I'll Give You a Billion Dollars. But
By Crispin Sartwell
I'll give you a billion dollars. But you can never listen to music again.
Before I elucidate these profound sentences, let me give you the fine print. I don't have a
billion dollars. And I have no way to make sure that you never listen to music again. Much as I
respect and cherish your humanity, I don't trust you at all.
This is merely a thought experiment I have been trying on people. Some of them say they'd
take the billion. Most, after thinking about it a minute, say they wouldn't.
Music is more important to me than the presidential election or the war in Iraq. I'm trying not
to face squarely the question of whether it's more important to me than my family, or the truth.
The fact that every culture has music and that many people all over the world feel as intensely
about it as I do is a rather puzzling phenomenon. Perhaps someone has provided an explanation in
terms of evolutionary biology. Without having read it, I don't believe it.
Evolution gave us bodies that are well-suited to make music and that are profoundly affected
by it. It makes us move or quiets us down (indeed Raffi is about the only thing that will quiet
down my 4-year-old) or maddens us or puts us to sleep. But I don't think evolution gave us our
fingers *because* they're suited to play the clarinet. It's some kind of unintended or arbitrary
consequence, unless evolution isn't driven by survival at all but by . . . what survival is for.
Though music sometimes has an emotional, spiritual, or political meaning, it seems overall to
be a flat contradiction of meaning and a conspicuously unproductive activity. In fact, that is
certainly a key to its effect: its point or its meaning - at least often - is merely itself. And if there is
in human life no activity that is its own point then all action is pointless.
The philosopher Schopenhauer argued that music imitated and represented the flow of human
consciousness, with its crescendo and diminuendo of ideas, images, and emotions.
But even if that were true, it would not explain the profound effects of music. I could read a
long and accurate description of a period of consciousness and come away completely unmoved.
The mere representation or repetition of states of consciousness is not compelling.
Though music can represent things, from sounds to thoughts, there is something intrinsic to it
that is suited to move and refresh and absorb us, something that is fundamentally not subject to
further explanation, that is just an arbitrary effect of sensible material on an organism suited - for
no reason worthy of the name - to receive it.
Of course, music is, in this as in many other cultures, a fundamental producer of identity. The
fact that you listen to hip hop, or punk, or conjunto, or opera pulls you into a sub-culture of the
like-minded. Teenage tribes are largely built around musical styles.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu argued that the key to good government was good
music, and Plato said something similar. Both encouraged certain modes and scales and
instruments, and discouraged others, for political reasons. Indeed, sometimes, particularly during
a war, or on Veteran's Day, people tear up when they hear the Star Spangled Banner.
For that matter, apparently one of the strategies for the attack on Fallujah was blasting AC/DC
records at insurgents, which strikes me as something that might only inspire them to further dirty
deeds. But these are attempts to manipulate the power of music, not an explanation of that power.
The meaning of music is precisely that it is something meaningless but beguiling, a place where
we lay down our purposes and goals, a context of useless absorption that is - precisely because it
is useless - of intrinsic worth. Perhaps this is common to the other arts as well. But nowhere is it
more intense, more poignant, or more universal.
A billion dollars isn't worth anything if you can't use it. Indeed, a couple of people told me
that they wouldn't take the billion because they couldn't use it to buy audio equipment. But music
is priceless to the extent that it is worth nothing.
At any rate, the fact that most folks - some of them apparently hard-nosed, practical people or
people who seem to have devoted incredible energy to making money - refuse my billions, makes
me think that maybe the politicians and warriors aren't the only things we are.
The candidates yammer and the bombs explode. But when they fall silent, the people who
make music begin again to play.
Crispin Sartwell's most recent book is "Six Names of Beauty" (Routledge 2004).