Those who claim that self-expression is the chief aim of music are selling it short.
The village of Thalem, Germany, has been ravaged by war. Four German civilians gather around a pile of bricks, the last remaining fragments of their homes and shops. In their hands, they clutch the only possessions that survived the bombing: their violins. Together, they play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, a eulogy for their town.
This scene from HBO’s critically-acclaimed masterpiece Band of Brothers, if not reducing me to tears, always puts me in some sort of reflective trance. I am struck by the power of music, particularly its ability to both create atmosphere and interpret experience.
Those who claim that self-expression is the chief aim of music are selling it short. This is not to say that music is devoid of expression, but that it expresses something far greater than the individual self. The creation of music requires a specific depth and insight. Composers—the authors of this transcendent medium—pursue the same goal as philosophers: to define the human experience.
Perhaps the clearest description of the purpose of music is found in the Bible. In a moment of personal crisis, Pontius Pilate asks, Quod est veritas? translated, “What is truth?” Rather than just being a medium for personal emotional release, music is inherently transcendent, and it allows both composers and listeners alike to answer this very question.
What is the Purpose of Music?
Simply put, music reflects the human search for order amidst the abiding chaos. Our world brings a solemn promise of tragedy, but songwriters are mouthpieces who remind us of a greater truth. For example, Ariana Grande’s benefit concert following the terrorism in Manchester reflects this very concept. In response to evil and chaos, Grande used her music to champion not only the importance of peace, but the value and beauty of human life.
Carrying the scepters of both philosophers and prophets, composers look upon their own cultures and ask alongside Plato, “What should be the end of music if not the one of beauty?” And together with Dostoyevsky, they stand in the rubble of their own tragedies and declare that “beauty will save the world.” And I what greater beauty is there than Truth?
Do Beethoven and Grande really share the same goal in their musical exploration? Quite frankly, yes. While their styles differ completely, they share one very important trait: the fundamental purpose of their work (hint: it isn’t self-expression). My purpose isn’t to argue who conveys the truth of the human experience more effectively, or even to comment on the quality of their music. I merely want to point out that the mid-eighteenth century German composer and the contemporary pop star, each looking at their respective cultures, work to discern what truly matters.
The villagers in Band of Brothers are playing the music of a composer who defined the human experience as tragic, but also as resilient, brave, and victorious. Standing among the rubble of their existence, violins tucked beneath their dirtied chins, they expressed deep remorse their loss. But for them, music served a far grander purpose than simply processing emotions or defining their reality. Even in the face of tragedy, their music encapsulated the purpose of its composition: despite the present chaos, restoration would come. On that day, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 was their anthem: truth—the greatest beauty—will save our world.