Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nehamas’ Brain on Music

Mazie Preite

Nehamas’ Brain on Music

Even though humans have only been present for a small portion of our planet’s history, we have experienced, and been the cause of, a lot changes and developments to our population and the environments surrounding us. Despite the many large differences in how we exist today versus a million years ago, there are a few key components to our lives that have stuck with us for most of the many years we have been around. Two examples of these key components are friendship and music. Not only can friendship and music both be considered very old and natural human practices, but they also seem deeply connected when you adopt a historical point of view.

Approximately 40,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens were beginning to outnumber the previously dominant Neanderthal population due to the Homo Sapiens higher intellect and abilities. Many historians predict that it was not just the Homo Sapiens ability to make more advanced weapons than the Neanderthals that made them able to dominate but also their ability to communicate and connect as a group. This is where music emerged as a useful tool to help “early modern humans forge a sense of group identity and mutual trust that enabled them to become so successful” (BBC). Because of the useful advantages of group identity for survival, both friendship and music have become an ingrained part of our humanity and their value lives on past those who do not.

Throughout his work, On Friendship, Alexander Nehamas evaluates many different forms of expression to judge each of their individual ability to adequately portray and express friendship. Through his praise of drama theater, which he argues has the ability to “capture their repetitive form without the complications that beset the novel’s efforts to do so,” it is clear that Nehamas’ critique of many expressions of friendship is based in the extreme dramatisation that was so often found in novels, and found now today in movies and other media (58). So, when judging art forms on their ability to accurately portray friendship in a valuable way, it is important to remember that “In life, it is through little incidents that friendship is established, even if it sometimes finds expression during life’s most urgent moments” not solely in those urgent and dramatic moments (89). This is where a large part of music’s power lies; music, which is so ingrained in our lives and surrounds us constantly, is able to be much more versatile in the moods and feelings it portrays as well as the settings and importance it carries. Other art forms, such as theater and novels, require more specific and restricted plot lines and feelings in order to keep the audience interested enough to continue watching or reading. Music has much less requirements; even the simplest steady beat can keep our attention. Because of this, it has the ability to show not only the dramatic aspects of life, which it certainly can do, but also the more common and mundane parts, which are arguably more revealing to the human condition. To add to the impressive abilities of music to reflect human life and interaction, musical improvisation is arguably the best artistic example of human relationships as it requires listening, connection, consideration of others, as well as empathy for those who may feel a bit nervous about improvising in a group setting and courage to do it yourself.

Even when it is not involving the specific art of improvisation, musical practice and performance are vitally connected to friendship making abilities, especially in group settings. Nehamas argues that it is through philia that the ignorant are connected to the wise, and the beautiful to the ugly and while some, like Kierkegaard, might consider this nature of distinguishing people from others based on their values to you is a ‘mockery of god,’ Nehamas argues that that distinction is glorious (15, 57). The valuable connections between diverse people (the ignorant and the wise, etc.) that Nehamas advocates for is clearly present in music, and most specifically in music education and performance. There are many studies that show that listening to and performing music releases large amounts of endorphins and oxytocin in our bodies. These chemicals are also released by sensory overload, physical activity, strong emotional arousal and social behavior (all of these are also incorporated in musical performance). So, not only could listening to a piece of music with someone very different from you help to form a bond between you, but playing a piece together can do just that at an even more affective level.

Being a scholar of music also allows us to practice forming connections between people from other diverse backgrounds by interacting with others with different skill sets and levels from you, whether it be weekly lessons with your violin teacher, or playing in a quartet with a harpists. Despite whatever differences we have with those around us, musicians practice working with others with disregard for those differences in order to create a single work of art together as a unit.

Nehamas’ work on the nuanced relationships between art and friendship will continue to be incredibly valuable, especially in the age of increasing social media usage and the prevalence of online friendships. As Mark Vernon quotes in The Meaning of Friendship, “David Holmes, a psychologist, has estimated that up to 40 percent of the information displayed on social networking sites might be fabricated” (105). This growing lack of authenticity in our daily lives reveals a lot of the concerns about increasing online friendships; many of the potentially hurtful aspects of friendships, such as rejection or being ignored, are much more common now that people are not interacting face to face and it is harder to pick up social cues and easier to ‘leave someone on read’ or ‘ghost’ them and, with more social options available to us even from our own homes, we are getting increasingly worse at being alone. Thankfully, music’s incredible bonding capabilities are a useful tool to combat this, as it promotes authentic social bonding and even increases empathy. Although everyone can benefit from these side effects of music, children experience the greatest impact of these effects and, therefore, if we want to seriously slow down the increasing number of loneliness and overall lack of friendship in today’s society, investing in children’s music education programs will be a powerful tool.


Barras, Colin. “Earth – Did Early Humans, or Even Animals, Invent Music?” BBC, BBC, 7 Sept. 2014,


Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. New York; Basic. 2016.


Vernon, Mark. 2010. The Meaning of Friendship. New York; Palgrave Macmillan.


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