Universal Brotherhood Path January 1901

HERBERT SPENCER ON "MUSIC" (1)

All speech is compounded of two elements, the words and the tones in which they are uttered the signs of ideas and the signs of feeling. . . . Using the word cadence in an unusually extended sense, as comprehending all modifications of voice, we may say that cadence is the commentary of the emotions upon the propositions of the intellect. This duality of spoken language, though not formally recognized, is recognized in practice by every one; and every one knows that very often more weight attaches to the tones than to the words.

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"Beyond the direct pleasure which it gives, music has the indirect effect of developing this language of the emotions. Having its root, as we have endeavored to show, in those tones, intervals, and cadences of speech which express feeling arising by the combination and intensifying of these, and coming finally to have an embodiment of its own; music has all along been reacting upon speech, and increasing its power of rendering emotion.

"Familiarity with the more varied combinations of tones that occur in vocal music, can scarcely have failed to give greater variety of combination to the tones in which we utter our impressions and desires. The complex musical phrases by which composers have conveyed complex emotions, may rationally be supposed to have influenced us in making those involved cadences of conversation by which we convey our subtler thoughts and feelings.

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"Probably most will think that the function here assigned to music is one of very little moment. But further reflection may lead them to a contrary conviction. In its bearings upon human happiness we believe that this emotional language, which musical culture develops and refines, is only second in importance to the language of the intellect; perhaps not even second to it. For these modifications of voice produced by feelings, are the means of exciting like feelings in others. Joined with gestures and expressions of face, they give life to the other dead words in which the intellect utters its ideas; and so enable the hearer not only to understand the state of mind they accompany, but to partake of that state. In short, they are the chief media of sympathy. And if we consider how much our general welfare and our immediate pleasures depend upon sympathy, we shall recognize the importance of whatever makes this sympathy greater. If we bear in mind that by their fellow-feeling men are led to behave justly, kindly and considerately to each other that the difference between the cruelty of the barbarous and the humanity of the civilized results from the increase of fellow-feeling; if we bear in mind that this faculty which makes us sharers in the joys and sorrows of others is the basis of all the higher affections that in friendship, love and all domestic pleasures it is an essential element; if we bear in mind how much our direct gratifications are intensified by sympathy how, at the theater, the concert, the picture gallery, we lose half our enjoyment if we have no one to enjoy with us; if, in short, we bear in mind that for all happiness beyond what the unfriended recluse can have, we are indebted to this same sympathy; we shall see that the agencies which communicate it can scarcely be overrated in value.

"The tendency of civilization is more and more to repress the antagonistic elements of our characters and to develop the social ones to curb our purely selfish desires and exercise our unselfish ones to replace private gratifications by gratifications resulting from, or involving, the happiness of others. And while, by this adaptation to the social state, the sympathetic side of our nature is being unfolded, there is simultaneously growing up a language of sympathetic intercourse a language through which we communicate to others the happiness we feel, and are made sharers in their happiness.

"This double process, of which the effects are already sufficiently appreciable, must go on to an extent of which we can as yet have no adequate conception.

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"Just as there has silently grown up a language of ideas, which, rude as it at first was, now enables us to convey with precision the most subtle and complicated thoughts; so, there is still silently growing up a language of feelings, which, notwithstanding its present imperfection, we may expect will ultimately enable men vividly and completely to impress on each other all the emotions which they experience from moment to moment.

"Those vague feelings of unexperienced felicity which music arouses those indefinite impressions of an unknown ideal life which it calls up, may be considered as a prophecy, to the fulfillment of which music is itself partly instrumental. The strange capacity which we have for being so affected by melody and harmony, may be taken to imply both that it is within the possibilities of our nature to realize those intense delights they dimly suggest, and that they are in some way concerned in the realization of them. On this supposition the power and the meaning of music become comprehensible; but otherwise they are a mystery.

"We will only add, that if the probability of these corollaries be admitted, then music must take rank as the highest of the fine arts as the one which, more than any other, ministers to human welfare."

FOOTNOTE:

1. Extracts from "The Origin and Function of Music." (Frazer's Magazine, October, 1857.) (return to text)


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