17 August 2021

Music as a Tool of Division


A memory from my days as an ABRSM examiner comes to mind.  A gang of us (yes, the collective noun for music examiners is “gang” and not “excrescence”, as some would suggest) was sitting in some smart hotel lounge – I am pretty sure it was the Hilton in Petaling Jaya – discussing, over drinks, the events of the day.  It is a tradition that whenever two or three examiners are gathered together over evening alcoholic beverages, the conversation revolves around that day’s candidates; it not only helps them relieve the frustrations of the job, but is a valuable means of cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices, showing how each handles the various weird and wonderful thangs that happen when nervous candidates and nonchalant examiners interact.  As ever, the discussion became increasingly raucous as the evening wore on, but we were all very conscious that the hotel’s piped music was intruding excessively.  Each of us in turn asked the barman to lower the volume, which he invariably did, but equally invariably it crept up again until it became annoyingly intrusive.  Eventually, the senior member of our gang – Douglas Hopkins – called the fellow over and said in the sweetest of ways, “Do you mind awfully switching the music off completely, old chap?  You see, none of us here really likes music”.  It did the trick, but also gave us all a good laugh; music examiners not liking music?  Perish the thought!


The memory was triggered by something that happened the other weekend at home.  In anticipation of my forthcoming hospital operation and to celebrate the summer, we held a garden party at which a very large number of various friends and loose acquaintances turned up.  Among these was a Thai lady whose Chinese husband had some remote connection with one of my wife’s friends.  She decided she would like to go indoors uninvited and poke around our house.  She noticed the grand piano in our front room (to be honest, it is impossible not to notice since it occupies a singularly large percentage of the floor space).  She emerged from the house asking who played it.  My wife explained that I was the musician of the family.  The Thai woman then urged me to play something for her as “she liked music”.  The party was all about being outside and enjoying our garden, but she was not going to take no, and so I went in and played her a bit of harmless Mozart.  It was clearly not to her taste, and after a few bars she moved away to carry on a conversation with someone else.  Not for the first time I was left wondering just how sincere her liking for music was if Mozart left her so cold.


People are only too eager to tell us they “like” music; indeed, to confess to not liking is regarded as something of an aberration.  Yet does anyone really “like” music?  I do not know of anyone who has such omnivorous tastes that they enjoy any music that comes their way.  I have fairly broad-ranging tastes, but draw the line at certain things – not least the appalling, talentless computer-generated noises which accompany today’s “music videos” – and would happily go through life without ever encountering Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony or Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory.  Yet good friends of mine adore both, while having no liking for Arensky’s Egyptian Nights or Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, both of which I “like” with a passion.  One reason there is so much music about is that no two people share exactly the same taste, and what one likes, another finds quite distasteful.  We might say we like or dislike “some” music, but to issue a blanket statement about liking all music is an outright lie.


The problem lies in our definition of music.  I earnestly believe (and this after a lifetime of trying to seek the answer) that music itself is indefinable.  As with water, we all know what it is for us, but could not describe its taste or texture to someone who has never tasted or touched it.  Ask anyone to define music, and they will describe music on their own terms, usually providing, not a description, but a personal emotional response to it.  People use words such as “beautiful”, “tuneful”, “harmonious”, to describe music; but I know an awful lot of music which is not beautiful, tuneful, or harmonious, yet it is still music.  How have we got to this point where so may of us claim to “like” something, when we can’t even tell you what it is we like?


It goes back to how music as both an entity and a function has changed over the years.  The fundamental confusion between the words “musical” and “music” also muddies the water; while the former describes a quality of sound, the latter refers to something rather more abstract, for music can certainly exist without sound.  My interpretation is that the very first true “music” had no sound – it was the ancient belief that there were harmonious sounds created by the movement of heavenly bodies in relation to each other, but those sounds were audible only to the gods.  Since that discovery of “music”, somewhere around 8000 years ago fairly simultaneously by Greek and Chinese astronomers, mankind in its continual striving to assume the powers once believed to be the sole possession of deities, has sought to have access to that sound, and has turned music from a naturally occurring entity (a science) to an artificially created one (an art).  As we have become more confident of our own god-like status, so we have evolved ever more complex and detailed music.  Music has been used through history as a tool of division – dividing the rich from the poor, the educated from the ignorant, and one culture from another.  We see this as we investigate the passage of music history.  There were periods in our history when music was accessible only to the wealthy and powerful, periods when the enfranchisement of the middle classes meant that music was made available to them, and periods when those of heightened intellectualism used music as means of distinguishing themselves from those of a less academic bent.


Today, however, in a society which attempts to be more egalitarian, music suddenly has become a tool of unification, based on the concept that as all humans have the same emotions, by investing music with emotions, it becomes universal.  As Marx, Lenin, Mao and a million others have discovered, egalitarianism is an unattainable ideal; someone has to rise to the surface as a leader.  Similarly, while it might be nice to think that we all share a love for music; in reality we do not and cannot.  We may all have the same sorts of emotions, but music is not about emotions, and the failure to appreciate that gives rise to all this confusion as to what music really is.


We musicians are continually asked things like, “Who is your favourite composer/What is your favourite piece of music/What type of music do you like best?”, and these are questions impossible to answer, for they vary according to a wide variety of factors not all of which are associated with emotions.  As I write this I am listening to a disc of Handel Organ Concertos, and periodically I stop off to concentrate on some element in the performance which I find particularly likeable.  Yet, much as I adore Handel and his organ concertos, there are times when his music irks me, and his organ concertos get seriously on my nerves.  There are also times when the last thing I want in life is to have musical sounds thrust on me.  To me silence remains the best music; it is a blank page on which I can, in the secrecy of my own mind, draw on any music I care to think of.  Before anyone can tell me they like music, they need to tell me what music is.  And as I believe nobody can tell us that, we have to go with Douglas Hopkins and accept that none of us really likes music.