Monday Musings: What’s So Good About Music?

Posted on May 30, 2011


The critic explains.

Before I begin this week’s bizarre rambling I have some minor changes to the blog to announce: from next week I will be posting daily, except for Sundays, and time permitting, obviously. ‘Monday Musings’ will be separated from my news roundup, which will be moved to Saturdays and entitled ‘The Saturday Summary’, and I will endeavour to post a review every day from Tuesday to Friday. This is no more than I’m writing at the moment, but it will be trickled out in more of a continuous dribble.

What’s So Good About Music?

I’ve been thinking back recently to my abortive attempt to train as a secondary school music teacher, and the furious bout of self-examination it induced. The process, which was not a positive one, but from which I learned a great deal, forced me to question, and explicitly articulate the value that I place on music. This is a very interesting question: most people will not be able to provide you with a coherent response, and there is clearly no single answer, any more than there is one single music. I intend to simply set out my view, and explore what questions are raised by the issue.

I came to realise early in my training that I disagree radically with the way that music is valued by ‘society at large’, and by academic institutions in particular. The ways that music is valued in a British secondary school are basically good ones: it is valued as a creative art form, a cultural artifact, a professional skill set, and an academic discipline. As I began to think through why it all seemed so wrong to me, my first realisation was that it would be very hard to inculcate an enthusiasm for music in most children on any of these bases: so long as music is conceived as ‘cultural’, ‘professional’ or ‘academic’, it will seem to be exclusive and other. Even in the sense of a creative art, most people see music as the exclusive preserve of the ‘talented’. So what is it that I think is so wrong with this picture?

I would contend that music is more than all these things: I believe it is a basic human faculty. It is my belief that music is as fundamental an aspect of our humanity as speech, conceptual reasoning or tool use. Music is the recognition, exploitation, reproduction, manipulation and enjoyment of patterns in sound. Finding and using patterns is what we do: when we learn or analyse anything we are recognising pattern, and this fundamental behaviour as applied to sound is not just expressed in music, but in language, and therefore in thought. Put simply, if we didn’t enjoy playing with sounds, we would not have learned to talk, and without names for things we could not have developed a capacity for abstract thought, or become self-aware in the way that we understand the term.

I don’t believe there has ever been a human society which did not practice music: it would be daft to say there’s no evidence for one, as there are clearly societies which have left behind traces that tell us little if anything about their use of music, and if singing were the principal activity, for example, this is unsurprising. But the archaeological evidence for musical activity goes back forty thousand years, and every past culture that has left a substantial material or documentary legacy has left evidence that it valued music.

In our society, music is consumed by many, but practiced by few: we see a different picture if we look back into our own recent history, or look across the globe to cultures that are pre-modern (by which I do not necessarily mean pre-industrial, but simply cultures where the soci0-cultural conditions known as ‘modernity’ have not fully displaced their predecessors). In less specialised societies, or less technological ones, or less commercially structured ones, we see a much higher degree of participation in musical activities.

My concern, as a prospective teacher, was to fix this. In our culture music has become as specialised a practice as engineering, and as it is no longer practiced in the average home, school is the place where we are inducted into its practice. It’s my contention that any teacher who lets any child reach the end of their National Curriculum music entitlement, without having communicated that music is a fun game that’s easy to play, and that everyone can and should play, has failed. How well they support their GCSE students is irrelevant: they are holding the baton, and the majority of them are signally failing to pass it on, mainly, I should imagine, because they have bought the lie that music is a professional, academic, high culture, specialised field.

Music gives us all such amazing, indescribable experiences, such visceral pleasure that only food and sex can compare to; musicians reading this will know that however great the pleasure of listening, participation offers experiences of a far greater intensity. I believe that participating in music making gives expression to aspects of the human spirit that can’t be articulated by any other means; sadly, our musical culture overvalues professional polish to such a degree that the average person will be so critical of their own efforts, that they will likely stop within a bar, and put on a CD instead. As long as this remains the case, our society will be creatively and spiritually stunted.

I would love to hear some other perspectives on the value of music, and that’s what the comment box below is for.

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