The purpose of music

For the critic, someone who habitually makes judgements about music and interpretation, there is a natural question regarding the purpose of music. After all, if one piece of music is better than another, and I think we all agree that it is per an earlier column, we are tempted to ask: Better for what? So, without accepting the validity of that question, I am going to ponder it anyway. Today it is obvious that the purpose of music is primarily entertainment. This is how it is usually employed, but the ascendancy of the diversionary aspect is novel. Music as mere entertainment is a topic of little interest to me, although it must be noted that any form of stimulation can be seen as entertainment of another kind, if we allow the primacy of that term. So one cannot take the framework here too seriously, although the entire discussion could be restructured to discuss the ascendancy of a new framework, ad infinitum. I do not want to dwell in sophistry, even if it is often tempting.

What loftier purposes has music served, and how did it help to fulfill aspirations? That is a good question, but a challenging one, and so to be diffused with a quick survey. The medieval idea of music as science remains linked to the numinous, principally because medieval Europe regarded science as examination of the miracle of nature. This spiritual association for music is retained in many cultures, and the anthropologist is indeed tempted to regard it as primary. The act of song & sound can be both visceral and pleasing, or even an athletic activity which can assert superiority or frighten. Discoveries of Neanderthal flutes link the basic act strongly to the human psyche. If communion with the divine is given primacy, there have certainly been other repertories. As early as 12th century France, separate songs survive with stronger rhythmic contours, meant for dancing. This was contrasted against the more abstract unmeasured repertories, and of course against the vast body of ephemeral folk music. The Whirling Dervishes conflate this artificial division further.

There is transcendence to dance, and the early dance music is refined in its inspiration. It survived in smaller quantity, yet when it did blossom in the Baroque era, it formed the basis for most of the rhythmic forms. That was the foundation of art music as entertainment in the West, and paradoxically placed the listener in a passive position with respect to performance, sitting back and merely listening. Even the earlier non-sacred art music evoked the emotions with a more rarefied air, and rested ultimately on subtlety and an active appreciation from the audience. Music eventually became rhetorical, and its expression less direct. I think this is bound up closely to the inclusion of the general public in the Classical era, after the excesses of the Baroque, and comes not only from a playful misdirection but from a basic inability to proceed directly. This is, I suppose, a psychological block, a defense mechanism — or a reaction to one. Music became less concerned with catharsis and even gloried in pathos, to the point where many of our most valued composers are people of dubious character. This remarkable shift can be overstated, but it is tangible nonetheless.

The idea of music illuminating thought processes to which we aspire has been very much in the forefront for other cultures. The distilled spiritual element remains paramount in India, is expressed more aggressively in Iran, is given an explicit imploration to social grace in Indonesia, and is likewise openly solicitous of proper habit of thought in China. Western inspiration has given some outlet to vacuous sonic twitterings, and they are perhaps most noticeable for their shift of emphasis in traditional cultures such as these. While the paramount position of sacred material in India is fairly well-known, some remarks on the musical emphases elsewhere will (hopefully) be taken up in more detail at a later date. For now, the Chinese example is perhaps most stimulating, as the art music is so often evocative of nature, yet in an abstract instrumental setting. This is a means to spiritual transcendence in Zen and other disciplines, and even an inspiration for the early 20th century impressionists. Of course, the spiritual aspect is never entirely gone from Western music, and indeed naturism can be a way around self-consciousness.

For me, the essential aspect of art music is that it engage the listener. Otherwise it is sonic wallpaper, and perhaps worthwhile for something else, but not music as I want to use it. The engagement need not be aggressive, as long as it is there for the taking. In other words, there is a distinction between reaching out and grabbing the listener and sitting back to wait for an investment, and little sense in judging one mode superior. Either way, music is there to illuminate the pathways of the mind. Perhaps it sounds trite, but I sometimes think of the simultaneous melodic invention in free counterpoint as an illustration of multiple independent individuals fitting gracefully into a larger whole. Later we see the convoluted virtuoso standing out against a rigid & impersonal harmonic context. The relative behavior is illustrative, I think. Coincidence? I somehow doubt it. Let me close this train of thought with a remark by a sophisticated listener from another culture, namely that many Western masterpieces sound like a child throwing a tantrum. It would be hard to argue that there is no element of truth to this observation, although I do think it is worthwhile to illuminate the darker aspects of humanity, as long as we know which is which.

Is there a purpose?

While there is art which speaks directly to the core of our beings, there is a broader conception of art as a web of interconnected ideas to which subsequent works attach themselves. Such a thing has no purpose at all, in my opinion, but can be satisfying nonetheless. This is art modifying itself, and creating its own world. It can be very stimulating, but one should not lose sight of the points at which this web intersects our tangible existence, if one is to retain applicability. Paradoxically perhaps, while the points of contact can vary markedly between individuals, the strength of interaction with this web is more consistently judged. Among the arts, music is the most direct in its modification of thought pathways on this level, and hence the only one historically judged to be a science.

So, indeed, better for what? It is a good question to keep in mind, but perhaps not to dwell on, lest we become too analytical. Many reviews beg the question, certainly. Other times, whether through a sheer intensity of emotional contact or a metaphysical wrangling with abstract ideas in all their glory, the question becomes incidental. Or perhaps more accurately, it becomes subsumed. We are not really capable of peaking behind the stage of our ideas, which is why music retains the capacity to rock the senses and explode in the mind.

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Todd M. McComb