The aesthetic philosophy of spiritualism in music is not a new ontology: it has been around since the writings of Plato. This philosophical ontology can be traced through the writings of Plato, nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and the more recent works of music educator Anthony J. Palmer. Palmer, in his essay entitled “Multicultural Music Education: Antipodes and Complementarities”, theorizes the “why” question stating “Music is a psychic necessity that originates in the structure of the brain and is passed on genetically from one generation to the next.” This commonality of music amongst all human beings is the basis for a unified or universal aesthetic philosophy of music. Plato and Schopenhauer believed that an element of music exists in the universe that shapes human expression through a collective soul. They believed that this energy is the source of the spiritual component of music, which not only exists in the conscious mind but as a greater common energy shared by all living and reasoning beings. In the context of jazz improvisation this energy could be considered the medium through which many believe original expression is transmitted among musicians and listeners.
Physicalists vs. Metaphysicalists
There are two schools of thought among modern interpreters of mental sciences, those who believe the mind only exists within the matter of the brain (physicalists) and those who believe that the mind is more than just the brain and that some inner force drives its evolutionary forces (metaphysicalists and philosophers). Among those in the second camp are the transpersonalists, those who like Plato, believe that our minds are more than just a collection of neurons, that we are able to transcend our perceptions, and experience a consciousness greater than our individual selves, and that this meta-consciousness or world energy “determines its own fate and evolutionary path.”
Among the scholars that agree with the second philosophy are practicing physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry Oliver Sacks and psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Sacks explains the philosophy of music as an embedded part of our spiritual psyche when he exclaims:
For virtually all of us, music has great power, whether or not we seek it out or think of ourselves as particularly musical. This propensity to music-this musicophilia- shows itself in infancy, is manifest and central in every culture, and probably goes back to the very beginnings of our species. It may be developed or shaped by the cultures we live in, by the circumstances of life, or by the particular gifts or weaknesses we have as individuals- but it lies so deep in human nature that one is tempted to think of it as innate, much as E.O. Wilson regards “biophilia,” our feeling for living things.
In his seminal book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi describes the higher state of consciousness as something that he calls optimal experience, or flow as: the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
Csikszentmihalyi’s theories are consistent with those who believe that controlling the conscious mind is critical to mastery of any task.
Erich Neumann, in The Origins of History and Consciousness points to the origin of consciousness and the ego as the time when man first asked the question: “Where did I come from?” a time from which all creation and cosmology myths arose. This may also mark the beginnings of music and knowledge of music, a purely human phenomenon. This concept of the function of music as a psychic need to help answer mankind’s most spiritual questions aligns with another popular belief, that music is a product of human expression. Susan Langer wrote: “above all, Art … articulates human nature: sensibility, energy, passion, and mortality. More than anything else in experience, the arts mold our actual life of feeling.” This philosophy is in agreement with Plato’s Ideas, and is also echoed by Bennett Reimer who wrote “The arts are the means by which humans can actively explore and experience the unbound richness of human subjective possibilities.” These sentiments are based on the belief that music (over all the arts) has the ability to communicate the expressions of our innermost thoughts through a medium which has no equal in its ability to articulate the seemingly boundless energies of human emotion. If music is an objectified representation of our innermost thoughts and sensibilities, then its existence may be a product of the life force that gives us the ability to appreciate self and others as part of an interconnected human community.
Anthony J. Palmer, “Multicultural Music Education: Antipodes and Complementarities,” Philosophy of Music Education Review 5, no. 2 (1997): 92.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969).
Anthony J. Palmer, “Consciousness Studies and a Philosophy of Music Education,” Philosophy of Music Education Review 8, no. 2 (2000).
Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), x.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 4.
Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 7.
Susan K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 401.
Bennett Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education, second ed. (Enlewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989