Pondering and questioning music’s (assumed) powers

A few weeks back I wrote a post on the power of music (read it here).

I confess, for a few days after writing that post, I felt kind of on-edge and grumpy. I’d written the post as one of my first efforts to unpack some of the ideas that were rolling around in my brain in response to my PhD reading, resisting being organised into orderly prose. I realised that I wasn’t quite clear on my own position on the perceived power of music. That position is still evolving and it intrigues me.

I know that music can change things. Just the other day I was feeling tired, a bit head-achey, and sick of sitting at the computer. I got up and went out to the living room, picked up the guitar and start to play. I can’t really play guitar, but sitting for 10 minutes with the instrument, strumming naively to myself and seeing what I can concoct, left me with a fresher, sweeter energy than I’d had at the computer. But is this change in energy just down to the music? It might also be the change of environment, the change in pace of thought, the leaving-go of one set of complex ideas and swapping them for something altogether less demanding. Maybe I was also entraining my heart rate or my breathing to the tempo of my guitar playing (which was very slow). Maybe I was sitting straighter, so my breathing became deeper. By changing rooms I was also leaving the darkness of my study space for a light, bright open room with sunshine flooding in, and an open door leading out to the balcony. Suddenly there was a lot more space in front of me than there had been before.

But, could I have got many of these same impacts by going and making a cup of tea, or practising some flamenco footwork on the balcony for a few minutes? I don’t think so. I think that the music I chose to play (a lullaby from Benin), had a part to play in my energy change.

Sometimes the power of music discourse can get swept away in its own enthusiasm:

During war, Music brings serenity, happiness and hope. After war it brings dynamism and energy for reconstruction, galvanize juvenile minds for action and make happiness an object of desire. During peace, it brings comfort of mind, awareness on love and motivation for the future. In front of different cultures or ideologies it brings cooperativeness, understanding and create unperceived ties among people. Even in front of different languages, songs become understandable for everyone and appreciated when your mind is touch… Because Music could be use forever as an essential remedy to cure souls and minds, to create harmony and put foundations for reconciliation, or simply to do things better in a time of tremendous challenges for the world and for humanity. (Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima, Introductory Statement to the Music as a Natural Resource Compendium, published in 2010 by UN-HABITAT and ICCC)

When I read this, it can give me tingles of excitement, or a slight, zephyr of thrill. A bit like the kind of emotional, warm-fuzzy nostalgia I sometimes get when I hear the song ‘Down Under’ being played on the radio or – even better – sung by children. Yep. That can make me gulp and gets my eyes all hot.

Such sentiments about music (I’m referring to the quote above, not ‘Down Under’s lyrics) can be incredibly attractive to us. Peace and harmony become so achievable, and through such beautiful means! It’s an example of a Design Fallacy, where because an idea is beautiful and attractive, it becomes true for us. We embrace it, and resist efforts to de-bunk it. Purse-strings may open and funding may roll in response to idealised, romantic claims like this, but if the ultimate goal in a conflicted community is one of genuine conflict resolution and cooperation among divided peoples, then it is people who need to be active agents in such processes, rather passive recipients of a mysterious power generated by music (and, by inference, musicians as the diviners and conduits of that power).

My colleague in the Music and Culture subject that I co-teach at NMIT on Mondays asked us today to apply ‘Socratic questioning’ to the cultural constructions that abound around the notions of Talent, and Inspiration. The ‘talent discourse’ is similar to the ‘power of music’ discourse, in that it distances ‘ordinary mortals’ from our own potential to be extraordinary (through hard work, persistence, and grit). So here are some Socratic-style questions that I am asking myself as I read through all the literature I can find on the different music initiatives that have started up in post-conflict countries in the last 20 years:

Is this notion [that music has a mysterious, inherent power] a myth, or is there evidence for it?

Why is this notion so tantalising? Why do these ideas/myths persist? What are the motivations for maintaining them?

If we agree to this notion, what else are we agreeing to? What is the ‘fine print’?

Does the image of the power of music to bring people together devalue the actual process of making music together, and all the minute, nuanced interactions that are part of that?

Is the fact that we are focusing on the final product keeping us from understanding the complexity of the process?

Does the idea of music’s power give certain “special people” (eg. musicians) ‘permission’ to generate music outcomes for others, potentially rendering the participants/non-musicians passive or dependent?

Perhaps one of the reasons the discourse of ‘the power of music’ is so enduring (and compelling) is due to limitations of language – it may that the process of music-making is such a complex one that our expressive language is insufficient to explain and understand it, and to recreate it in words for others. We resort to metaphor and ideals in order to make sense of an experience, but then these become embedded within the vernacular and cease to be challenged or critiqued. They become accepted as truths.

Still with me? It can be an intense ride, working my way through these ideas. Ultimately, as I read through the literature, I can see evidence of the many beliefs and assumptions that people have about music. These will be culturally-based, but if we are talking about international aid contexts (where most of the projects that I am interested in are situated), it is the culture of the donors – and therefore their assumptions and beliefs about music – that are foregrounded. So what are the implications of this? That, my friends, will be for the next instalment.

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