Monday, June 02, 2014

The Medium Makes the Message: Music and Technology

A few years ago, my wife tried to start a home-based graphics and communications freelance consulting business by teaming with another woman I'll call M.  M. was of Japanese origin and had trained for some years as a classical pianist, although at the time she was earning money as a Japanese-English translator.  When my wife set up shop with her graphics software, she turned on a radio to a classical music station, and M. objected.  When my wife asked why, M. said that she was compelled to pay full attention to any music she could hear, and to have any music playing at all while she worked was an intolerable distraction.  The partnership soon dissolved for reasons unrelated to the background-music issue.  But I recall the different ways M. and my wife reacted to music as paradigms of two approaches to music that the future may judge our era by.

Engineering has made possible the incredibly widespread propagation of recorded music to all corners of the earth.  Until the invention of the phonograph in 1877, music disappeared as soon as it was made, and except for minor technologies like music boxes and barrel organs, the only way to hear music was to make it yourself, or to be near somebody who was making it.  Either way, music was integrated into life in an intimate, personal way, because either you or someone in your vicinity was personally engaged in musical performance any time music was heard.  It was under these conditions that ancient Greek philosophers developed their first aesthetic judgments, which were about music.  And under these same conditions, classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms produced those monuments of tonality which are standards by which all other Western music is judged. 

At least, that is what philosopher Roger Scruton says about the matter in his book The Aesthetics of Music.  In a music-appreciation class in college, I first became aware of the fact that classical music has intricate structures and complexity fully comparable to other cultural achievements in art and technology.  In his book, Scruton spends 500 pages showing just how complex music is, and what makes great music great.  I suspect he is the same kind of person as my wife's friend M.:  to him music demands attention, and can be analyzed and judged in detail.  I base this conclusion on the fact that at one point he refers to classical music as "the music which asks to be heard, but never overheard."  M. was hearing the classical-music station my wife tuned in to, but my wife was just overhearing it.

Toward the end of his book, Scruton spends a few pages discussing popular music, and how the only measure of quality that anyone tries to apply to it is that of popularity:  what's in the top 40, for example.  It is engineering and technology which has made possible the worldwide dominance of the "democratic culture of America" in music.  He uses the word "democratic" not in its political sense, but in the sense of "the common people," so the music of a democratic culture is the music most people listen to.  And that is not classical music by any means.

Scruton acknowledges a connection that relates music, culture, and religion, and many of the most transcendently beautiful musical compositions were created for religious services.  By contrast, most events called "concerts" today that involve popular music can be viewed as orgies of idol worship.  As Scruton puts it, "It is not a metaphor to describe Kurt Cobain as an idol; on the contrary, he is simply one among many recent manifestations of the Golden Calf . . . . If the music sounds ugly, this is of no significance:  it is not there to be listened to, but to take revenge on the world."  In other words, most popular music is itself instrumental, not in the sense of not having words, but in the sense of being used for some other purpose:  to break up silence, to relax the listener, or to enrage, excite, or stupify.  By contrast, classical music of the type that Scruton spends most of his book on is an end in itself:  it is played because it is not work, but play.  And the point of play is to play, not to achieve some other purpose by means of playing.

Modern engineering and technology does not encourage long-term thinking.  As I get older, I am increasingly impressed by the brevity of product lifespans and the transitory nature of engineering firms and even entire technologies.  Engineers are not used to thinking about how their work may affect future generations, not only materially, but intellectually and even aesthetically.  For good or ill, the democratic-culture type of music is the overwhelmingly vast majority of all music made and heard in the world today.  The conditions under which the great classical composers lived are gone forever.  Will anyone, now or in the future, ever equal or surpass the achievements of the great composers of tonal Western music?  Or will their compositions stand like the Egyptian pyramids, isolated monuments to a way of life and a set of priorities that are completely foreign to our present and future experience?

These are questions neither Scruton nor I can answer.  But by flooding the world with the kinds of music it wants, engineers have forever changed the course of musical history.  With all of the more urgent issues that engineering can address these days—energy scarcity, sanitation, and so on—worrying about what engineering has done to music may seem pointless or trivial.  But the next time you hear music, remember that what you hear is as much a product of the means of hearing it as it is of the musicians who wrote it and played it.  And remember that there are a few people left who can still appreciate, understand, and judge music by standards that most of us know little or nothing about.

Sources:  Roger Scruton's The Aesthetics of Music was published in 1997 by Oxford University Press. 

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