Music hath charms

“Click, Double-Click” has a classical soundtrack.

In writing about music, I have tried not to be preciously sentimental.  Music – I mean the great European tradition of classical music – gets talked up.  Three statements in particular, commonly reiterated about great music, seem to me to be profoundly untrue.

The first is that music is a universal language.  Actually great music has as many different languages as there are great composers.  The language arises from a time, a place, and a culture.  If some music doesn’t export very well it may be because the listeners don’t understand the language.  It may not even be understood on home territory.  An outstanding example of this in my opinion is the music of Arnold Bax, who was born in London in 1883 and who died in Cork in 1953.  He had a huge musical talent and a prodigious output.  You could be forgiven for thinking the only thing he composed was the tone poem Tintagel .  I drove into Tintagel in Cornwall with the car windows down and the tone poem blaring on my CD.  Nobody noticed.  (Incidentally, Tintagel is a beautiful natural setting but a bit touristy.  Bogus Lancelot.)

Why does nobody play him?   It’s the language.  It’s not traditional pastoral English music.  It’s Celtic.  Bax used to travel to the west coast of Scotland, and stay in the Morar Station Hotel, to finish his symphonies.  I’ve stayed there, searching for his spectre up the staircases and along the lobbies.  I’m on a pilgrimage.  There is no blue plaque at the entrance.

Tied in with this notion of music qua language is a second musical falsehood – the notion that you should give your undivided attention to great music, or not at all.  I learned my Bax symphonies – seven of them – while I was driving the car.  There is something about divided attention that makes us curiously receptive to music.  In one instant it is a foreign language, and in the next, you understand it.  You suddenly discover that you know it.  Your musical memory tells you what is going to happen next.  You have learned the music, effortlessly, the way a child picks up a language.  It’s a revelation, like speaking in tongues.  But whatever else you’re doing must be semi-automatic.  I would never put on a CD and then try to write – although sometimes I play a brief piece prior to writing, in order to create a mood.  Some people think listening to music in this way is disrespectful, but the music is beyond harm, and will not harm you either.

The third musical falsehood is the notion that music can heal the world.  It has become a cliche for conductors at the Last Night of the Proms to make a speech about the power of music to solve human problems of violence and conflict.  It certainly hasn’t worked yet!  Some of the greatest exponents of music who have indeed been prepared to exert a benign influence in human affairs have been extremely guarded about the power of music to influence international politics – I think of Menuhin, and Barenboim.

So much for what it is not.  Yet for all that, I do believe music is therapeutic, not just in the broad sense that it is uplifting to hear Bach played at a loved one’s funeral, but much more specifically.  I have a notion that music is good for our brains.  It is known that regular physical exercise helps to preserve memory.  It is believed that regular mental exercise does the same.  I have a hunch that the act of listening to, or even more so playing, music, prolongs active thought in a global way.  I’m not sure what the evidence base might be for this.  It would be a good PhD research project.  As they say in the best academic journals, more work is needed.

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