Music matters

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

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?

Henkjan Honing

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 that 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 (rhythmically) 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 to listen 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 a 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 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 associations which make it matter.

Music and Football

All set up for the evening at Bimhuis. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen

Culture distinguishes people as well as binds them together

Ethnomusicologists have known for a while already that there isn’t – and probably never was –a folk or people without their own music. On a more general level, however, culture, in its many forms, at the same time distinguishes people and binds them together. In cultural encounters of people from different parts of the world avenues and channels of communication are negotiated and found along the commonalities of the various cultural forms. The evening of June 23rd 2014 in Bimhuis, Amsterdam was a good example of that. The ingredients of the evening Bimhuis catered were the Netherlands-Chile football match in the World Championship tournament in Brazil, projected on a screen above the stage, and Konrad Koselleck Big Band’s (KKBB) concert with the Chilian singer/guitarist Rodrigo Cortes Juantok. And to crown the evening chili con carne was catered from the Bimhuis’ own kitchen. All this cooked up to be a very enjoyable evening on many levels.

Dutch multiculturalism

But what first caught my attention was that this was inter- or multiculturalism in a quite specifically Dutch context. As it turned out Mr. Cortes Juantok has already established himself in this country a while ago and arrived at the venue together with his whole Dutch family, in-laws and all. The whole evening indeed had a sort of family gathering feeling to it, the hall of Bimhuis serving as our living room.

Although sports, food and music are things people from anywhere can enjoy together, the different levels, or dimensions, on which such enjoyment takes place became quite apparent as the evening ran its course. The football match itself was rather uneventful until way into the second half when Netherlands managed to score first once and gave it the finishing touch with another one in the extra time. Many portions of chili con carne were still enjoyed during the hour between the game and the start of the concert and the mood was indeed like in a huge living room.

Chili con carne


Bigband in the livingroom

As the KKBB began their concert with a blast that blew the wax out of the ears and took us into a Blues, I couldn’t help thinking that a third culture had just made an entrance to the evening’s cultural encounter. Jazz has been called “American Classical music” and the only truly American art form and big band jazz, in my view, is the quintessential sound of that idea; and big band playing a Blues even more so. Mr. Koselleck, however, is a very capable arranger and eloquently played with the musical elements of these cultural identities. His arrangements brought out different aspects of them in a playful manner without being afraid of some rather cliché-ish manoeuvres to engage the public while maintaining the high musical level of his organisation; and the living room -like mood (which is not unremarkable, since how often does anyone have a big band in their living room? 😉 ).

Complete setting

But the dinner table of this meeting of cultures wasn’t completely set yet: The third piece (if I remember right) in the program was Koselleck’s arrangement of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. To drive home his point, Koselleck announced the piece afterwards; seemingly unintentionally, switching to his native German. In fact, a couple of times during the evening he went to some lengths in educating the audience to recognise a melody he had arranged. Although Koselleck’s arranging style is respectful to the original melody, his adventurous harmonies and rhythms may indeed be challenging to the “uninitiated” listener.

We are the champions

Music and football (or vise versa)

By the time the evening’s guest soloist was introduced at least I had already forgot all about the preceding football match. Although Cortes Juantok entered the stage with a mock cry and Koselleck jokingly announced he’s not able to sing, the rest of the evening was a joyous celebration around the musical gumbo the KKBB served with arrangements of Chilean music (also joined by some Chilian folk dancers), their own repertoire and a couple of Dutch pop and folk tunes. The evening ended with a reggae flavoured arrangement of Mungo Jerry’s old hit Summertime and finally Queen’s We are the Champions in a recapitulation of the football theme of the evening.

Unfortunately, my phone battery died before the concert so I couldn’t take any pictures of the band to post here. For more about the KKBB, please visit their website. And while there chip in on their crowdfunded World War I project, which seems really interesting.

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