Good Dinners and Happy Days: Darwin and What Remains of Music

There is a passage from one of Charles Darwin’s 1838 notebooks that begs for consideration. “Nothing”, Darwin writes, “shows how little happiness depends on the senses [more] than the [small] fact that no one, looking back to his life, would say how many good dinners…he had; he would say how many happy days he had spend in such a place.”

Adam Gopnik synthesizes Darwin’s idea in Angels and Ages:

“We have sensual experience, animal appetites, and arrive at the idea of happiness. Happiness is made of many dinners, but the dinner provokes a concept larger than just their enumeration. Sensation becomes conceptual thought. The mind turns good dinners into happy days.”

Music is a part of our sensory experience. Darwin’s proposition paints a unique picture for its place in our lives. The mind turns good songs into happy days. It serves as the middle man, the mediant between auditory experience and memory.

One would deem this as obvious as the earth revolving around the sun. Even so, we still say that the sun rises and falls with complete knowledge that it does not. In the same way we might focus on the details of a musical experience when it is the feeling that eventually overcomes.

For the life of me I cannot remember many details of what I listened to when I used to run. These songs do not register on an aesthetic, let alone auditory level. They might have when I selected them – not anymore. What remains is the semblance of bliss and dogged perseverance: the spirit of bettering my body. Beyond any particular note or artistic choice, the converted sum of conceptual thought takes precedence in the end. Perhaps this is why music works so well in sporting events. You might not remember every chant but it is many chants which, in Gopnik’s words, provoke concepts larger than just their enumeration: camaraderie, tenacity, competition, sportsmanship, grace.

No matter the end concept, the sensory experience still stands in the beginning. There has to be a good dinner. It is what elicits the mind to wrap its, well, mind around music, converting the sound into thoughts and memories that last beyond the initial sensory experience. These sonic details are important. Many feast upon them and make it their life’s noble work. But knowing that these characteristics of the sound will not last is profound and begs us to consider what will.

The mind turns good music into happy days.


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