When you think about it, why does music have any emotional appeal at all? Why should something so unlike anything else in our experience — unlike, that is, any sound generated by the normal workings of the world — have an emotional impact? Perfume seems to have a similar directness, in that we are affected by it without really being able to articulate why; as opposed to stories, for example, where we have a clearer sense of what’s going on and why it might matter to us.
A science website asked several scientists to tell them what they thought was the most interesting question you could ask of science at this moment. Most of the replies were of the nature “Is the alpha constant stable over the universe?,” “Will the Riemann hypothesis hold?,” “Does junk DNA have a function in the genome?” — science questions. My friend Danny Hillis asked, “Why do we like music?” — a question that has formed the basis of our conversations over the years. And that is truly a mysterious question, which many learned books have utterly failed to answer. Why do I like one composer’s string quartet rather than another’s, when to a Martian visitor they’d seem indistinguishable? What are the differences we’re hearing? What intrinsic wiring exists for having feelings about music? — and by intrinsic wiring I mean the kind of wiring that leads us to prefer symmetrical faces to asymmetrical ones, or to be frightened of spiders.”—Brian Eno (interviewed by David Mitchell)