the duties of music
what should music do? we might want to say that there is not just one thing that music should (and indeed can) do. let’s try and make a list of some of these: music should please the ear, tell a story, play tricks on our memory, spur the senses with abstract movements, move our souls and so give meaning to our lives… et cetera. i’m sure some of these might actually overlap. i think such a list could be infinite, or at least very long. the question rests, now in a different form: is it possible to capture all of these in a single defining formula?
i want to say no. music, like any other percept, has too many functions and uses, attractions and advantages. but the right answer is perhaps more subtle: music can, by the workings of all faculties mentioned above, resonate with human beings. music resonates in our hearing and leaves intellectually detectable imprints. the first and foremost of these is, i think, a mood. i’m tempted to say that all other peculiarities and points of interest come afterwards and are secondary—even auxiliary. how do i propose this works?
this resonance, i suggest, takes form in three moods:
- the encompassing mood. the feeling of being part of something.
- the nocturnal mood. the feeling of not being sure where one is.
- the light mood. the feeling of floating on top of the situation one is in.
these seem to me the specific moods that music can inspire in human beings. i’ve described all three as pertaining to the (intellectual and affective) place we are in and how we relate to it. i’m hard-pressed to think of another musical mood next to these, but let me know if you do.
is the function of music then to generate these moods? surely not. i agree with vygotsky, who in his psychology of art (1925) penned this gem of a paragraph:
art would have a dull and ungrateful task if its only purpose were to infect one or many persons with feelings. if this were so, its significance would be very small, because there would be only a quantitative expansion and no qualitative expansion beyond an individual’s feeling. the miracle of art would then be like the bleak miracle of the gospel, when five barley loaves and two small fishes fed thousands of people, all of whom ate and were satisfied, and a dozen baskets were filled with the remaining food. this miracle is only quantitative: thousands were fed and were satisfied, but each of them ate only fish and bread. but was this not their daily diet at home, without any miracles?
music can and probably should at any time bring about at least some of the things i listed above. but the result of a good piece of music will be a strong resonating mood—the placing of a person in a world. this, for me, is the existential duty of music. and this is what i aspire to, when i compose.