There are competing theories about how human language originated, from sign language that became associated with gestures. It may have developed from a combination of anatomical and brain evolution or, perhaps from song—rhythmic sounds that began to accrue meaning. The archaeologist Steven Mithen thinks that music comes before song which comes before language. Something he discusses in his book The Singing Neanderthals: the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. And the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist supports this theory in his work The Master and His Emissary.
What we do know is that music is ancient and powerful. And as writers, we always have so much to learn from other arts, especially when those arts touch on how we make sense of and value life. Virginia Woolf writes about the disinhibiting power of music in her early journals, A Passionate Apprentice, and in Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche has the famous aphorism:
Without music life would be a mistake.
In Music at Night Aldous Huxley wrote that it is music that most closely expresses the inexpressible and in Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks writes:
Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.
From the inexpressible to solace
The physicist and poet Alan Lightman captures something of the power of music in Mr g: a novel about the creation. A rationalist and an atheist, he nonetheless has a strong sense of the mysteries of life and of its ‘spiritual’ contours.
Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music… Intelligent life-forms have created a multitude of sounds that express their exhilaration at being alive.
It’s a subject that Nick Cave picks up in Faith, Hope and Carnage. For Cave music is a liminal space between the everyday world and life’s mysteries
I think music, out of all that we can do, at least artistically, is the great indicator that something else is going on, … because it allows us to experience genuine moments of transcendence.
[…] I think there is more going on than we can see or understand, and we need to find a way to lean into the mystery of things — the impossibility of things — and recognise the evident value in doing that and summon the courage it requires to not always shrink back into the known mind.
He describes music as a portal to an ‘impossible place’ where we put our sorrow and loss as well as our creativity.
There is another place that can be summoned through practice that is not the imagination, but more a secondary positioning of your mind with regard to spiritual matters… It is a kind of liminal state of awareness, before dreaming, before imagining, that is connected to the spirit itself. It is an “impossible realm” where glimpses of the preternatural essence of things find their voice. … Inside that space, it feels a relief to trust in certain glimpses of something else, something other, something beyond.
From yearning to connection
Whatever our philosophy of life, religious convictions or absence of them, we all feel those areas that remain mysterious. And it is a deeply human trait to always be reaching for ‘something beyond’. For Cave music is our door to that place. For him this is a sacred space, but whatever our spiritual views, we all know yearning; we all know the existential desire to connect, and music can take us there.
The luminous and shocking beauty of the everyday is something I try to remain alert to, if only as an antidote to the chronic cynicism and disenchantment that seems to surround everything, these days. It tells me that, despite how debased or corrupt we are told humanity is and how degraded the world has become, it just keeps on being beautiful.
There is so much awry with the world. The scale of inhumanity and injustice never ceases to amaze and appal and our species ability to destroy its home seems relentless. And yet, the earth keeps giving. The capacity for healing is stunning and the need to not fall into cynicism, even when we are desolate, is urgent. This is the realm of great art—not glib and unfounded optimism but to take the beauty and the longing, the reality of suffering and the reality of all that is good and joyful and make someething of it.
Great art witnesses to real sorrow and joy, so often inextricably linked; it takes the yearning we all feel and makes something recognisable from it, something that connects to others. Cave puts it like this:
All my songs are written from a place of spiritual yearning, because that is the place that I permanently inhabit. To me, personally, this place feels charged, creative and full of potential.
This is a vulnerable process. It requires getting out of our own way as artists of any kind, letting the ego go in favour of what might arise from the unconscious unbidden. But the reward of this is art that speaks deeply; art that connects.
As writers we can learn so much from the processes of other artists and also do well to immerse ourselves in other art forms. Listening to music, seeing visual art and sculpture, touching textile and ceramic art… It’s then that we have the kind of epiphanic moments that Virginia Woolf writes of in Moments of Being:
Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
Here’s to singing a different story.