Tag Archives: auditory cheesecake

Music matters – Part II

As my  earlier discussions of Black music have hopefully illustrated, music can also have a significant socio-cultural agency with implications reaching into the realms of politics and ethics. In a way it could be boiled down to the notion of “good music”. We’d all like to think the music we like is “good”, but there are nearly as many definitions – often less than precise – of “good music” as there are listeners.

This affords music an ethical dimension. Sharing musical tastes – musically marked aesthetic spaces – is a way of connecting ourselves with others; or distinguishing from them, i.e. performing our identity through musicking.

There are many factors and agencies shaping this “aesthetic space” in which we form and articulate our ideas of good music. Our musical tastes, much like all our other tastes, have their roots in our up-bringing and socio-cultural environment. They are also subject to changes in our environment and our choices within it, shaping the development of our tastes.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2nd line February 6th 2011
Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

And unless we consider music to be an “auditory cheesecake” – and I hope you don’t – the choices we make regarding the kinds of music we like and consume, are not irrelevant. They speak volumes about our socio-cultural, and even political, dispositions – albeit often quite ambiguously.

Music and ideas/ideologies

Let’s try and interrogate this proposition with some concrete examples, shall we? In what kinds of situations do musically created aesthetic spaces have en ethical dimension and how does this happen?

I have two premises for this thought experiment: First, music as sound is not capable of carrying meanings unless these sounds are – and they always inevitably are since musicking involves human agency – performed and/or experienced in a socio-cultural context. And second, choices, for the present purposes, are always “choices of” something within our reach.

Associations through musical sounds

I base the first premise on Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and his notion of “Being-in-the-world”; the idea that we interpret the world around us immediately upon perceiving it. Any abstraction of the perception is an effort to “undo” the already made interpretation in order to “objectively” encounter the world. Heidegger’s example is an object we’ll immediately recognise as a table. Any attempt to perceive this object as e.g. a construction of specific material and particular assemblage requires an active attempt to “forget” that it’s a table in order to abstract it.  He also discusses “sound objects” to demonstrate his theory:

What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling… It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’. (Being and Time 34: 207)

This also entails that it’s not so much the physical properties of the sounds of brass and wind instruments as such that raises in us e.g an image of a pastoral landscape or a military band. Rather this comes from the historical use of these instruments in western classical music to depict nature and rural life and the military music tradition. And this again recalls the use of horns as a signal for e.g. approaching postman in rural villages or when hunting and the association we still easily make between flutes and shepherds. Or at least it did when Beethoven wrote his 6th symphony.

Then again the sound of the French horn might not bring forth these kinds of associations for you, but perhaps rather remind of film music as in the theme of Universal Studios or Richard Strauss’ Thus said Zarazusthra (see my earlier discussion of this). In yet other words, it depends on your musical background, including where and when you have lived, etc. – i.e. your socio-cultural background.

Probably needless to say that my examples here are drawn from my own cultural environment of western Europe and should you be e.g. Asian, African or South American you’d probably have different associations for these sounds; or imagine different sonic representations for e.g. nature and rural life.

The bottom line is that the sound itself is arbitrary. Any association(s) a sound may call forth is a result of the “socio-cultural life” of the given sound. This is akin to what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has discussed pertaining to the “social life of things“. Objects are usually made for a more or less specific purpose and their value depends largely on their scarcity or abundance. As time passes and the world changes all these factors may change; the original purposes may no longer be relevant, objects may become scarce or more abundant due to changes in methods of production and/or the availability of their raw materials.

All this also applies to music as materials to make certain instruments may become scarce – e.g. big enough trees growing on mountains for making double basses – or instrument-making techniques lost in generations – e.g. the violins of Stradivarious for which the secret was long thought to be in the varnish he used.

Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644) inspecting a violin
Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644) inspecting a violin

As my examples above illustrate the most significant changes impacting music, however, are socio-cultural. The widely different uses of music create various associations with particular compositions/instruments/genres, etc. These associations may again be quite remote from their origins, and impossible to predict as we continue to – not only consume – but make music in ever new ways. New music is made by recycling old musical ideas and old music gets new meanings in new contexts.

Political music

Some rather radical political thinkers conceive of nearly all human actions and undertakings as political; even seemingly apolitical enterprise as e.g. popular music without a political message can be viewed as political as it doesn’t challenge, and therefore implicitly accepts, the status quo.

W.E.B DuBois in 1918
W.E.B DuBois in 1918

One such thinker was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the leading post-Reconstruction black intellectuals in the United States. He wrote for instance that “a black artist is first of all a black artist” and was strongly of the opinion that the emerging Black American culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries needed to reach, and preferably surpass, the mainstream white culture with any measures; an effort in many ways culminating – albeit by no means concluding with – in the Harlem Renaissance. This view was against the “pragmatic” one of Booker T. Washington and his supporters who thought that the blacks should rather keep to “their place” in the society.

Du Bois’ life is a rewarding study for anyone interested in the history of racial relations in the United States as it stretches from right after the Emancipation to just before the declaration of Civil Rights Act.

But then again, even music not taking any political stance could be said to be political by it’s very act of celebrating life itself, sometimes against the odds. As I’ve discussed before pertaining to Black music, the social aesthetic of the music centres around the people and their lives, not on the actual music.

There’s a lot more to be said about the topics I’ve touched on here. Anyhow, I’ll stop here for now and come back with some further thoughts soon.

Music matters

Music matters

If, as I hope, you’ve already read some of my posts here, it should be apparent that music means a great deal to me. Obviously, this is true to many others as well and like many others I also sometimes stop to wonder what is it about music – this abstract thing we cannot see, taste or smell – that makes it so important for so many people?

I’m going to approach the topic here first by setting against each other some views about why music matters or doesn’t. After a short discussion of music’s evolutionary and cultural importance I’ll propose that music has an ethical dimension as well and go on to discuss how music can carry ideas, which again enables its use for even ideological purposes. I’ll wrap up with a vision of music – and culture in general – as a positive force in the contemporary world torn by other disruptive and destructive forces.

The title for this post is borrowed from a blog by professor Henkjan Honing from University of Amsterdam. In his blog professor Honing discusses our topic as it pertains to his research interests in the field of cognitive musicology. His angle is therefore a mix of cognitive sciences, psychology, biology and – to some extent – anthropology, with some philosophical considerations as well.

During my studies I had the privilege and pleasure of following a couple of courses of professor Honing and one of the topics we discussed at length was music’s role in human evolution. You can read further about this discussion in professor Honing’s blog, but in a nutshell the argument is between positions of music being an “auditory cheesecake” – irrelevant to human cognitive evolution (Steven Pinker) – and one that views it as a proto-language (Steven Mithen).

The problem – or one of them – professor Honing points at is the lack of a comprehensive definition of music. It’s difficult to say why music matters to us if we can’t quite put our finger on what exactly is this “music” we care so much of. Is it the notes on the paper? Then what about the music that isn’t, nor has never been, written down? Is it the CDs and mp3s in our collections? Then what about the music that has never been recorded? Is the music to be found in the grooves of the CD or the bits and bytes of its digital form? Or is it the sounds we hear? How do we distinguish musical from non-musical sounds?

I will leave most of the above questions for later and provide a definition of music to fit the present purposes. Music, as discussed here, is something Christopher Small has called “musicking”. This term emphasises active engagement with music, whether e.g. through making, listening to or dancing to it. Such a broad definition can, in my view, help us understand why – and in which ways – we may find music to be important, or at least relevant, to our lives.

You’re likely reading this post – and hopefully some others on my blog as well 😉 – because music matters to you. But there are people out there who are rather indifferent about music. Such people may not have any preference for a specific genre of music and they are not the least bothered by the “sonic tapestries” in malls and other public spaces. Around four percent of people even have a neurological condition called amusia; they are not able to recognise sounds as music – let alone sing or dance along.

There’s no folk without music

It’s a sort of ethnomusicological cliché that there’s no folk on earth which doesn’t have their own music. And in all likelihood this has always been so.

Music is used in various ways by people, implying music to be a form of e.g. art and/or entertainment. It’s also part of many – if not most – social rituals; be it ones with a religious nature such as weddings and funerals or profane ones such as sports events.

In some ancient mythologies music has a very concrete existential and/or ontological agency. In Hindu philosophy universe constitutes of sound. Hindu music is organised around the central pitch ōm around which other musical organisations – tālas (rhytmically) and rāgas (melodically) – are performed. In the Finnish Kalevala song has the power to heal – or cause – illnesses and build e.g. ships.

Musical creation of aesthetic spaces

Some more mundane ways of using music include e.g. the above-mentioned “sonic tapestry” usage; as a background for various sorts of activities not directly related to the particular music being played. This has become quite abundant lately with various technologies, such as smartphones and portable media players and online music streaming, affording listening to music practically anywhere and any time.

This is a very interesting phenomenon in itself warranting a separate discussion, but I’ll take up a few points about it here. The increased popularity of listening to music with headphones has socio-cultural as well as commercial repercussions.

In terms of “musicking” as discussed above, this practice of listening to music by ourselves, even in the company of others, is antithetical to the purpose of music in a traditional sense in which it has worked as a “social glue” bringing people together and enabling various kinds of social rituals. Nowadays it’s increasingly popular to create your own “aesthetic space” by plugging in your headphones and turning on your favourite music whether in public transport, gym, office or on the street.

Music in 21st century commercial spaces

In commercial sense, there’s probably more demand for music today than there has ever been. However, it’s another question who reaps the benefits of this. The traditional business model of the music industry has been challenged already for a couple of decades. This model based on the idea of selling copyrights of musical works dates back to the beginnings of commercial book printing in the 18th century England. In the 21st century economy of digital products and streaming services the old model requires serious rethinking. See here for a short history of this rethinking process.

While the record companies might still be able to make profits through licensing agreements with the streaming service providers, the new “digital paradigm” is challenging for musicians trying to make a living. However, new generations of musicians – such Jacob Collier, I’ve discussed before – are finding ever new ways of making music and reaching their audiences that are also economically viable.

I’ll stop here for now and continue soon about music’s significance through its ethical dimension and the some of the meanings and association which make it matter.