Why Music Has Been ‘Functional’ Since Forewer


Music has been researched and dissected lastly from every possible angle. One such activity is The Sync Project, which is an extremely interesting and promising endeavor. A team of researchers, advisers and investors collaborate towards one goal – ‘Developing music as a precision medicine’. Among advisers are names like musician Peter Gabriel, music conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, or cognitive neuroscientist Robert Zatorre.

I have been closely following the Sync Project for more than two years, shortly after its inception in 2015. Their blog and articles have always been a great source of interesting ideas and research results, that supported ideas Musicably is based on.

But my enthusiasm got recently cooled down after I read one of their articles. It is titled ‘Where To Next For Functional Music’ with the lead ‘What if music could actually be used not just to accompany an experience, but to actually improve or enhance it?’ It is authored by the Sync Project’s co-founder and the Head of Science Ketki Karanam.

What is my issue with the article?

One is that the Sync Project seems to be aiming to monetize its research as soon as possible, by making its results more substantial then they are. I understand that an endeavour like this needs a proper financial funding. And also has to show satisfying results to its supporters.

But I consider the article fundamentally flawed for at least two reasons:
– it reduces music to listening experience only, with a clear consumeristic approach
– it doesn’t recognize majority of the music history and the role music had played in the human evolution

Let me explain.

For the most of human history music had to be produced and “actively consumed” on the spot by the same people. I mean tens of thousands of years.

And for the same amount of time, music had fulfilled various functions, important for the human society and its evolution. Otherwise it would have not survived to these days.

It is just very recently – a couple hundred years – that music has been gradually reduced to only entertaining function and consumed mostly passively. With it came professionalization of music producers a.k.a. musicians on one side, and passive music consumers, or listeners, on the other.

The author starts her article with following statement “Music classification is now less about genre and more about mood, with listeners often building their digital playlists for a specific occasion or activity. It’s music with a purpose – or functional music – and it promises to get even more interesting as scientific inquiry comes into play.”

In that regard, it is hard trying to imagine for example musicians in the 17th century, to be asked to play something baroque and then renaissance or gothic. They played contemporary music of their time, combining old with new. And they played music for different occasions, functions or moods.

Majority of the old music we can reliably replicate in these days is thanks to the fact, that it is religious music preserved by writing it down. Monks did that hard work of scribbling music notation. And we can just assume, that this religious music was, to a certain point, influenced by local folklore – music of ordinary people.

And more importantly – this religious music had to fulfill very specific functions in lives of its users and players, as well as its listeners. Primarily it was to celebrate higher beings – the focus of each particular religion. But it was also to change the mood of listeners, to overwhelm them, to strengthen their religious beliefs. And also to have them forget for a moment their ordinary lives, to unite the community, to make them feel better in that specific time and place.

There are also special types of music compositions marking important steps in a human’s life, from the birth all the way to the death. The funeral music, for example, has a very clear function and I don’t think anyone would argue that it is entertainment.

Alongside the religious music was evolving, mostly undocumented, music of the ordinary people. And I want to re-emphasize my previous point – this music existed, evolved and survived until now, because of its importance, its functions in everyday’s lives.

What first comes in mind here is probably music for dancing and celebrating. Again the type of music to boost the mood, to unite the community, to support interactions among genders, and others.

There are many other music forms with clearly defined purpose and function. Take, for example music, or songs, used to induce sleep, also called lullabies. The Sync Project works with this type of music to a large extent in its project Unwind. But hardly would anyone be able to argue, that music for sleep is a recent invention. We just have more scientific research to prove the importance of music in our lives.

Other types of music “for a specific occasion or activity”, which have been used for centuries, are, among many others – marching music, fighting and military songs, love songs, learning songs, wedding songs, celebratory music, farewell songs, dance music, funeral music, working songs, drinking songs, …

There is music and songs to sooth a soul, to boost a spirit, to calm, to make people happy or cry – for every imaginable stage of human mind and spirit, every occasion and situation. This is nothing new and that is the reason why we still have music and listen and play it.

Music fulfills important and indisputable function in human lives, and rediscovering it as a “functional music” is like reinventing a wheel.

The problem occurs when the initial function gets misused or misunderstood. A very clear and a sad example for such an abuse has become the Christmas music. This is more explained in the article ‘Why Does Christmas Music Make You Sad? There’s A Reason & It’s Depressing’. Clearly the overuse of the specific music type does not benefit anyone.

My hope is, that in this time of Christmas celebrations you will get only a healthy dose of a great music, that will improve your mood and positively impact any activity you have planned for the end of the year.

Wish you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


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