Daily Bow: Why Does Beauty Exist?


Everyone can relate to the sentiment that music has the capacity to be beautiful. We must then ask ourselves, “Why do we perceive music as beautiful?” Or even, “Why does beauty exist?” Jonah Lehrer sets out to, tentatively, answer these questions. Lehrer posits that, by exciting one’s curiosity, music – and, by extension, beauty – is ” a form of curiosity that exists in response to sensation.”

What’s the point of marveling at a Rembrandt self portrait or a Bach fugue? To paraphrase Auden, beauty makes nothing happen. Unlike our more primal indulgences, the pleasure of perceiving beauty doesn’t ensure that we consume calories or procreate. Rather, the only thing beauty guarantees is that we’ll stare for too long at some lovely looking thing. Museums are not exactly adaptive.

Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out. Art hijacks this ancient instinct: If we’re looking at a Rothko, that twinge of beauty in the mOFC is telling us that this painting isn’t just a blob of color; if we’re listening to a Beethoven symphony, the feeling of beauty keeps us fixated on the notes, trying to find the underlying pattern; if we’re reading a poem, a particularly beautiful line slows down our reading, so that we might pause and figure out what the line actually means. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

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2 Responses to Daily Bow: Why Does Beauty Exist?

  1. Terry August 4, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    Jonah Lehrer’s point reminds me of a book I read over 10 years ago, well before my cello days, that I think has some relevance to music — Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.

    Both stories and music present the mind with problems that we want to see solved, and we feel satisfaction in the resolution. I suspect there is much in common with the child (like my 5 year-old at that time) who watches her favorite video over and over and over…, and the adult that sets aside time to hear, from beginning to end, a favorite symphony. It doesn’t matter much that we know how it ends, it once again satisfies our yearning to experience a true and satisfying solution.

    • Colin Cronin August 5, 2011 at 10:23 am #

      Terry, these are some great insights. Thanks for sharing them with us! I definitely understand the parallel to a story. What’s amazing is how purely instrumental music conveys that story. I remember studying Wagner intensively during my college years and how crucial story elements were in his writing of the works. The concept of the Leitmotiv was a fascinating way of approaching thematic development (completing departing from the classical style of form).

      It can be difficult enough to effectively express a story through lyrics, but doing it without words is even more challenging. I think that’s a big reason why people see so much beauty in it.

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