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Music and Its Uses, United States, circa 2020

We are told that, back in the mists of time, music had a largely ceremonial function. Groups, or tribes, of persons would chant, sing, or drum to petition the gods or relate important stories to the group; perhaps every group had its song or songs. Music has sometimes been referred to as "amplified speech" in this connection, and it does, at times, bear a curious resemblance to normal speech with all the consonants removed and the vowels prolonged. The languages of some of the world's people makes a closer connection to the rhythmic and melodic qualities of music than does our own.

A person observing the ways in which music is used today in the United States might keep this interesting theory in mind and note the ways in which these ancient functions have evolved, with one important distinction. The rise of the individual to heights unheard of in earlier eras has caused a plethora of strange and self-oriented musical practices. What would an ancient tribe do with an IPOD?

Another important occurrence since that unknowable Eden is the rise of a professional class of musicians; specialists who are continually pushing music's frontiers forward. They are often held with suspicion if not outright contempt by persons who, irrespective of the complexity they will allow in other fields, would prefer to keep music simple enough to grasp with no training. Their professional peers sometimes return the favor by sneering at their non-practicing brethren and being pretentious.

If we keep in mind that we live in a country which holds the opinions of large numbers of otherwise average people to be among its most important principles, we will not expect much music to conform to professional expectations. In this way it has changed little since those Neolithic origins of man that some of our species have always longed to return to. Most of our music still contains an easily singable melody, an obvious rhythm, and much repetition. The biggest difference is in its masters. Music is used to comfort individuals now, not the group, and it sells products rather than mythology or ancestral history.


Today, most of our music is involuntary. We hear it piped into overhead speakers in shopping malls. It perfumes the air in restaurants and movie theaters. It is not meant for our attention, it is largely there to kill silence, which is one thing many Americans cannot stand.

It is also there to keep patrons happy. Music functions for most of us like a recreational drug. It is less harmful even than coffee, although its power to short-circuit the mind's creative faculty has not, to my knowledge, been studied with any thoroughness. In stores it has been shown that music which inspires upbeat moods but which inclines toward slower tempos is most effective in doing what the shopkeepers want it to do: cause customers to stay longer, and buy more.

When a conversation during dinner lags, the music is there to provide an endless stream of polite noises that can divert attention away from that awful 7 second lapse which psychologists have informed us is that longest most persons can go without feeling the overwhelming need to say something else.

In the theater music cradles us until it is time for the curtain to go up on the real entertainment, which involves the visual sense. It has always been man's primary sense; even Darwin was mystified why we concern ourselves with manicured sound. For a rebuttal, I wonder aloud how we managed to ever survive the jungle without a superior sense of hearing. Perhaps most of our natural predators took pity on us and wore brightly colored uniforms so we could see them a mile away. But then, before we were so constantly inundated with artificial noises we probably paid more attention to the ones that were available. The last two centuries bear little resemblance to the ones that have gone before in this manner.

During the movie, music's invaluable contribution lies in revealing to us the internal emotional state of the characters, or, more prosaically, it tells us how we ought to feel about what is taking place. A chase scene is apparently not complete without percussion instruments biting away at high speed. We can't have the romantic leads kiss one another without violins. In real life we are left free to make our own sense out of a high speed situation, romantic or otherwise. But in the theater, these conventions are designed to unify our interpretations, and satisfy us by giving us what we know. The music to every movie is different, but its deployment is mainly the same.  Someone said that a movie composer must be an expert in every style but his own.

Music follows us home, and waits upon us like a model butler. We put it on when we are doing chores, or studying. The stereo is now the principle musical instrument in the home, and its product is mostly scenic noise.

When we watch television we begin to perceive another function. Music can be used as a symbol. A short blast of a few notes to tell us when the commercials are over and our favorite show has returned. Some scary harmonies to tell us not to vote for that evil Democrat governor. Television is not above treating us like two-year olds, particularly during election season.

The commercials themselves usually rely on a different orientation--the recognition of a favorite tune. Now we are advancing to music that gets noticed, though its primary duty here is to sell beer. Just as great figures from the past are commandeered to sell used cars, Beethoven seems to be pushing all sorts of products these days. Part of the copyright law in France includes a moral protection for the artist against having his music used in a way that is disrespectful to the integrity of his work. In this country, were Beethoven alive to see it, with works under copyright, no one would have the slightest idea why Beethoven should be the least bit perturbed that his work was being used in a commercial so long as he was being paid residuals for its use. No matter if the music's message once was that "all men are brothers" and today that message is that all men should buy Chevys. We still use music to petition the gods, particularly the god Mammon.

Music is still often about belonging to the tribe. Most people's greatest susceptibility to the sonic arts occurs during adolescence and the songs are about finding one's way in the world, and falling in love. Or out of love. Or in love again. Or being confused about whether you are in or out, like a housecat standing in the doorway on a cold winter morning with a frustrated human towering above.

Here we are again talking of amplified speech--it is the lyrics that do the talking, they are merely set to music. Generally it is a vocabulary limited to three or four chords that can be learned in an afternoon on a guitar and repeated for life, often in the same order.

The tunes are only a little more developed; like a catch-phrase on Saturday Night Live, they often consist of a short, attention-grabbing bundle of notes, and reward the listener's temporary attention by large quantities of repetition, so that we can immediately sing along, and in the singing, wear the song and its verbal message like a badge through life, annoying other generations of people who listened to the wrong songs, in structure just as similar as two armies fighting over a hill with the same guns and with the same desire for conquest but flying the wrong flag. In such a case, the enemy must be taken by sheer force of volume.

As we make our winding way toward music that is intentional, let us consider the plethora of anthems, fight songs, chants at sporting events, and other items in which music's function is again to be a symbol in sound of the urgency of the moment, or the desires of its practitioners. We began by discussing music as a series of pleasant, aromatic noises; in such a case, the particular notes are not of much importance, so long as they do not disturb. In a school song or anthem the object is very much to be aware of the uniqueness of the song you are singing and to associate it with the school or country you are singing it for. It is the song's associations and the memories associated with it that give pleasure, or strong emotion. In many instances only that particular song will do. Before a ball game many of us expect the national anthem, and are not pleased to hear "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful." If it is the fourth of July, there must be fireworks overhead and Sousa's "Stars and Strips Forever" overheard. For churchgoers, at Easter, it had better be the hymn that begins "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" and it is somehow not Easter if you don't sing that one to open the service. If you are at a wedding and they don't do one of two or three very traditional wedding marches, you may feel cheated. Of the thousands of pieces of great music there seems to be room for only one or two for each occasion. There are some people who think they are listening to "Phantom of the Opera" every time they hear a pipe organ, regardless of what it is playing. Bagpipers earn most of their money at funerals playing Amazing Grace. Some persons, the ones "in the know" at cocktail parties, are too sophisticated for these popular effusions; for them the organ is best remembered for playing Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" (first 10 seconds only, please) at Halloween.

As with that prehistoric tribe, music is still sometimes used in communal settings, like rock concerts, stadiums, and in the presence of cars with loud radios and open windows. It also sometimes retains a religious function. Instrumental music, which was once banned by the church and is still not encouraged, takes the form of background music. The organist often merely directs traffic, finishing his prelude when it is time to be quiet and launching into his postlude when it is time to get up and talk to your neighbor at the end. In between there are songs: participatory in nature, which allow the singers to fill their lungs with air and feel the exultation of pushing out the ideas along with much air. The choir gets in on the act, and people listen, because they feel a connection to sung music that they do not to music produced otherwise. And there are words going on. People still do not feel that listening is an activity, that music is a communication of sorts, though they will listen when the English language is involved. Probably because music is still a language of mystery, and many are not aware that it has any syntax, or grammar, or that it can express anything other than vague emotional states. The church wants to make sure you understand the doctrine, and it is better not to leave this to a sonata.

There has always been that group of pretentious persons who felt that music was art, and that it could impart many ideas, spiritual states, emotions, aesthetic admirations, and be the upholder of complex cultural messages. At last reckoning, the number of persons who even gave this ambitious music, ignorantly termed "classical", the time of day was less than one percent of the population. In categorical terms, it is all lumped together into one style so that it can be avoided by those who want everything they hear for the first time to sound pretty much like everything they've heard before. It represents the strivings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of some of society's most daring minds over many centuries and a great deal of the planet's troubled surface. It may take several listenings--or a lifetime-- to understand. It can require an act of the intellect to composer or to perform or to listen, an act of passionate emotion, or a revelation of the soul. The tones themselves are the stuff of this medium, with or without words. It is a challenge to those who have written and continue to write it. And to those who perform it. And to those who listen. It is perfect for those few who continue to grow all their lives, because it too often grows and develops from a piece's beginning to its end, rather than introducing a short idea and repeating it unaltered. This makes it as unpredictable as the precise wording of the next sentence of this essay: Probably it ought to have some continuity with what went before and be governed by the topic at hand. But its reader presumably has the vocabulary and the grammatical understanding to make sense of it without being limited to what he or she can memorize on the spot; therefore some surprise is welcomed.

Of course, we are here defining such music in philosophical terms, which is a function of the persons who write the music. The end-users, on the other hand, rarely concern themselves with such issues. Music in America is still a product.

It is a mistake to assume that music of this sort falls into one category. It is probably more accurate to suggest that it contains everything that does not fall into the other categories. But even that will not account for all the intended and unintended uses to which this music has been put since it was first brought into the world.

For example, we first discussed music which was used for atmosphere, and receives little attention from its consumers. An eccentric artist named Erik Satie went to great lengths a century ago to create music which should be consumed in exactly this way. It was an unusual thing for him to do, and his audience frustratingly insisted on paying attention to the music. Satie, who kept shouting at them to talk over it, is now played on all the "classical" radio stations. He is probably getting his wish, since people often use such music as wallpaper. Most of it, in contrast to the driving beat of popular music, seems rather tame and well behaved to the average ear, perhaps, "soothing", and a kind of sonic status symbol at that. A shorthand way of proclaiming yourself an intellectual without having to engage the intellect! In some cases this does not appear to do violence to the music, but in others it may be similar to having the audiobooks version of "The Communist Manifesto" or the book of "Revelation" on in the background while driving to the store and discussing who should win American Idol with your friends.

Artistic intentions have never been considered very important to consumers, who adapt music to their own individual uses. But artists themselves engage in this sort of thing when they quote material from other compositions. Some of their works have been used as patriotic songs, while some of their works make use of these songs as remembered symbols, outside the flow of the musical rhetoric. Sometimes it stands in contrast to what the composer is saying, as if the music had gained three-dimensionality, or the old philosophical division between subject and object.

This is a long way from the sounds that tickle the ears of America's "music loving" populace, whose relationship with organized sound is more master/slave, and who expect entertainment rather than learning. For most of us, music is a great facilitator. Like a greeting card, it speaks emotions we cannot or will not articulate; it awakens fervor or fond memories with a few notes; it kills our mortal enemy, silence, which, along with darkness, has seen its power weaken in the last century and now must be content with the fringes of our civilization, biding its time until the next massive power outage forces us again to confront both. It comforts us at the end of a difficult day being jostled by society's other members, or partially distracts us from the mind-numbing work at hand, or lets us forget that rostrum of trivial frustrations we call "our problems." Perhaps it even salves our hurt and confusion, and, in some way, brings hope and healing.

But, as we love to say in this "democratic" country, it all depends on the customer.


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