Have we heard it all before?
In our culture, music has become something which we either perform or consume. The focus of music education is upon correct execution. In classical music, it’s all about the interpretation of “great” repertoire. In jazz, it’s all about understanding complex theories concerning scales, keys, chords and rhythms whilst in pop music, it’s all about the making a fashionable commodity – the catchy, the clever, the cool or the quirky. This rather objective way of looking at music makes everything seem a little like karaoke. Of course we all have our favourites and listen to them over and over again – we all have that three-year-old mind inside us that craves the reassurance of the familiar. But sometimes we need new musical stories to experience. I’m always worried when I hear people respond to unfamiliar music by saying rather dismissively, “Oh I don’t know that one!”. Music is not a huge menu of items, some of which we select for ourselves or maybe occasionally try to feed to others, and most of which we ignore. I am sad to say that as people get older, they tend to fall into this pattern. As we get older, it may be advisable to supplement our consciousness with extra portions of curiosity and wonder.
Music can always say something new
Music is in fact a means of expression and communication. It has all the currency and immediacy of language. Music enables us to process life in all its psychological and emotional confusion because it has a deep order which is universally understood. When we see music this way, we realise that listening and making music ourselves can be a very immediate experience, one which directly involves the heart and soul and which connects us. Music can be an act of compassion, love or kindness. When we see beyond the idea of music as fashionable or clever, it becomes simply a medium of human interaction that we need every bit as much as language. Before the industrial revolution set about the demise of folk music, this view was the norm. Music was understood widely in terms of its patterns. Therefore, people could participate fully in musical activities. I think this is why improvisation used to be seen as the key skill of a musician. Now it is rather neglected and discounted except in the rather specialist world of jazz which is usually, I believe, a rather different kind of improvising anyway.
Music can be of course admired for the very opposite of its familiarity or “karaoke” value – its esoteric, inscrutable quality. Some classical and jazz music falls into this category. But whether music is atonal and difficult to fathom or tuneful and accessible, the notion that music can be used as an object ripe for intellectual analysis is, I think, another rather impoverished one. Art and literature suffer less under this kind of scrutiny because they reflect more the external experiences and emotions of life. The inherent subjectivity of music emerges so powerfully whenever we attempt to measure its worth by any objective means: it then becomes a source of petty divisiveness – which seems to me to be the very opposite of its best function. Music unfortunately can bring out the most egotistic side of human nature when treated as intellectual property. Combine this with our tendency to use music as a badge of coolness and we descend into the realms of vacuous vanity.
What makes music good or beautiful?
However, I do think music can be considered “better” when its meanings are more precisely or powerfully conveyed. But to measure this communicative clarity objectively can seem almost impossible and perhaps we just don’t need to anyway. But given that our narcissistic, competitive culture tends to impoverish our experience of music, it does take a certain effort to discard the cultural norms and begin to see that it can be a powerful source of communion, healing and transformation.
The truth is that there is a genuine symmetry and order to how the unfolding patterns of rhythm and tonality work. This logic, when clearly understood by the musician, results in a fluency of communication that makes the music communicate in a highly accessible and potent way. Even if we don’t have the skills to produce musical syntax actively, we all do understand these patterns very well. When we allow ourselves to listen to music in a completely natural way and hear perceptible musical shapes within the underlying tonal and rhythmic structure, we hear music in a purer way. It unfolds more like a story. We don’t look for explicit originality, a clever or cool manner, or even virtuosity; we don’t need to be impressed; we don’t require the music to be familiar or “hooky”; we don’t need to know the name of the musician or the composer; and we definitely don’t need to nod sagely and rub our chin as we analyse and evaluate its merit. We are simply moved instantaneously in the act of listening and simultaneous understanding. And in doing so, we feel ourselves to be understood.