Recently in this magazine Roger Doyle wrote: ‘Does RTÉ lyric fm see its role as fulfilling a therapeutic function like the museums in Britain? Its ads have shown people fishing, relaxing after a hard day, or on the way home having their road rage calmed by listening to the radio: music for the chill-out zone of the library and in the caff at the museum.’
This is a sentiment I’ve heard a thousand times before, and Roger is a composer I admire (and to be fair, the article was focusing on a different matter anyway…!), but it still hits a nerve. What’s wrong with using music to relax? I use music for therapeutic functions – classical music calms me. Whether the music was initially intended to shock or wow or unsettle, whether it was meant to depict violent attacks, pillage and rapes, it all amounts to a nice evening in for Patrick nowadays. Recently I’ve started relaxing in the evenings by listening to an array of classical ‘hits’ whilst sipping delicately from a glass of wine. This is as bourgeois and aspirational as it gets and apparently it’s the ‘wrong’ way to listen to music.
I make attempts to differentiate. I can tell my Beethoven from my Bach, but deep down I really see ‘classical music’ as one big thing, like ‘Chinese food’, or ‘the axis of evil’, and I use it pretty functionally.
On a good evening I can humble the poshest dinner-parties with examples of my musical refinement. I leap astride the table gesticulating wildly to discuss Vivaldi’s crucial role in the development of tonality; I demonstrate a crucial and shocking key change in Beethoven’s Ninth on the clavichord before a bevy of young heiresses; my peers gasp at my wide-ranging musical knowledge and startlingly groomed hair; but inside my thoughts are no more sophisticated than: ‘classical music is nice’.
As I recount how crowds stormed out of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debut in 1913 I’m thinking: ‘Stravinsky is classical music. Classical music is nice.’
As I listen to the fury of Beethoven’s later work, and imagine how he dealt with his increasing deafness and isolation, I’m thinking: ‘Beethoven is classical music. Classical music is nice.’
And the more I learn about this ‘nice’ music, the more I don’t care that my main use for it is clichéd relaxation. I am increasingly of the opinion that refined ‘insights’ about it really don’t amount to much more than: ‘I like how this music sounds.’
If you learn that a particularly pleasant melody once instilled dread in an audience; if you understand a theory on how one chord moving to another chord can create certain emotional implications; if you learn how Beethoven learned such-and-such from Handel; if you have a sudden insight into how one rhythm can pre-empt another, you’ve gleaned some historical knowledge, gained a bit of personal insight, and you now have something interesting to say at the interval. It is certainly worthwhile, mind-expanding knowledge, but it doesn’t really change how you felt about the music when you first heard it. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Music experts and music-makers listen to music analytically because it’s their job. Out of professional interest they want to learn how it was done. Knowing how it was achieved, however, doesn’t really change how you heard it in the first place. The emotion is the same. The intellectual self-satisfaction of ‘understanding’ is secondary.
I doubt very much that the same people sit in a restaurant swirling the food in their mouths trying to ascertain all of the ingredients, or drive along the roadway saying ‘This is an interesting mix of tar and pebble… I wonder what sort of bitumen was used’, mainly because it doesn’t necessarily make your enjoyment of the meal/road-surface any less potent just because you know how it was done. You can’t be an expert on everything.
So classical music is often used nowadays as a means of personal relaxation. So what? The RTÉ lyric fm advertisements mentioned by Roger recognised this pragmatic fact. So what? Music is functional, and if some of its initial functions – the court dance, religious reverie, stirring up nationalistic fervour – are consigned to the dustbin of history, then why is it wrong that many people ascribe another function to their soundtracks (in my case, upwardly-mobile sloth)?
It’s not a sign of philistinism when someone makes pragmatic use of art. Nor is it a sign of a banal personality when someone uses music the way lots of other non-experts use music (it doesn’t make a person a philistine if they use their fridge for storing food, rather than for insights on fridge construction). And here’s the rub: composers who are worried about falling audience numbers should not be concerned with the right and wrong way to listen to music. Musical knowledge doesn’t make your appreciation of a piece of music better than someone else’s. Perhaps it makes it worse. Aaron Copeland once wrote ‘Professional musicians… often fall into the error of becoming so engrossed with their arpeggios and staccatos that they forget the deeper aspects of the music they are performing.’
And maybe the aspects don’t come deeper than helping someone relax of an evening.
Published on 1 September 2005