A Musical Heart

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The human heart was an object of fascination in the ancient world. Its position in the center of the body and extending circuitry of veins and arteries made it an organ of obvious importance and wide speculation. With only a rudimentary grasp of anatomy and physiology, the ancients envisioned the heart as the generator of fundamental human qualities. It was not valued for its mechanical function, but for its supposed control over aspects of our personalities. Yet, while almost every culture developed heart imagery, the details varied drastically from place to place.

The Hebrew Bible describes the heart as the locus of intelligence, reason and diligent deliberation. It makes virtually no connection between the heart and emotions, and never associates it with romantic love. Having a heart meant possessing wisdom; lacking a heart meant stupidity. It was a storehouse of lessons and memories—“Take to heart [remember] these instructions with which I charge you this day” (Deut. 6:6)—and was distinguished from the spiritual essence of our being—“serve the Lord your God with all your heart [intellect] and soul” (Deut. 29:4). In fact, the body’s non-rational center was thought to be the kidneys, as depicted in Proverbs 23:16: “I shall rejoice with all my kidneys.”

Clearly, this biblical symbolism has little to do with the heart in Western culture. This is because our conception has roots in non-biblical sources, mainly Egypt, Greece and Rome. The racing heart is a recurring motif in the love songs of ancient Egypt, and the influential Roman physician Galen (129–c. 200 C.E.) identified the heart as the seat of emotions. These ideas permeate our society, where the heart denotes romance, compassion, enthusiasm, deep feelings and desire-based decisions.

As opposite as the biblical and Western images are, they do merge elegantly in the experience of music. Music simultaneously makes us feel and stimulates cognitive interest. When we hear a piece of music, we are first struck by its emotional effect. But this is not enough to hold our attention. Almost immediately, we begin to process the unfolding sound and ponder why it makes us feel a certain way. This is normally understood as the engagement of heart and mind. However, we can also see it as the triggering of the emotional heart and the intellectual heart.

Music is unusual in its ability to captivate both our rational and non-rational sides. It is a complete human experience. Of course, the emotional and intellectual appeal of a piece is never perfectly balanced. Music, like the people who make it, tends to emphasize one aspect over the other. Still, even the most academic work can touch us on a sentimental level, while the simplest song can activate the brain. In this sense, music is a “whole heart” phenomenon.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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