Musical musings, Philosophy
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Music, and moods.

A person online, in a question about their favorite music, had this to say:

“Music […] is universal language. Music unites moral, emotional and esthetical spheres of mankind. Music is the language of feelings. Our feelings can be different, and depending on what feelings I have, I choose music that I listen to. I can listen to almost all music types – from classic to rock.”

But surely this misses the point.

Choosing your music based upon your moods is like choosing your future spouse based upon the amount of traffic you encountered on the way to work, or choosing your cell phone plan based upon the relative humidity and what that does to your hair. Choosing your music based upon your moods seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse.

Now, I can’t begin to guess what the writer means when they speak of uniting morals and emotions and esthetics. It sounds rather like a heaping bowl of succotash; consisting of some rather unfashionable form of a slightly stale crust of bread, chameleons, and kale – or whatever passes for the vegetable du jour these days.

But Music isn’t dictated by your moods. Music isn’t dictated to, at all – music simply is. It can be, perhaps, the origins of your moods, but that’s not its primary function. For example, in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, you might hear a contorted stridency of unlistenable sounds, while I hear unutterable grief. Which is correct? Go and ask the music which it meant to convey. The only answer you’ll receive is that of the music itself. Your mood, thus, becomes boredom, while my mood becomes one of profound thankfulness. I think I can guess which ‘mood’ the composer would endorse; assuming he didn’t drum me out of the club for even asking such an inane question.

In the best examples, music is more than even the composer is aware of. It is what it is, and no amount of head-scratching or soul-searching will make the slightest difference to it. If the music you’re listening to is only capable of changing your mood, then I would submit you’re listening to the wrong music – and those of you who blame the music for not being what you want it to be, for not being anything other than what it is, are raging against the stars.

The stars do not hear you; and if they did, they wouldn’t care – they sing for their own reasons, and for their own joy.

The problem is we’ve relegated music to the background, where we’ve convinced ourselves it belongs. It’s no longer important enough. We have too many things to do, too many status updates to post – too many squirrels running across our path.

We’re no longer capable of sitting down and devoting an hour’s focus to a symphony, or a jazz album. When music comes on, you’re to ignore it, and continue to listen to someone’s absurd story about a golf game, over cocktails. We want short, pithy ballads, with easily recognizable hooks and catchy choruses we can sing along with. We want the songs of our youth, that remind us of what we used to be, and where we were when we first heard that song. We want music that doesn’t demand anything of us, and especially not our attention; for we’ve no more attention to spare. We have assigned music to the role of ‘Nostalgia Fool’, even though we no longer acknowledge that the Fool had a proper function, and place.

The coming of new music used to be an ‘event’ that people eagerly anticipated, for they wanted to know what the latest thinkers would have them learn. And like teachers everywhere, we loved some, tolerated most and loathed a few more. Some even excited us to anger and violence, with loud cacophonous responses attempting to drown out what we were being taught – only to realize much, much later that those teachers were right, and we were wrong. For we’d placed ourselves above the music, without having first humbled ourselves before it. We had decided where and how it should sound – as if we were the creators of the stars.

Now the coming of new music is, for the most part, the release of a new album of the same old thing, over and over again… for the most part. Rap/hip-hop was a shot across the bow of the USS Staid and Boring, but even that has become the norm. Now you’re driven to wear raw meat in order to create a stir, ’cause your music simply isn’t cutting it. Those who cannot muster the foresight, the creativity to generate something truly, musically original, must look outside of the music for something to draw attention to themselves. Which rather begs the question.

It may very well be that our proper place is alongside that of music and poetry, and all the arts – though I wonder. The masters, in the throes of creation, were submitting themselves to something else, something other… that the masterpiece might be brought into a form we can hear, or see or read. They struggled and wept and suffered to give form to what only they saw and heard. They humbled themselves to it, that it might be made manifest. I think music and art reside above us, beyond where we can currently see with our sad incompetence of human vision.

Whims and follies are not the scale by which a style of music must be chosen; it’s music that is the scale, and you must decide what you will be, and where you will go. Only then can you chose a style of music to fit – one that will further you along in your journey, toward the universal whatever…

And then there’s this, from an email I received: “Let Spotify bring you the right music for every mood and moment.” How do they know what my ‘mood’ is going to be? The answer is: they don’t, and so they simply have everything, available to applaud us in our indulgences, to coddle, and ultimately empower our very sense of the god-like sulks… for a modest fee, of course.

I cannot possibly communicate how strongly I disagree with this type of sentiment – with how backwards, and soul-crushing I find this attitude.

Or maybe I can.

It’s this dismissiveness of Music which has led to the veritable dearth of music education, to the decline of so-called ‘classical’ music in our country. It’s led to our airwaves and our concert halls and arenas being populated by the least-common denominator.

The airwaves are full of that mathematical function; and most of the time, they can’t even leave that well enough alone, but must create shorter versions of our daily dose of pabulum. Mustn’t let it go on too long, or we won’t be able to saturate you with ads.

Pop, and country, and all other manner of the Top Forty mindset may very well be sincere forms of emotional expression, but I find them a far less than convincing experience; at best a pale and sour imitation of sincerity. Pop and country music today are made for the masses, meant to appeal to as many people as possible; while Classical music’s time has passed, and must, if it is to function at all, now be something of an inward pursuit; the delving into history – the mass music of another time.

How can I be satisfied with Pop, when I’ve had the exquisite, indescribable pleasure of understanding Brahms, and Debussy? And what have we lost, by our being removed from that period when Bach was all the rage? Only the very ability to think about and see music as they did; only the knowledge audiences seemed to possess and were expected to bring to the process, in order that they might be able to listen to their teachers with a practiced ear.

Then what’s the point of pop, or country? Or more correctly, what should be the point? Why, to lead the way toward something higher, of course. Are you as yet unfamiliar with the ways of the universe? All things point in one direction, which in and of itself is, of necessity, in all directions at once; we merely use the word ‘higher’ to denote that which is currently beyond us.

But what then do the higher classics point us to… what music would those master’s have wanted us to hear?

Ah…

That is the question…

EJ Liederstein

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