Music as a vice

The idea that music can affect people is not necessarily viewed as positive by everyone. Indeed, if one believes that music can affect people, one can easily imagine music, especially in the area of popular music, which can have a negative effect. Music as a symbol of defiance, violent lyrics, actual physiological harm from the decibel level... these are real elements on the music scene, especially among youth. Beyond having one's hearing destroyed, one could well wonder whether the music itself has any real effect. After all, the lyrics of these songs could be read on a computer screen and at least partially make their points. The idea that music does indeed affect people is, however, widespread, and a necessary part of the context for music as art. One can go on to wonder about the addictive capacity of music, if its ability to soothe or stimulate makes one withdraw from reality, and ultimately whether its apparently positive effects are in fact positive.

Many parents have cringed at the idea of a son forming a band, or making a pilgrimage to seek out a music guru. The rallying cry of "Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll" is not exactly seen as a positive combination by polite society. Indeed, connections between music and drugs and/or sex are legion. Even if one does not grant that the latter two are vices in principle, done to excess they must be. As a matter of balance, most anything done in excess is a problem, whereas most anything done in moderation is okay. So what of music done to excess? Is there such a thing? Given today's lack of silence, music is nearly everywhere. It is in the supermarket, in elevators, in movies, on the car radio, outside on the neighbor's boom box.... Without question, this situation makes it more difficult for individual pieces of music to make an impression, and that is where deconstruction often comes into play, to divest general stimulation from artistic expression. It is not difficult to find circles in which deconstruction itself is viewed as a vice, as an intellectualism which blinds one to basic facts under one's nose. It can certainly become that.

Does music blind one to progress? The answer is, mainly, yes. With any level of involvement (i.e. besides "whistle while you work" songs), music is not conducive to things loved by progress-oriented society. With few exceptions — exceptions so few that the negative correlation is evident — it does not help one accumulate more wealth or create more technology. It works against those things both by the unlimited time it can command in competition with more "practical" endeavors, and by its own nature which does not truly admit progress. Music tells us again & again that things do not become better, because music itself does not become better. It simply (or not so simply) changes. Is music, in fact, correct in this representation? I believe it is, and I believe the data supports me in that belief. Surveys and studies do not indicate that people are happier in their lives than they have been in the past, and often indicate the opposite. If the studies are correct, this can be the only metric. Perhaps, given the state of affluence and leisure, people should be happier in their lives today (what the modernist argument ultimately becomes), but if they are not, they are not.

Indeed, given the state of affluence and leisure, does music — whether for entertainment or consciousness-expansion (which I will substitute here for "art") — not become more important in people's lives? Is a career in music consequently more respectable than it has ever been, due to an increased demand for entertainment? One must say yes, that entertainment jobs in general have been gaining in social stature. The public's demand, by its nature, is moderate in comparison to a serious musician's own immersion in music. One must ask again whether music can act as a drug under such heavy exposure. If music is a refuge to avoid one's other responsibilities, it certainly can. For the devoted amateur, for whom music is a way to unwind after a stressful day, one must also wonder upon the line between necessary leisure and life crutch. Of course, if musical expression is an inherent aspect of humanity, one could no more consign it to the crutch category than one could eating, an obviously necessary activity to which some similar statements apply. This notion regards musical expression, however, and it is difficult to believe that passive listening alone in the dark can be inherent to human life, much less when accompanied by the neurosis of collecting things for no purpose other than to possess them.

Still, there is the simple glory of self-expression in sound, and then there is an immersion in musical detail and formal demands. There is singing a song, and then there is composing, with all the historical baggage it entails today. At that point, one could as well impugn scholarship in general, obsessive wrangling over obscure details. It seems there must be a limit there, too, but learning is a necessary aspect of living. Thinking all the time, not letting things rest, those are the dangers of intellectual obsession. The dangers of music as a potential vice can be viewed similarly, arising from an emphasis on stimulus per se, developing a craving for continued stimulus (whether novelty or a quest to recapture a perfect memory). In the arena of public performance, music can easily become about the attention and the spotlight, something readily observable among popular megastars. On the personal level, when I take a vacation, I do not want to hear music. Even within my working life, my desire to listen to other people's work diminishes. I listen to a few recordings a week, as opposed to maybe a hundred when I was in school. This is, I think, a result of subconscious aversion to the vice potential of constant stimulus.

Suggesting that music may be a vice, let alone writing about aversion or a toxicity reaction to overexposure, is not exactly the most uplifting message for someone in the music profession to have. It does, however, reflect the real danger of relying overmuch on one activity. Moreover, it underscores the potency of music, and the original assertion that music does affect people. Music is an important activity, one to be undertaken with some care, and maybe even an awareness of some negative consequences which can occur. One can have too much of a good thing, and having too much music becomes easier almost by the day. Used appropriately, of course, it remains a good thing. Music remains capable of cosmic transcendence, but in its mundane form, its power can too easily become misdirected and lead directly to vice.

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Todd M. McComb