17 February 2020

Has Music Stolen Our Emotions?

“Shall I tell you why people like us need fine art and good music?”  I caught an old 1990s TV series set in a judges’ chambers, and while my real intention was to veg out (chillax, is how David Cameron put it) in front of some mindless entertainment, one of the characters uttering those words to a new young female appointee puzzled by the apparent lack of concern judges showed for the consequences of their decisions, brought me back to reality with a jerk.  “It’s because we have lost the ability to feel.  We need other people’s feelings and passions to fill that hole in our own souls”.

Far be it from me ever to elevate the words of a jobbing TV script writer, charged with providing fodder for a series of hour-long episodes primarily concerned with giving exposure to a couple of once hugely popular actors in order to boost the channel’s viewing figures, into deep and considered thought, but this struck me as being – consciously or otherwise – remarkably perceptive.  And it offered a credible solution to a conundrum that has puzzled me for years; why has music suddenly become so ubiquitous, and why has it now become such a permanent feature of our daily lives that we seem almost to have taken it for granted?

Today, if you ask anyone to describe a piece of music, they will not tell you what they hear but offer their emotional response to it.  Music has become “beautiful”, “awesome”, “lovely”, “moving”, “passionate”, “angry”, “vicious”, “terrible”; words which indicate an emotional state rather than a physical one.  When Victor Hugo wrote in the mid-19th century, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”, he was implying that music could express those deep, innermost sensations in us which we call our emotions, and for which we cannot find words to articulate.  There is no similar quote about music from previous centuries and, indeed, the linkage of music with emotion seems to have come only with Beethoven.

When people declare that Bach’s music is “beautiful”, they may be speaking the truth in the context of our own time, but I would argue that for Bach, beauty and music were wholly separate entities.  He wrote his music in praise of God and not as a kind of self-serving, stand-alone aural monument to be regarded solely on its own terms.  I suspect he would be horrified if he knew his offerings in praise of his God have now become a conduit through which he himself has been elevated to near God-like status.  We may find humour and wit in Vivaldi and Haydn, and love and happiness in that of Telemann and Mozart, but does that mean that this was why they wrote their music and what they expected their listeners to perceive in it?  If so, where are the rest of the gamut of human emotions?  Where is the anger, the spite, the viciousness, the desperation and the depression?  Yes, we can dig deep and, with a lot of imagination, find these other human emotions in their music, but the very fact that they are buried so deep, indicates that the channelling of their own human emotions was not their prime purpose in composing what they did.  We may find it difficult to believe that there was an age where emotions were so suppressed as to be virtually non-existent, or to understand a people who had neither the desire nor the ability to express, in any form, the inner feelings we now believe to be the very raison d'être of music.

It seems that no composer before Beethoven saw music as a means of expressing emotion as we now understand it.  Perhaps we have replaced a once blind obedience in the omnipresence of God with a blind belief in our right to voice and express our own sexuality, personality, beliefs and emotions, and thereby can no longer understand how society existed without these rights of self-expression.  Certainly the French Revolution started a train of consciousness which travelled far beyond the mere overthrowing of aristocratic rulers and a liberation, politically and economically, of mankind.  The freedom we now enjoy to express our innermost thoughts in a public arena and have them treated with respect is surely one of those unforeseen consequences.  Wherever the roots of it may lie, since the beginning of the 19th century, music has become a channel for emotions in a way it never was before.

Even that, though, does not explain the extraordinary ubiquitousness of music today.  Once the preserve of the gods and the god-like, the rulers and the religious, it is now the very fodder of daily life in all strata of society.  We have music force-fed to us in stores, taxis, station concourses, aircraft, we have it seeping out of the ears of our fellow citizens and we sell the latest technology on the strength of its ability to store ever greater numbers of musical pieces.  And that it is what puzzles me.  I know (or I think I know) why and how emotion first came into music, but I do not know why everyone and everywhere seems to use music as they use the air we breathe and the environment in which we live.  And seeing the destruction we wreak on our air and our environment, the consequence of having taken it for granted for so long, I can only see music suffering the same fate; as we destroy our physical environment, surely we are similarly destroying our aural one.  If we could recognise why we need music all around us, we might begin to find some way of saving it; otherwise, music is surely doomed.

And this is where our fictional judges’ chamber comes in.  Judges’ emotions may well have been blunted by continual exposure to the emotional wreckage they see before them in their courts.  I have no way of knowing the truth of this, the only high court judge I ever knew being an elderly Sri Lankan who used to tell me, with some glee, about the people he had sentenced to death and the appalling crimes they had committed (or not, as he also seemed unafraid to admit).  But I do know that the vast mass of our population is continually exposed to the greatest horrors life and imagination has to offer on a daily basis through our personal screens and cinema.  We see and hear so much that presents humanity in an extreme way, that in comparison we find our own experiences mundane and sense that our emotions lack the sharp-edges of those we witness on these various visual media.

Away from the screens and the cinemas, the reality of our lives seems dull and uneventful, we do not seem to experience the emotional highs and lows we see happening in front of our eyes electronically on a daily basis.  In short, our emotions have been blunted; we do not seem to experience the same passion, pleasure, joy, anger, terror or love of those who appear on our screens, so we feel bereft.  This is where music comes in.  It can personalise those emotional excesses and become our own channels for expressing a level of emotional consciousness we do not ourselves feel.  In short, it has become a substitute for genuine human feeling.

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