alto-saxophonist Eric Dolphy. He would play something and they would respond, as if he and the birds had some secret musical understanding. I tend to believe that, since Dolphy once said in an article that he used to play to birds to get ideas. Unfortunately, there is good and evil in everything and music is no exception. However, without music, we’d be lost as a species. Birds chirp, crickets make sounds that vary in pitch & rhythm, whales sing. In the summer, it’s wonderful to hear the leaves on trees when the wind blows. There are no discernable pitches in trees per se, but they have a type of “music” all their own. Take a look at every century, “BC” and “AD” and you will find that there was some type of music being played – all over the world.

Music has the power to touch humans emotionally, whether they’re musicians or not. That’s the beauty of the arts. It doesn’t matter if the art comes in the form of dance/ballet, painting/graphic design, vocalization or instrumentation. The different varieties appeal to artists and non-artists alike. There are those who draw or paint, write poetry or novels, listening to their favorite music for inspiration. Music permeates on so many different levels, such as in motor sports, where the engines are tuned differently. An engine for a Formula One race car sounds differently from an engine built for a car to be run on the World Rally or NASCAR circuit. Even when you turn on a computer, you'll hear a specific pitch. Law enforcement use sirens of varying tonalities to serve as alerts to the public. Whenever the sounds are heard in traffic, you know that you have to pull over and make way for the police car or ambulance. That is a form of control, but at least it’s used in a positive manner. What may sound as noise to a parent when a toddler toys with a piano is completely different as far as what the child is interpreting. Have you ever noticed that when young children play on pianos, they love the difference between the upper and lower registers? He/she may place the left hand in the lower range and the right in the middle or upper range(s), or he/she may decide to hang with the low register for a while and then move on to the upper register. I love to see them do that, just to see what they’ll come up with! Children can be so funny that way, and they come up with some very interesting melodies. This playing around that they do with such a large structure compared to their small bodies provides joy, visually and audibly. I’ve noticed how the younger generation has made a return to creating music using objects like trash cans, bottles and boxes. When you think about it, there is musical tonality that can be found in nearly everything. There are machines, such as escalators that work by setting them with a specific rhythm. The makers of escalators may disagree, but whenever I’ve gone to a department store and gotten on one, especially if it’s one of the older models, I can usually hear a rhythmic pattern. Therefore, if there isn’t a tonal quality to a machine, there is usually a rhythmic formula in order for it to work. Speaking of “objects”, we can’t forget artists who compose electronic music; thanks to computers and synthesizers (inanimate devices), the music created becomes animated. You would think that because I’m a jazz musician, I would listen to jazz all day at my day job, but I listen to classical music. Classical music helps me to think. I can’t listen to jazz because it happily distracts me! It takes my attention away from what I’m doing. I always wind up listening to the musicians, focusing on how they’re improvising or just the way the song was arranged. So, unfortunately, John Coltrane is out; I have to keep works by folks like Mozart and Bach in the background.

Music is also a warrior’s tool. When you think of all the different types of music, this is where rock n’ roll and folk music fit in. If you look at the sixties, folk music and rock bands were the most vocal and adamant for social/economic change. The music represented the outcries of many Americans of all races. However, I would be wrong to ignore rhythm and blues. People such as James Brown and the Temptations sang songs of protest as well. Bikers had their music, as well as the “Flower People”. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Woodstock”, you’d hear what I was talking about. All types of social groups wanted Congress to become more attentive to the needs of the people and their music spoke for them. Franz Joseph Haydn once composed a symphony for a king where at some point in the music, a musician in the orchestra gets up and leaves; by the end of the piece, no musicians are left. Haydn did that to convey what it would be like without music. The fact that classical music has endured all these years proves that there will always be a place for it. It would be a great disappointment if classical music ceased to be performed. Jazz had their warriors from the very beginning. They changed the scope of life just by making their style of music progress as the history of the world changed. Jazz is now a diverse form of music that can be just as subtle as it can be intense, from your standards-playing trios, to fusion or jazz bands. Jazz has had a very hard road and that road continues to be difficult at times, but it doesn’t stop the performers from trying to keep the art form from dying. I must add here that sometimes the word “jazz” gets mislabeled. Someone should be sued…

Music has the power to heal a person after traumatic experiences. Last, but certainly not least, music is always one of the aids in a romantic situation. Who ever heard of a candlelight dinner without music? Just imagine if Earth no longer possessed music of any kind. A person couldn’t attempt that even if he wanted to. The artistry of music has been on this planet too long. Music is like breathing; it’s essential and required. Music is here to reach you in ways that other things can’t. It’s a part of life that we should always endeavor to preserve. It doesn’t matter the type of music because no music is greater than another... Some music may be more complex and/or cerebral, but it doesn’t make it better, just because it’s jazz or classical, for I’ve heard bad jazz and classical compositions. There are simple hymns that can fill one’s heart or one-chord songs that sound like mantras. Beautiful melodies have been written in countries all over the world. But above all, music provides a person with insight; it aids the medically disabled; it can bring tears to your eyes or laughter and yes, it can cause pain as well, when there are memories that one would rather forget.

As I wrote this article, I listened to Chopin’s Nocturnes, trying to answer the question that I had proposed. I thought of the world’s history and myself in general and what I came up with is this: music is the mirror of life…that may be its true purpose…that’s why music was created and that is why it will always be here…

BY Kim Michele LaCoste

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