Relevance of music

Political debates on the relevance of art have grown to be increasingly prominent of late, especially in the United States. The more specific relevance of music is a topic which diverges relatively little from the more general one, although it does have its own special nuances. For those of us here, the question of whether music is relevant is not one in need of an answer, and in that sense, I am certainly writing for no reason. However, it can be helpful to have one's thoughts in order in advance of other opportunities, and of course the specifics of how one views relevance can have broader ramifications on how one prioritizes art relative to itself.

The fundamental implication of those on the "other side" is that art & music are not useful. I want to break this down in two ways. First of all, useful for what? In the sense of being a basic necessity for life (the inimitable food, clothing & shelter), it is not useful. In that sense, very few activities are useful. We certainly have an economy which dictates certain sorts of production in order to procure the money for basic necessities, but that does not mean these activities contribute to them per se. How is the Internet useful? In this sense it is not. Perhaps one can find an apartment using it, but if we allow such vagaries, we can go on to suggest that humming a tune might cheer one along while harvesting crops. That leads to the second challenge to the major implication, namely is it really true that art is not fundamentally useful? It is, and always has been as far as we know, a basic part of human existence. One cannot scoff so easily at such a fact.

I have frequently drawn distinctions between what I call music as entertainment or "sonic wallpaper" and higher purposes in music & art. If there is only the former, then the implication above makes more sense, since of course we have developed many other ways to be entertained. However, even the dismissal of sonic wallpaper begins to imply some questions. Why is it that elevators play music, that it accompanies films, and that many people play the radio at work? In this way alone, music has a large role in society. To put this into the terms of the scientific world, which people seem happy enough to support politically, some past research & development in music has had an apparently useful impact on its role as a backdrop. Should "music R&D" cease? Well, art certainly cannot embrace ideas such as progress, and so not only do people acculturated to the modern world find that disturbing, but that denial nearly argues against its own funding. After all, even with the idea of music serving loftier purposes, there can be little sense in which we can now do it better.

Of course, such a sketchy idea implicitly rejects relevance. Music is an inherently dynamic artform, so not only can one create new music which may be closer in inspiration to the lives of present day people, but it can be reinterpreted and performed in these updated settings. Just as it would be wrong to suggest that masterpieces of art cannot transcend time and remain meaningful to people today, it would be wrong to suggest that the action of real present day music-making does not yield a closer psychological connection for people who might be on the edge of tuning in otherwise. There is always a significant outlet for updated expressions, and even though the act of writing new music has come under significant fire, it is likewise indispensable. Even if it is not widely heard, if it were not being written, the void would be palpable.

In a previous article on the "purpose" of music, I suggested both that music illuminated patterns of thought as well as that the interconnected web of ideas which broadly constitutes art as such was useless. This first point has taken on a new meaning as the so-called "Mozart effect" has been discussed more widely. Now, people say, music can be useful. I must ask again, useful for what? Test scores? Please. Perhaps music education, which is basically desperate for any kind of support, should be pleased with this, but it is rather demeaning too. Art in general has as one of its fundamental purposes to make the audience think or improve themselves in some way. I can only hope that we are not about to say that scoring better on simple logic tests is the loftiest such purpose. If we are lucky, these silly studies will underscore what is so obvious in the first place, that art can affect people. What is more exciting to me along these lines is the art or music which can help people find their own creativity, such as what I have termed the "meta-creative" aspect of Ockeghem.

When one speaks of inspiration or of "loftier purposes" in art, there is certainly an implied connection to religion, and indeed religious expression has been one of the fundamental historical aspects of music. To further underline this connection, as many people are distancing themselves from religion per se, there is a growing interest in more spiritually oriented music. Of course, the easiest way to interpret this is as a failing of the religious organizations themselves, although the idea that people simply prefer to receive their spiritual inspiration in a more artistic form is a tempting one. Of course, those two ideas are not necessarily distinct if one considers the various movements to strip artistry per se from religious institutions. One can ponder this historical trend in the increased complexity of mass cycles in the wake of the rise of Renaissance humanism, as well as in the growing prominence of textless music accompanying the liturgical restrictions of the Council of Trent.

What many of these notions reflect is a real human need for artistic expression. That brings me back to this "web of connections" which constitutes our artistic experience in sum. One might just as well argue that not only is it useful, it is our highest purpose, or rather it is a purpose which transcends usefulness. For many people, it is fine to rally on "knowledge for its own sake" in cases such as visiting the stars, yet where is the interest in developing a richer range of artistic expression? There is a comfort in rationalist ideas, yet in truth a decentralized web of connections better reflects the workings of the human brain itself. In this way, art is a fundamental activity of humanity, as fundamental as eating, even if we can survive longer periods without it. That is true relevance.

Administrivia: Next column in three weeks.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb