The Musical Mitgefühl

I was born into a deeply musical family and, more broadly, a musical kibbutz community. Community sing-alongs, choirs and ensembles were a part of my childhood and adolescent environment that was as natural to me as breathing or walking. This meant that, from a relatively early age, I participated in various musical bodies, first as a choir singer and later as a (mostly) woodwind player.

Now, common music-making, and especially common singing, is a fascinating thing for someone who is interested, as I am, in the intersection of ethics and language. This is because music is, fundamentally, a non-linguistic system of human interrelationability. That is, a set of conventions and practices that enables individuals who may otherwise be complete strangers to one another, and without any kind of a common (natural) language, to share a sense of direction and purpose, and produce a sense of fellow-feeling among them. Not all music, of course, is instrumental, and textual settings can render particular pieces as highly captivating. But tonality seems to play at least as big a role, if not greater, in the production of this kind of momentum of human commonality, precisely because it appeals to our non- (or even pre-) linguistic nature.

There is nothing particularly new or novel about this observation, of course. Herder noted the immediate sense of sympathy associated with the very sound of a language, and Rousseau stressed the importance of music for communicating emotions as part of his idea of virtue as the ‘sublime science of simple souls. More recently, Leonard Bernstein has articulated this notion beautifully in The Infinite Variety of Music, with regard to the emergence - and decline - of atonal music: “[...] we are still earth creatures, still needful of human warmth and the need to communicate among ourselves. For which the Lord be praised. And as long as there is reaching out of one of us to another, there will be the healing comfort of tonal response.” (p. 13)

This unmediated fellow-feeling generated by joint music-making may, of course, be easily abused, precisely because of its intuitive nature. The tonality of military music, folksongs and national anthems are easily manipulatable in the service of adverse purposes. When misused, music can be an incredibly powerful force that transforms unmediated and often intuitive fellow-feeling into an instrument of group violence. But when used for good, the intuitive compassion generated by joint music-making can be a powerful tool for creating good will and a sense of commonality among otherwise estranged individuals. It may not in itself eliminate away social and political tensions; but it seems like a good way of creating the ‘circumstances of benevolence’ that just might.