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V.com weekend vote: Do humans need music, like we need food, clothing and shelter?

The Weekend Vote

Written by
Published: November 16, 2012 at 9:53 PM [UTC]

Do humans need music, like we need food, clothing and shelter?

Vote first, and then I'l tell you my thoughts on the matter:

I think if you'd asked me this question when I was a teenager, I probably would have said, "No way, food, clothing and shelter are all you need to live, don't be ridiculous."

As I've grown older and become more aware of the fragility of human existence, I've changed my mind. I truly believe that music -- and art -- are necessary nutrients for the human condition, without which, we lack the engagement, imagination and will to survive.

Music can help us do our work. When I was younger, I had some truly boring jobs that I took to make ends meet -- the kind where you punch a clock, work seemingly forever and come home late, only to get up early the next day to do it again. At one of those jobs, we had little radios at our desk, and though I couldn't listened to Brahms symphonies (it was tuned to a pop station), the music kept me sane.

Music can greatly help people doing physical labor: people sing while they work in fields or on construction sites. I actually sing to myself when I go running; the beat falls in with my breath and it keeps me going.

Music somehow opens pathways to learning in our brains, allowing us to accept and understand new ideas. Would a child learn his or her alphabet, without a song to go with it? Perhaps, but I just haven't happened to meet any children during my lifetime who did not learn this fundamental skill without a song to help.

Music also has the power to lift us, motivate us and console us. Is it a necessity? Please share your thoughts on the matter!


From Nairobi Young
Posted on November 16, 2012 at 10:16 PM
I'm a teenager and I say we need music. At my high school during passing periods, so many people have their headphones in. So many people are singing something. Music is everywhere we go and in everything we hear and see. Classical music is everywhere also as is orchestral music. Maybe people aren't going to the concerts as much but whether they know it or not, they are constantly around it. I know I need music and is evident that no matter if they realize it or not, people need it. It helps during all times, good or bad.
From Kevin Keating
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 12:35 AM
I can't believe 36% actually said NO! I myself could never in a million years imagine my life without music. I grew up with my mother's radio playing constantly in the house. If I'm not listening to music, I'm playing an instrument. If I'm not playing an instrument, I'm thinking about it, working out tunes and melodies in my head.
I've started a ministry through my church called New Song Music Ministry (it's on Facebook) inspired by "El Sistema" whose mission is to provide quality musical instruments to children of financially struggling families. Music is in everyone's head and heart. My goal is to help in some way to get music into the hands of as many children as possible.
So YES, music is essential to us as humans in order to keep us human.
From marjory lange
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 1:21 AM
"Music"--definitely. In fact, to a point, probably more than food or shelter--like Rumi's poem about loss, music feeds the soul.

If of thy worldly goods thou art bereft . . .
and alone to thee two loaves are left,
sell one, and with the dole,
buy hyacinths, and on them feed thy soul.

Any particular flavor of music, probably not in the same way.

And, though I, too, am a bit surprised at the 36%, currently that's out of 42 votes. I'm not great at math, but it's "only" about 14-17 people. That's still a lot for this site.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 2:07 AM
I'm not surprised at the no vote. I wouldn't want to live without music, but I could if I had to. However, the main reason I voted no is that I don't think need the feeling extends to "humans" in general. I know people who lead what seem to be perfectly happy and productive lives without music--never go to concerts, don't play an instrument or sing, listen to talk radio in the car, don't even have a working CD or MP3 player. This isn't a way I'd want to live, myself, but I don't really see what gives me or anybody else the right to be judgmental about it if that is the way others choose to live.
From Steve Reizes
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 2:28 AM
From things I have read, music is not only necessary, it is a large part of what makes us human in the first place.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 9:39 AM
Why did I vote - No? Well, I voted no because I took the question literally. Most people I believe, would conjure up memories of radio / records on first immediate thought on the question (re. music).

In my early childhood people sang old songs entirely from memory and hum their own made-up stuff - we had no "music" like radio/record/music sheets/scores/instruments other than tunes & lyrics that were passed down & embedded in our heads & hearts. No one (except the one fairly well off Christian family who taught Sunday School in my village) played any radio/record/instrument, so yes, the rest of us can survive on communal voice-singing alone.

My late dad used to teach me to hum/recite/sing folk poems. It was a wonderful experience but I must add that food was just as important. In fact, we were so poor with such a large family (plus another widowed family we blindly and kindly adopted to feed) and dad holding a full time 6-day job with no holidays ever, our families lived officially below the government-set poverty line and further, we lived in a 3rd world country then, and yes, there were many times we have no money for food just due to there being too many mouths to feed. I never had a new toy or bought any new clothes in my childhood. My dad suffered much and yet not once I hear him complaining & he was an extremely private man who read & sang poems to his children at home.

People outside the home who know him at work for many years would surely see & think there was no music in this strong silent man/his life? There was (at least in his head alone and albeit only at his home with his own kids) with whom he shared & passed on his special "musical" heritage. On a rare occasion, maybe when he felt deeply sad, I think, he played a mouth harmonica and that was it.

From Christian Linke
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 10:45 AM
Well said, Thessa.

As much as I love music, as much as it is the center of my life and I would not know what to do with myself if it didn't exist, I do think that we are being a little too romantic here.

A few years back, I had a moment with my grandfather, who grew up in post-war Germany, that I'll never forget in this regard. He would see my violin and exclaim "Oh, that is nice that you have a violin, I also used to have a violin when I was a boy!"

I then said "Oh, do you still have yours?", already preparing my complaint in my head as he obviously would not have it anymore, otherwise I would have seen it in all those years.

He would wave his hand dismissively and say "Ah, no. I traded it for some bread."

Put quite a few things into perspective for me.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 11:18 AM
To survive? No.

To live? Yes.

From Randy Walton
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 1:09 PM
The question was: do we need music like we need food, shelter and clothing? Taking this quite literally I could only answer no because without food, I will die. Without shelter I would probably die. Without clothes I would probably die depending on weather conditions. Without music, I would survive(just as Anne said)but not die, but it wouldn't be living the way I would prefer.
From Nicky Paxton
Posted on November 17, 2012 at 11:53 PM
Three cheers for your masterly summary, Randy. I voted no for exactly the reasons you give, even though the quality of my life would be greatly reduced without music.
From Sean Gillia
Posted on November 18, 2012 at 4:22 AM
Well, on the face of it, it would seem that we don’t need music to sustain ourselves physically. Faced with the need for food, as in the above example, music would fall away quickly, but then again, so would everything else that wasn’t food. Grappling with the demands of a belly screaming for sustenance, the study of science, math, history – of anything, really -- just doesn’t seem to matter all that much. And yet, it’s pretty easy to see that the study of those core subjects is actually essential in solving for these basic necessities of survival (they are also more than that, of course). I would argue – and I don’t think it’s a romantic notion – that music (and art in general) performs a similarly critical and “core” function when it comes to human survival. Throughout human history, across cultures, music has been and remains of central importance. It sustains and consoles us individually and collectively in moments of private and public tragedy, celebration, and great ceremonial importance. It inspires and moves us. It rallies us to face challenges. It gives form and expression to the deepest wordless parts of ourselves and our experiences. It connects us across time and geographies and cultures and helps us to define our lives and their meaning. Maybe there are individuals who can survive without the arts in their lives, but I don’t know that we -- as a whole – could survive without them. It’s a simple thought, but those cave drawings in France were not idle doodles; they performed an essential function for those hunters heading out to risk their lives to get the food that everyone needed. Music – and visual art, and storytelling -- may be “soul” enriching, but not simply in a powdered-wig pastime of the idle rich kind of way. They are not an extravagance, an extra – an extracurricular. The arts are important, profoundly so. In their way, I believe they are as critically important to our collective survival as any of the core subjects. I wish our schools thought so.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on November 18, 2012 at 7:54 PM
Perhaps the question should have been worded more precisely. I voted yes even though it's physically possible to survive without music. In fact, some societies have tried to ban music completely, although such societies tend to be sick and twisted.

On the other hand, "living without music" doesn't necessarily mean "living without having a radio playing throughout one's waking hours". In fact, a radio playing bad music can be downright injurious. I once worked in an environment where someone had a radio playing that insipid "soft rock" constantly. I wound up bringing in my own radio and a set of headphones, and treated them as if they were life-support equipment (which, in a way, they were). I'm not alone in thinking this; while shopping in a store that played such "elevator music" I saw the radio that provided it. Fastened to the radio was a handmade sign saying "Do not change the station", presumably put there by a boss whose employees felt the same way I do. Sorry if this is turning into a rant, but I feel that applicable workplace safety organizations (WCB, OSHA, etc.) should recognize such music as toxic and set exposure limits.

But to get back to the topic, I voted yes because I feel that without music - good music - we are spiritually malnourished. (And yes, I realize that the definition of "good" is highly subjective - although I'd be suspicious of anyone who finds elevator music sufficiently fulfilling.)

From Terry Hsu
Posted on November 18, 2012 at 9:57 PM
I think it's a bit of a peculiar question. Food, shelter, and clothing are fundamentally important. Perhaps only gravity, air and water are more essential.

But at the same time, music is everywhere. You don't need a violin/piano/whatever for there to be music. If you can hear the birds sing, or the sound of a babbling brook, or the chirping of crickets you are hearing the essence of music.

Classical music as we understand it is only understandable because we have a construct by which to understand it. Sonata form does not exist in nature. But we understand it, and in so doing, it expresses beauty to us. Since we don't understand the 12-tone scale in the same way, the 12-tone scale is less accessible. But it's no less suitable a construct in which beauty can be conveyed.

So we can do away with all of the trappings of western (or eastern) music as we understand it, and still enjoy music.

So what is a world without music? It's not the world we understand right now, it's not planet earth.

From JUAN MANUEL DE COSIO
Posted on November 19, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Anne Horvath's answer is for me the wisest.

Of course, for most of us music is mandatory in our lives in order to fully enjoy life, but to be true, we could still survive and be less happy without it. Just think about the literally millions of people around the world who couldn't care less about music and no doubt believe that not only they can survive without it but "live" as well. By the way, Napoleon Bonaparte used to say that music is the most tolerable of all noises.

Without music, life would be like a black & white film and with it, a film in technicolor.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on November 19, 2012 at 6:57 AM
I said "yes" because, quite simply, I don't know anyone who doesn't appreciate at least one of music and art. Some of us have an innate need to make it.
From Mark Roberts
Posted on November 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM
There is a call for papers on a topic similar to this: Adam Croom, Frontiers in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, so if anyone feels like writing an article....
From Paul Deck
Posted on November 19, 2012 at 12:31 PM
I have to wonder if anyone who said that music is as important as food, shelter, or clothing has ever had to live a significant part of his or her life without the latter. How spoiled we are! Has evolution done us such a disservice that we need something our distant relatives among the upper primates didn't? The fact that some primitive and/or impoverished peoples of the world who do often go without true basic necessities console and entertain themselves with music fairly uniformly is an interesting observation though.

As for me, I'm having a hard time imagining life without Hostess Twinkies.

My response is brought to you by:

Hostess Brands
Erstwhile Maker of Twinkies and Ho-Hos.
Blaming their collapse on the BCTGM union.
Driven bankrupt by making awful products.
www.hostesscakes.com/twinkies.asp
Little Debbie is probably next.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on November 19, 2012 at 2:26 PM
I agree with you about the Twinkies (I keep thinking aout that Twinkie-questing Woody H. character in Zombieland). However, I'm not sure I agree that music (and the arts in general) are nothing more than the comparatively unnecessary indulgences of those who've never had to wonder where their next meal is coming from -- or that those who argue for music's importance are spoiled. Music is pervasive. It has been an important, fundamental part of all of human history, all cultures, and all socioeconomic levels -- even those struggling for the basic necessities. There is even evidence that our pre-human ancestors -- our distant relatives -- made music. Storytellers, artists and musicians -- they've always been with us. We need them, and I do believe they have been and remain critical to our collective survival, and I mean that quite literally...I think I'm being emphatic about this because our society seems to be assigning less and less importance to music and all of the arts, treating them as secondary, if pleasant, hobbies, rather than core subjects worthy of serious study and support...as worthy as, say, math and science, which I believe they are... but I'll stop now as I see I'm repeating myself.
From Terry Hsu
Posted on November 19, 2012 at 7:34 PM
I think I agree with Juan that Anne Horvath's answer is ultimately the wisest. Often the simplest responses have the most depth. IMHO, there is a lot of room for interpretation in Anne's profound words. Hers is the sort of answer I'd expect to get after climbing a mountain 14000 feet and meeting a guru. :) I'd be curious what Anne would have to say, or if she just wants to leave it completely open ended.
From Randy Walton
Posted on November 19, 2012 at 9:22 PM
I love music as much or more than anyone but I still hold to my original answer.

Now if the question were, do we need music as we need other art forms, or academics or sports, I would have to say yes. We were created with a yearning to express ourselves and we all have different ways and capacities of expression. To elevate one form of expression over another is a purely personal bias but they are all important and differentiate us from animals.

Food, shelter,clothing,gravity,air and water are all essential ingredients to sustain life, but we need these other ingredients to enrich our lives, to give meaning to life and help us understand this crucible in which we find ourselves.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on November 20, 2012 at 4:04 AM
Bizarrely, I just stumbled across a speech about the importance of music given by the Boston Conservatory's Karl Paulnack:

http://greenroom.fromthetop.org/2009/03/11/karl-paulnack-to-the-boston-conservatory-freshman-class/

I recommend the entire piece, which is short and fascinating, and though written some 8 years ago, seems like a direct response to Laurie's question. I thought it might add to the diversity of the many thoughtful responses presented here. Just a brief excerpt in reference to Messiaen's 1941 Quartet for the End of Time, written while he was imprisoned in a concentration camp:

"Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet-even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are."



From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on November 20, 2012 at 6:47 AM
I heard a similar story, probably on NPR, about a group of POWs in Southeast Asia during WWII (I believe). They created a humming orchestra. I think the original members did it for themselves, but as time went on, it was a way to build morale under horrendous circumstances. The example that was played on the air was from Dvorak's New World Symphony.

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