28 January 2015

Why Learn Western Classical Music

Commenting on the problems music teachers face in promoting Western Classical music to the parents of prospective students raised in my last blog post, a friend asks why anyone would want to teach Western Classical music to those who live in a culture where it is neither appreciated nor generally known.  On the face of it that seems a valid point.  When people can survive and thrive unaffected by Western Classical music, is there really any need for them to study it, let alone develop any kind of skill in it? Might not the music teachers be accused of trying to create a demand where none exists and then satisfying it for their own financial benefit? 

For any person of any culture learning about their native music - be it Somerset Folk music,  Ethiopian Tribal music or Indian Classical music - there is the obvious benefit of deepening their own understanding of their inherited culture and appreciating an aspect of their common sociological make-up.  Western Classical music encompasses so many different cultures and societies that it can not be regarded as having the same historico-social value to those who study it.  But studying it brings benefits relevant to all people from whatever cultural background they originate; even if, in daily life, they never have and never will again hear a note of it.

A basic trawl through internet resources will harvest a huge crop of articles - for some reason aimed at “kids” (in my book, kids is a term which, when not applied correctly to the offspring of goats, is a perjorative word implying something akin to delinquency) - extolling the virtues of learning musical instruments and making all sorts of extravagant and often downright ridiculous claims.  Look at this list from the New South Wales education department;

·         Kids who study music from an early age can do better at a range of subjects.

·         Children who play music learn there are rewards from hard work, practice and discipline.

·         Playing a musical instrument helps develop kids' creative thinking and motor skills.

·         Music helps kids become more active listeners.

·         It can also enhance their health and wellbeing and increase their stamina.

Wow!  Reading that last point, how the members of the Sierra Leonean government must be kicking themselves.  If only they had instituted a programme to teach their children how to play a musical instrument years back they could have prevented the spread of Ebola.  It certainly seems a rather more worthwhile claim to the value of learning music, however, than this remarkably wishy-washy one from a British website called “Kidsunlimited” (it sounds like a site from which to buy baseball caps designed to be worn backwards);

·         “Music is a great way for people to bond — often people will bond over their mutual love of one band or a particular taste in music that they both enjoy”

This does not seem to me to make music much different from a shared love of soccer, suet puddings or sex clubs.  Frankly, if I wanted to improve my social skills (which I most certainly need to do) I would choose a less time-consuming course of action than spending years learning a musical instrument.

But silly claims apart, the huge benefits to be derived from learning a musical instrument are well documented and supported by numerous academic studies.  It needs no further comment from me, other than to suggest that teachers should realise that they are undertaking a more important role than attempting to nurture the next generation of great performers; they are in reality training the next generation of audiences.  Less well publicized, but certainly no less significant, are the huge benefits to be derived from a study specifically of Western Classical music, either through the medium of instrumental tuition or through something more theoretic or - dare I say it? - academic.

I identify three major areas where the study of Western Classical music has a unique and lasting benefit which cannot be derived from any single other area of study.  The first is the development of the skill of listening.  In my experience very few people know how to listen and even fewer understand that listening is a trained skill rather than an instinctive ability.  A baby makes gargling sounds, but needs years of intensive training to transform those unthinkingly-created sounds into comprehensible speech, and even more years to develop further into an advanced system of oral communication which, even today, many adults do not possess.  So it is with listening.  We can hear from almost when we are born, but it takes years to develop those hearing skills into focused listening and even more years to be able to process the full range of those aural stimuli.  Because Western Classical music is made up of complex and often extremely multi-layered sounds, the ear needs to be trained to a high level of refinement to both recognise and then disseminate them into some coherent intellectual order.  If one can trace the contrapuntal textures of a Bach Fugue, recognise the differences between Subject and Answer, Countersubject, Inversion, Extension, Compression, Modulation and so on, one’s listening skills are sufficiently advanced to cope easily with even the most complex aural demands placed on a single person in any area of human activity.

Which leads to the second area in which a study of Western Classical music has benefits far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the music itself; intellectual enlargement.  Once the ear can distinguish and unravel those complexities in a Bach Fugue, the brain needs to process them, which it does by means of a complicated combination of extended pitch memory, a cognition of shapes (rhythms) and an mental facility to rotate and distort aural images and to recognise connections between them.  But I run before I can walk.  Much more important, possibly, is the training given to the mind to grasp purely aural concepts and to process them according to a fluid set of rules and conventions which subtly change in every context (which is, in effect, what composers do to musical form – an element which, in its extreme complexity, is unique to Western Classical music).  After a matter of months, even a child’s brain can begin to grasp the intangible concept of musical form and appreciate the excitement that comes with the reappearance, after a prolonged absence, of a principal theme or idea.  There is a delightful story about how César Franck, at the première of his Symphony in D minor, turned to the audience at the point in which, near the end, the big tune reappears marvellously transformed, and physically drew their attention to a moment which, he was appalled to realise, many of them had not observed.

On top of that there is the comprehension of a written system of notation which is remarkably complicated in its presentation of a number of disparate elements (a musical score has coded indications relating to gradations of speed, time, rhythmic patterns, pitch, dynamic, attack, release…the list is huge); in short the ability to read the notation by which, uniquely, Western Classical music is disseminated across all linguistic barriers, is equivalent to breaking a highly-advanced code.  In short, an understand of form, structure, balance, pitch, rhythm, historical context, religious background and social history along with an ability to interpret highly specialised written symbols and complex aural messages are all integral to any study of Western Classical music: and these things are routinely taught to and absorbed by those still under the age of ten.  Does any other field of study offer so much intellectual expansion at so early an age?

Thirdly, there is the emotional enrichment which comes hand in hand with any study of Western Classical music.  Taking the famous Victor Hugo quote - about music expressing that which words cannot - purely at face value, we must accept that the “message” behind Western Classical music is often one which cannot be expressed in any spoken or written language.  Its emotional range is such that it creates an outlet and a channel for those deep human emotions which, otherwise, remain an obstruction to a person's emotional equilibrium.

At moments of personal unhappiness during my student days I used to turn to a pop song by Gilbert O’Sullivan which, in three minutes, covered just about every personal tragedy a human being could expect to suffer in an entire lifetime (“Alone Again (Naturally)”).  I derived a measure of comfort from hearing words and a gentle tune which seemed connected to my feelings at the time, but in three minutes it barely was able to satisfy me beyond the superficial response; “yes, that’s how I feel”.  Listening to the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – a 15-minute expression of such profound beauty that it seems to encompass all human feelings – offers a level of deep-seated emotional satisfaction Gilbert O’Sullivan could never have attained.  He was after providing a hook on to which we could hang our superficial troubles; Rachmaninov is stirring emotions many of us do not even know we have. 

Find me a culture where the ability to listen intently, to respond intellectually and to channel ones emotions is not important, and you will have found a culture where Western Classical music is irrelevant.  I suspect such cultures do not exist.


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