top of page

What (Only) Music Can Do

By Richard Knox

Charles Darwin was prescient about many things, but music was a black box to him. He couldn’t figure out why humans evolved to make and appreciate music, since “neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life.”

A century and a half after Darwin’s puzzlement, neuroscientists are opening new windows on why humans have evolved to make and crave music.

It’s a burgeoning field. Researchers have shown, among other things, that humans are born with an innate musicality. That music unleashes the feel-good neurohormone dopamine in the brain, along with oxytocin, a hormone associated with trust, sexual arousal and relationship-building. How music, more than speech, lights up emotional circuits deep in the brain.

Here’s a striking truth: No culture, present or past (as far as we know), has been without music. Musicians inhabited hunter-gatherer societies, as evidenced by a 35,000-year-old flute carved from a bone. Useless, Mr. Darwin?

The 20th anniversary of the New Hampshire Master Chorale offers an excellent reason to step back and consider the place of music in our lives. And to demonstrate (we hope) music’s unique power to inspire and move listeners.

The Purpose of Music

That power was brought home to me 31 years ago at the end of an International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. It was at one of the bleakest points in the pandemic. All week long we heard presentation after grim presentation on the latest research. There was no good news in sight.

By the final plenary session all 9,000 scientists, public health officials, activists and journalists in attendance were oppressed by the weight of the global tragedy. The rhetoric was the most stirring I’d ever heard. But the full force of the AIDS tragedy didn’t hit me until a Dutch pianist, obviously in the final stages of the disease, mounted the stage and began to play Chopin. Within the first few notes I was in tears. So was the Wall Street Journal reporter sitting next to me.

I’ll bet virtually everybody has been similarly triggered by music. During funerals and memorial services, of course, but also in happier settings – weddings, graduations, patriotic occasions. Music soothes babies to sleep, sets the mood for a romantic dinner, prompts us to let loose on the dance floor.

Answering Darwin’s question, a 2021 study in the journal Behavior and Brain Sciences posits that musicality – the human brain’s capacity to perceive, produce and enjoy music – “co-evolved” with our need to form social bonds. We’re a group-living, tribal species. So it seems likely that genes favoring musicality evolved in a feedback loop with the cultural advantages — the social glue — of music-making.

For most of human history, after all, music was a participation sport. Everybody in the group sang, danced, drummed, chanted, played those bone flutes. Music was the gathering force for all observances – births, coming-of-age, matrimonial pairings, hunting expeditions, going to war, funerals, appeals to the gods, the honoring of ancestral spirits. It synchronized and focused attention, emotion and fellow-feeling.

Today we often think of music as something that specialists do and audiences listen to. Our educational systems often treat it as a frill, an easy part of the budget to cut. With few exceptions, it’s no way to get rich. But imagine how colorless a world without music would be!

The Music Machine

Music’s social bonding power is the big-picture view. But how does it work on us as individuals? First you need to appreciate that “your brain is a music machine,” says Daniel Levitin, a jazz/rock musician (saxophonist) turned neuroscientist and author of the book This Is Your Brain on Music. “We’re all musical experts.”

Levitin likes to demonstrate just how wondrous a music machine sits between our ears. He’ll play a 500-millisecond snatch of a piece of music – a single chord – and everyone in his audience immediately recognizes it’s from the Beatles singing Eleanor Rigby. Or he’ll play the briefest snatch of audio from the Nutcracker Suite scored for four mandolins – a version no one in his audience has heard before.

“You recognize that in about half-a-second,” Levitin says. “What your brain had to do was extract out pitch and rhythm and ignore timbre because you’ve never heard this timbre assortment before, then search through tens of thousands of songs you know and identify this one…. No computer in the world can do that.”

Once I came across a study that showed how anybody, even with no musical training, can identify a wrong note in a piece from the musical lexicon of the culture she or he grew up in. For those of us acculturated to Western music, that means our brains must contain musical maps of all 24 major and minor scales. “People just don’t realize how much they know about music,” says neuroscientist Mark Jude Tramo, “through what you’re born with and your experience in our culture.”

My friend David Rose, a cognitive psychologist (and music-lover), says researchers now understand that music activates our whole brains. “It’s not that one ‘music area’ lights up,” he says. “A key thing is that the neocortex, or ‘new brain,’ is all about anticipation. It’s predicting what comes next, not just receiving and responding. That’s what the ‘old’ brain does.”

These millisecond-by-millisecond predictions are crucial to our survival; just think about crossing the street. But in the case of music, both expected patterns (the satisfying rightness of a musical cadence) and the violation of expectations (the surprising twists that Mozart and Beethoven wrote and jazz musicians improvise) release pleasurable pulses of dopamine.

Music’s Real Secret

Impressive as these innate mental gymnastics are, music’s real secret is its ability to engage neural circuits involved in emotion. How? Rose thinks it involves close anatomical links between the neurons involved in sound perception and those deep in the “old” or “reptilian” brain that give rise to emotion.

These connections conferred an ancient survival advantage. Hearing is exquisitely sensitive, as it needs to be to detect the presence of a predator or other danger. Of course, we’re never more vulnerable than when we’re asleep.

“When you sleep,” Rose says, “you close your eyes but your ears remain active – your hearing doesn’t shut down in the middle of the night.” (Every mother of an infant knows that!) An unexpected noise telegraphs an immediate signal to the arousal centers that says “Wake up! Pay attention!”

Music activates those same circuits. Perhaps because of this, Rose says, “music seems to have a closer connection to emotion.” More than speech, Levitin notes, music “engages emotional centers mediating reward and arousal.”

We all experience this effect all the time as we listen to all kinds of music—just as I did so powerfully at that AIDS conference.

What Choral Music Can Do

Choral music holds a special place in showing what only music can do. Like all singing, it marries the sonic elements of music – pitch, rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony – with text. It elevates poetry. It embodies collective expression. In a real sense, choral singing represents the collective voice of humanity. As any chorister can testify, singing together can be – indeed, often is – a deeply satisfying spiritual experience, one we strive to communicate to our listeners.

Nothing represents these elements better than the magnificent opening piece on this program, Jesu, meine Freude, Johann Sebastian Bach’s longest and most musically complex motet. It’s a profoundly joyous and intimate meditation on the loving relationship between believer and Savior.

The opening chorale, Bach’s setting of a Lutheran hymn tune, expresses both the longing and ecstasy that suffuses the 11-part motet (here in English translation):

Jesus, my joy,

My heart’s pasture,

Jesus, my treasure!

Ah, how long, ah long

Has my heart suffered?

And longed for you!

The chorale emerges repeatedly in ever-changing harmonization and lyric, comforting and confident of salvation. Serene passages are punctuated by outbursts rejecting the pain and death of this life.

Defiance to the old dragon,

Defiance to the vengeance of death,

Defiance to fear as well!

Rage, world, and attack;

I stand here and sing

In entirely secure peace!

Despite its explicitly Christian lyric, one doesn’t have to be a believer to resonate with the emotional content of Bach’s setting. Like Old Testament psalms—which, after all, are songs—Jesu, meine Freude expresses a timeless, elemental longing for transcendence to a better place, free of pain and full of eternal joy.

Abendlied (Evening Song) was composed in 1855 when Josef Rheinberger was only 16 years old. It sets a passage from Luke 24:29 that describes the encounter of two downcast disciples and the newly risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. Though the disciples don’t recognize Christ, they entreat Him to “stay with us, for it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” The Master Chorale has never performed Abendlied before. It won a place on this program because, about five years ago, Ed Cooper (father of Master Chorale alto Jenny Cooper) placed a winning bid in a fund-raising auction for the right to choose a piece for the chorus to perform. This is Ed’s long-delayed payoff.

To complete the first half of these concerts, Master Chorale director Dan Perkins chose Dale Trumbore’s If I Say Yes—a deliberately contrasting, secular take on what music can express.

It’s a love poem from Trumbore’s own pen, dense with nuance and complexity, expressing the love between a couple at the beginning of a relationship or in the midst of a long partnership – it works both ways. It captures the ambiguity, daily imperfections, and existential uncertainty of the relationship. Underneath it is a bedrock commitment:

And I will be sure that,

If I still don’t know the answer,

When we stand together overlooking

Anything vast and borderless,

Those moments are the happiest I’ve been

To hover over the railing of uncertainty

And reach out to you again

With an unsaid yes.

The piece shows how a composer melds words and music of her own. Trumbore writes in an email exchange that she aims to “illuminate a text, in both the sense of lighting up a text and in making its meaning clear.”

And then there’s the inescapable element of time. “We experience live music like we experience life,” Trumbore writes. “It isn’t static, like a painting, or something we can go back and re-read or rewind. There’s only one way forward. Knowing that, I ask myself: How can I manipulate time in service of the lyrics? How can I meet listeners where they are, emotionally speaking, and guide them on a journey that allows them to reflect on their own life experience?”

The concert's second half is a sampling of pieces from the past 20 years nominated by Master Chorale singers when Dan Perkins asked them to name their favorites.

I Know I’ve Been Changed (from the Chorale’s premiere concert in the autumn of 2003) is a rousing spiritual for chorus and soprano solo arranged by Damon H. Dandridge. It begins with a quiet declaration in a rocking beat that builds to an ecstatic finish.

Blackberry Winter (fall concerts of 2003 and 2009) is the poetry and music of Alabama composer John Ratledge. The title is a Southern colloquial expression referring to a sudden springtime cold snap when blackberry brambles are in bloom. The blasting of a season’s blossoms (and the promised fruit) invokes poignant thoughts of thwarted love.

The New Colossus (spring 2019) is Saunder Choi’s edgy, playful deconstruction of the familiar Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” In Choi’s hands, Liberty’s promise is halting and stuttering. Labored breathing represents immigrants’ anxious striving before Choi finally allows the chorus to breathe free.

Marjorie Moorhead’s poem Me (autumn 2019) provides the text for the second movement of Norwegian composer Kim Andre Arnesen’s Voices of the Silenced, a suite of songs commissioned by the Chorale that portray people whose stories often go unheard. Moorhead writes ofd the different personas she inhabits while living with HIV infection.

Dan Forrest’s Entreat Me Not to Leave You (fall 2016) sets a familiar passage from the Book of Ruth, a paeon to love and commitment used in many marriage ceremonies.

Unclouded Day (spring 2015 concert) is Shawn Kirchner’s a cappella arrangement of a bright 19th-century spiritual by the Reverend J.K. Alwood. A straightforward first verse builds over two verses that mix bluegrass style with counterpoint and fugue to a roof-raising eight-part chord on the phrase “in the city that is made of gold.”

The culmination of Craig Hella Johnson’s extraordinary oratorio, Considering Matthew Shephard (fall 2018) is All of Us. It combines a gathering-up gospel tune with a stately, aspirational chorale hymn. After all the pain, hate and sadness of the preceding movements, All of Us offers the redemption of “the Love that lifts us up” and comes only from “all of us.”

The Master Chorale performed Morten Lauridsen’s haunting Sure On This Shining Night in the fall of 2005, shortly after its premiere performance. It sets a nocturnal reverie by the poet James Agee expressing gratitude for the fleeting nature of this life. We welcome all former singers to join us on stage for this final piece in our celebration.

Master Chorale’s Mission

Of course, these pieces are a mere fraction of the hundreds of works the Master Chorale has performed since 2003. They represent nearly 150 composers, from the great masters to leading 20th-century composers in diverse genres, from established contemporary composers to emerging talents. The Chorale has introduced audiences to music from far-flung culture (Finland, Latvia, Vietnam, Norway) they may have never encountered otherwise.

And significantly, the Master Chorale has commissioned and/or premiered over 30 original works – more than one a year on average, a remarkable record for such a small, low-budget group. A number of these have won composition prizes. They enrich the repertoire of choruses around the world.

And that, dear music lovers, is a tradition worth celebrating.

What (Only) Music Can Do
What (Only) Music Can Do

Richard Knox is a Master Chorale baritone and board member who has annotated its programs since 2016. He lives in Sandwich, NH.

230 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page