Music – The Vehicle to Life Beyond Logic

Without music, life would be an error.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Long before I started studying philosophy, I loved music. I spent my teenage years on a steady diet of Hip Hop, R&B, Funk, and Jazz. I played piano every day and played weekend jazz gigs during my college years.

I have never had the language to describe the experience of music. It has always seemed deeper than that. To describe the experience of listening to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” is like trying to fit a mountain into a backpack. You might get a handful of rocks in, but you can’t capture the vastness of the mountain. Likewise, you can’t reduce the musical experience down to a handful of words and concepts.

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Music represents the ultimate experience of life beyond logic.   Bands like The Beatles, U2, and The Miles Davis Quintet give us a window into the vast world of experience beyond words, concepts, and theories.

The ancients also understood the power of music to bypass the limited categories of the mind.  They saw music as shaping the soul. “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other,” Plato remarked, “because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”  Aristotle held a similar view: “We are altered in soul when we listen to such things” as music.

Both saw music as the ideal complement to physical exercise (last week’s experiment).  While exercise cultivates “savageness and hardness,” music creates its opposite.  It cultivates “softness and tameness.”

So if you look closely at Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics, you get some wild prescriptions for how to experience music philosophically.  Both, for instance, advocate listening to music with lyrics (logos).   Aristotle goes even deeper – outlining the various modes of music, Dorian, Phrygian, or Mixed Lydian, and their effects on the soul.

Modern neuroscience confirms Plato and Aristotle’s insight that music stirs the passions.  In Daniel Levitin’s fascinating book This is Your Brain on Music, he tells us that music’s impact on the brain goes far beyond the effects of language.  Music taps into some of the most primal brain regions like the cerebellum, while simultaneously activating “higher-order” regions in the frontal lobes and mesolimbic system that create “arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opiods and the production of dopamine.”  Perhaps this is why Plato and Aristotle saw music as a direct line to the soul.

So for this week’s experiment, let’s explore the philosophical and soul transforming possibilities of music.  Let’s explore music as a vehicle to experiencing life beyond logic.

Aristotle offers an elaborate set of practices for doing this.  But they are almost impossible to replicate.  For one thing, few modern songs stick to a single mode (i.e. Dorian, Phrygian, or Mixed Lydian).  But the bigger problem is without years of training in music theory, most people have no idea what these words even mean.

So we have to come up with a new practice.  Here’s what I propose:

Step 1From Background to Foreground – In modern life, it’s difficult to go anywhere without hearing music.  Spend a day shopping and you’ll hear soft musac in grocery stores, driving techno in clothing stores, and adult contemporary at your local Starbucks.  But here’s the problem.  While ubiquitous, music is almost always in the background.  Rarely, if ever, does it take center stage in our awareness.   So the first step is to shift music from the background to the foreground – to really listen to one or two songs each day.

Step 2Conscious Oscillation – Music is a lot like life.  You can either lose yourself in the experience of it or take a step back and watch it unfold as a spectator.   Since both activities are important, I recommend oscillating between the two.  At times, let your self go totally into the music.  Let yourself experience music’s power to take you into dimensions of experience beyond the logical mind.  At other times, experiment with listening consciously.  Become an observer of your experience.  Notice what happens in the mind and body with each song.

Step 3 The Energetics of Music – As you begin understanding how various types of music affect your mood, mind, and body, try basing your choice of music on the qualities you want to create in any moment.  Early in the day, when your energy needs a jump-start, you might crank hip-hop or hard rock.  Later in the day, when you’re in need of relaxation, you might listen to jazz or bossa nova.  The idea is to begin choosing music to match the energetic qualities you want to cultivate in any given moment.

What we know from both the ancients and from cutting-edge neuroscience is that music plays a unique role in shaping our experience.  The right song, played at the right time, can bring us to tears, inspire courage, and even make us fall in love.

I want to know what you think.  Does music take you beyond logic?  Do you have any practices for using its unique power to transform your life?

Update: A Fascinating Description of Musical “Brainworms”
posted August 11, 2011 by Nate

If you’re like me, you get a song stuck in your head just about every day.  Yesterday it was “I Want it That Way” by the Backstreet Boys.   Today it’s “Just hear those sleigh bells ringlin’.”  That’s right, even though it’s mid-August, I have a Christmas song lodged in my brain.  In this short clip, Oliver Sacks, a leading figure on the neurology of music, explains why these “brainworms” arise.


  1. Hi Nate…LOVE this!!!

    Music…the language of the globe. I just have to dance at least once a month…it’s so freeing, expressive and FUN! I also use music to move me through depression. I don’t shy away from depression; it has worth like any other emotion. I use music to move me through the pain/suffering and get me to the other side of the illusion to my authentic trUth.

    Also, I do a meditation with an album (‘Calendula’ by John Beaulieu) that uses tuning forks as a natural method of healing because they have the same sonic ratios inherent in nature. As each tone sounds, I locate within my body where it’s resonating. It’s very cool.

    Love your work. All the best,

  2. Nate Klemp says:

    Hey Brice,

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on this. Glad to hear that music plays such a powerful role in your life. I agree — it has some really powerful possibilities. I think that’s why Plato and Aristotle placed such a huge emphasis on it.


  3. Sue says:

    This is wonderful and so well-timed. I have observed only recently music has mainly not been a huge part of my life; yet as I’ve been working lately inside some of the concepts of greater presence…and practicing dissolving fear….my thirst for music has spiked. I can correlate this reaction back in my life to peak, focused passion periods–falling in love, etc. It feels lately like more things about me are coming alive. And the increased energy wants a really vibrant soundtrack.

    Tx for added perspective on what I’ve been experiencing.

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