No-one ever died for lack of music, but nevertheless for many people a life without music would hardly be worth living.  No human culture is without music. Bone flutes have even been found in neolithic burial mounds. But what is music?  What is it for?


These were the questions posed by Dr Jason Warren, Consultant Neurologist at Queen Square, at last Monday’s meeting on Music and the Mind at The Royal College of Physicians at Regent’s Park.  


So is music a language, a mating display, a cultural artefact necessary for social cohesion or is it, or is it as the psychologist, Steven Pinker, proposes just auditory cheesecake, there for entertainment and serving no useful function? 


Musical sounds may well be a kind of proto-language, but music doesn’t tell a story, convey facts or help us to understand things more clearly. Jason Warren proposed that music and language might have separated very early in human evolution and ontogeny.  Call sounds are both semantic and emotional; the semantic aspects developed into the symbolic code we call language (which nevertheless has a musical cadence), while the emotional elements became music, which has its unique facility to encode feeling. 


So music, as musicologist, Daniel Leech-Wilson suggested, is perhaps best understood as emotional experience.  It changes our mood.  It becomes our mood.  Music can be exciting, depressing, angry, sad, frightening, heroic, stirring.  And yet it leaves a significant minority of the population, the tone deaf, stone cold.  This begs the question as to whether tone deafness is associated with a deficiency of emotional experience.   


When Catrin Finch played her new arrangement of The Goldberg Variations for the harp at the Royal Academy of Music last Sunday, the tumbling notes, the plangent chords, left me heartbroken.  I sat with my eyes closed throughout the performance, tears coursing down my cheeks.  No tone deafness there, I guess.     


Others would have experienced it very differently.  But that’s the thing about music. Although it can enable social cohesion – think of hymns, anthems, folk music, it nevertheless provides an intensely personal fulfilment. It affords people their own emotional experience without interference from each another. We all attach our own individual meaning to music. We all have special tunes, songs of particular emotional significance.  Perhaps it was the song that was playing when we met our beloved for the first time. Or perhaps it was just the popular music of our youth that rekindles nostalgia.  


Recent discoveries in neuroscience underscore the relationship between music and emotion. Brain scans have shown that the more primitive emotional areas of the brain, the amygdala, insula, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, become active when music is played.  And in his new book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks described a patient who was struck by lightning and some 7 weeks later developed an obsession with music that was accompanied by an increased spirituality and emotionality.  Music and an altered emotional state can be part of temporal lobe epilepsy; often it is the emotional association with the music that seems to be important in bringing on the seizure.  


Indeed, I might suggest that music is so much a part of emotional experience that in a culture that suppresses strong emotion, music has been adopted as an acceptable vehicle for emotional release. Think of its important role in religious ceremonies, the passions released at pop concerts, even the importance of music as a promoter of love making.  At the college conference, one elderly member was so inspired by the topic as to shock his dignified and eminent colleagues with the pieces of music he and his wife, who was looking distinctly embarrassed, liked to make love to.  I had not witnessed such enthusiasm since a very senior professor demonstrated the action of the prototype of Viagra to the council of the Edinburgh College and their ladies.        


But I am digressing.  What is it that moves us with music?   Is it its basic physical properties; the loudness, rhythm, pitch, timbre, the mathematical relations between the notes, or their combination that produces certain chords or melodies?  It is probably all of these.  Loud music stirs and excites.  Soft music makes us reflective.  It is probably no coincidence that the beat of our music matches the rate of our heart or the rhythm of our walking.  Speed it up and it is more exciting.  Slow it down and it is sad or restful.  Music played in a major key tends to be perceived as cheerful whereas when played in a minor key, it tends to be melancholic, but there are numerous exceptions.  The observation that people from musical cultures with different notations don’t perceive that distinction suggests that it is learned.  Melodies stir memories, they ‘amp’ up the hippocampus, a key brain structure for processing emotional memory.  Music has emotional associations.   Isabelle Peretz claims that emotional tension and release flow from the way our learned expectations of patterns of music are manipulated, violated  and postponed. In other words, much depends on the performance.  


Music enhances the meaning and impact of poetry.  Two years ago,  I went to hear Carol Ann Duffy read poems from her collection called Rapture.  They were then put to music and sung by the jazz singer, Eliana Tomkin.  Duffy’s flat poetic reading did not engage my emotions, but Tomkin made the words soar.  Duffy writes such excellent poetry – the combination was magic.  It is a pity that so many bad lyrics have been rendered  memorable by setting them to wonderful tunes.


Music is also therapy.  It encourages movement and thinking.  It can bring the institutionalised elderly back to life. It gives the sick hope, the mentally impaired meaning.  Indeed people with learning difficulties can have unusual musical appreciation and talent.       


Derek Paravacini was just over a pound in weight when he was born premature.  He was not expected to survive.  He did, but with severe learning difficulties.  Not only that treatment with oxygen had destroyed his retina and he was completely blind.  Nevertheless by chance, he was found to have a prodigious musical talent, which has been enabled through his long relationship with his friend and mentor, Professor Adam Ockleford. 


At last Saturday’s recital, given to the Eye and Mind Society, Derek demonstrated not only his amazing virtuosity on the keyboard but also his incredible memory for music.  He only needs to hear a piece once and he will reproduce it, note perfect.  He can also perform complex pieces that he has not played for years. 


Derek is a musical savant.  It is as if, deprived of other effective means, it is music that allows him to communicate, to link emotionally with others, to have a meaningful life. 


Auditory cheesecake?  Are you tone deaf, Mr Pinker?  Music is not just an additional dessert in the meal of life, it is the flavours, the textures that enrich our repast and make a veritable banquet out of breakfast.