The Harmony of Humanity

A couple of issues ago, I wrote a column about the discipline of “music cognition”: the scientific exploration of how we listen to and/or hear music. Now, another major volume on this aspect of music — its perception, its philosophy, how it works on us and scientifically why it does so — has been published. It is Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It (Bodley Head, £20), a tour-de-force extending to more than 400 pages and investigating these issues from what appears to be every possible angle. 

With exemplary lucidity, Ball explains everything from the tuning of different scales in different cultures, how our hearing works both physically and psychologically, at what age babies start to recognise patterns, the necessity for the education of the ear and, to take just one more example, the reasons why Schoenberg may have been wrong to expect too much of his listeners. He makes occasional judgments with which I would take issue — such as certain remarks about Sibelius, who was one of the strongest voices of his day — but these are small points in a volume that represents an extraordinary achievement of explication concerning the science of an art and the art of its science. 

This book arrives only 18 months after Daniel Barenboim’s Everything is Connected (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). A comparatively slender volume, it collects some of his essays, lectures and general thoughts on music and also the Middle East, with a chapter devoted to his Israeli-Palestinian West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The most fascinating material, though, is arguably that in which Barenboim explores the way that the inner workings of music mirror the inner workings of life, showing us how we can improve one through better understanding of the other. It’s rare to find a musician as articulate with words as Barenboim is with notes, and while his demonstrations of music as a metaphor for life are philosophical and poetic rather than scientific, that doesn’t make them any less true. 

The questions addressed by both authors peel away some of the layers that veil the mystery of music, the interfacing of art and science, the reasons, indeed, why music in one form or another is part of us and is so everywhere in the world. 

But other questions are nagging. Why? Why all this, and why now?

Partly, I expect, because we can. Scientific advances, experimental techniques, etc, now make such explorations possible in great detail, more or less for the first time. And by now ethnomusicologists have minutely analysed the traditional music of just about every corner of the globe. So now comparisons, contrasts, similarities and differences between the styles, workings and uses of music can be assessed side by side that much more easily.

Yet there’s a different strand to Ball’s book, lurking beneath the surface: here the anti-Modernist backlash will find fodder aplenty. Ball takes the view that serialism has never been a massive hit with the public for inevitable physiological and cognitive reasons, arguing that when a serialist work has achieved widespread success, such as Berg’s Violin Concerto, it’s usually despite rather than because of the system used to compose it. Incidentally, he says similar things about the recitative in general, which startled me, since the recitatives in, for instance, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion are terrifically moving. Many may find such views contentious or unpalatable. But Ball is right to express concern over the eschewing by composers such as Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez and their followers of any priority resembling communication with the audience; his coolly-worded demolition of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître is worth reading.

That leads on to an issue that preys widely on the minds of music-lovers: the survival of music in the new century. 

When financial cutbacks loom, classical music is often first in the firing line because it is an easy target, misperceived by many in power as “irrelevant”, “elitist” and all the rest. Ball’s arguments pertain to this because the prevailing 20th-century avant-garde did make audiences for contemporary music desperately elitist, in an intellectual rather than financial sense, thus fuelling the unfortunate impression that classical music exists in an ivory tower with little relevance to anyone but its own protagonists. 

Music education was decimated in Britain during the Thatcher years, and even now remains generally the preserve of those who can pay for it, or who know where to find grants, scholarships and instrument loans. The same applies in the US, and the virus spreads quickly. Barenboim has spoken at length of the parlous state of musical education worldwide and the necessity of providing music lessons at kindergarten level if children are to grow up with any ability in or inclination for the art. 

Meanwhile, his own West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and Buskaid in South Africa have provided living, breathing, audible proof that music-making is an invaluable influence that knows no social boundaries. It promotes in the case of the WEDO a grass-roots dialogue between people who would otherwise have been persuaded by their elders to regard each other as enemies, while in the case of the SBYO and Buskaid it offers youngsters a goal, a hope, a skill, a sense of discipline and an alternative life to that of poverty and crime. 

If music is an essential part of being human; if, as Ball’s book says, we cannot do without it, we have to prove that to those wielding the purse strings — and the proof has to be provided in terms that even the most philistine cannot fail to acknowledge. Never again must we face a situation where music is regarded as merely an optional toy for the wealthy. Politicians, sponsors and the ideological forces that control education need to be reminded of the power and universality of music, the fact that it is part of our bodies and souls, and that to get the most out of it our children need to be shown more about how it works, and much earlier. If Barenboim and Ball cannot do the trick, then nobody can.

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