Why Music

The text of a remarkable address is making its way around the internet through the part of the world in which music matters, which is everywhere. Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of the Boston Conservatory’s music division, greeted the parents of incoming freshman students. He made the speech in the fall of 2004, but it has taken on new life lately, because of passages like this:

I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pastime. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds

And this, which he told the parents he would be saying to their children:

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sellThumbnail image for photo_Paulnack.jpg yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.

Before he reached that point in his address, Paulnack talked about the ancient Greeks’ recognition of the similarity between music and astronomy, about Olivier Messiaen in a Nazi concentration camp writing and performing his Quartet For The End Time, about how the September 11 attack made Paulnack question the value of music, about how the performance of a piece by Aaron Copland affected a pilot who had seen a friend die in war half a century earlier.
Paulnack’s talk is about the unifying, healing nature of music. You can read the whole thing by clicking here.
I have never heard Karl Paulnack play the piano. His speech makes me want to.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit


  1. Dale Katz says

    I will read this to my classes of seniors this week. We have a similar discussion when I read them articles about budget cuts to the arts.

  2. says

    Music will never heal mankind of it’s three poisons; greed, ill will and delusions. Music helps us to live through the Maddoff scandals, the Hitlers and Chavezs the Chinese torture chambers.
    Yes, without Mozart, Berg, Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms we would be bereft of beauty in our daily lives; but to say it will heal mankind is a dream. It will take a higher state of consciousness attained through meditation on our 4-fold nature and practicing the 8 spiritual disciplines given to us by the Buddha 800 BC and the 10 commandments of Christianity.
    The great Masters mentioned above certainly inspire us and we become better human beings by absorbing there melodic/harmonic/rhythmic patterns and therefore fill us with feelings goodwill; so yes, music in our lives fulfills the need to nurture our Spiritual nature, balancing the the study of science or our material nature.
    The study of a musical instrument is tantamount to achieving this balance.
    Thank you Karl for your dedication and love of humanity.