Why do we sing?

Sometimes I wonder why we do this. Why sing? Why go to the effort of running or singing in a choir? Millennials like me have spent our lives being told to become lawyers or software engineers. Whoever thought that this century was doomed to some hellish Groundhog Day of software engineers suing one another may be proved right in the end, but I hope not. Because I decided to sing instead. So I return to the question, why? And then, inevitably, not just why do we sing, but why do we do music at all? In short, why art?

Art is a tricky thing. Is it representational? Is it functional? What should it look like, and what should it sound like? In the 20th and 21st centuries, this has led to some pretty challenging art which not only lacks beauty, but deliberately shirks it. This is a perilous path to tread. I have no more problem with atonal modernist music than I have with Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal. The purpose of them all, to some degree, is to show us that art does not need to ‘pander’ to beauty; that beauty and art are not the same thing. While this depends on one’s definition of art, the point is well made. The question I pose is, what does art of this kind give to humanity, besides an experiment (some may say a failed experiment)? To glibly remove beauty from art – content from form – is to rob humanity of the most precious thing it has: that transporting moment when nothing else matters but the absorption you feel in something beautiful. Be it in a piece of music, a landscape, a smiling baby, or an arresting sense of the vastness of the sea, it is what C. S. Lewis calls being ‘surprised by joy’, when nothing worldly matters – only the transcendence of that moment. We never know when it’s coming, but when it does, it changes us for ever. Why? Because, for a fleeting moment, we’ve glimpsed God. And in this moment, we become a better person. In a flash, we see the world for what it really is: not a market economy or a scientific equation, but a moment in time, possessed of infinite beauty and goodness. It is the artist’s job to capture this moment. And in a world enslaved to money, crippled by acrimony and deafened by conflict, what could be more important than this? By opening our eyes and ears to the real world around us, we open our hearts to beauty and truth, and so to a better society and a happier life.

Next time I’m asked ‘why would you be a musician?’ I’ll answer – ‘what else would I want to be?’

Peter Wagstaff, January 2020