The truth about music

There is no ‘truer truth’ than that which comes through music, said Robert Browning. Which makes today’s transformation of music into a tool of social policy all the more tragic.

Frank Furedi

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The following essay is based on a plenary speech given by Frank Furedi at the Conference of Incorporated Society of Musicians in Buxton, England, on 8 April 2008.

Throughout history, the quest for truth has been one of the most positive manifestations of our humanity. Through our search for truth, we have developed our cultural imagination and made important insights into how the world works.

Experience shows that we gain a glimmer of truth in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes we are caught unawares, as truth grants us an all too brief audience. We think and see and dream in order to get close to the truth. And we listen and hear sounds that affirm its presence. Over the centuries, we have learned that, although pursuing truth engages our entire personality, there is more than one way of grasping the truth. As Pascal remarked: ‘We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.’ The ability of music to reveal to us the truth of some important aspect of existence has inspired generations. The poet Robert Browning captured this sentiment brilliantly when he wrote: ‘There is no truer truth obtainable / By Man than comes of music.’

Back in Browning’s day (he lived from 1812 to 1889), the idea that there was a place for truth in music was fairly uncontroversial. Today, however, we often seem uncomfortable about using the word ‘truth’ at all. Certainly, Browning’s idea of a ‘truer truth’ does not resonate with the temper of our time. Today, Truth with a capital T is treated with scepticism, even derision. We suffer from a severe case of moral insecurity when it comes to truth, and terms such as ‘true’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are rarely applied to issues that really matter.

Public figures, politicians and opinion formers rarely describe policies as wise or true or good these days. Instead, they justify their proposals and policies on the basis that they are ‘evidence-based’. Instead of telling us that their scheme is good and ‘serves the truth’, politicians are far more likely to argue that ‘the research shows…’ that we must take a certain course of action. This claim that ‘the research shows…’ is also regularly used to promote the alleged benefits of music. One psychologist has insisted that research shows that listening to music 20 minutes a day can reduce ‘perceived pain levels amongst older people suffering from chronic osteoarthritis by two-thirds’. Others claim that research shows that babies can remember music that was played even before they were born, and that such early exposure to music can have long-lasting positive effects.

There is little doubt that scientific research plays an important role in enhancing our quality of life and improving our future wellbeing. However, today the term ‘the research shows…’ is often deployed because we find it difficult to justify music or art or indeed anything cultural as true or good in its own terms. Yes, cultural entrepreneurs will sometimes rhetorically affirm that music is important in its own right – but increasingly such declarations come across as ritualistic.

For example, the UK government-sponsored Music Manifesto pays lip service to the idea that ‘music is important in itself’ but only as a prelude to treating music as a means to an end. So, after praising its alleged educational and therapeutic benefits, the authors of the Music Manifesto assert that ‘we believe that music is important for the social and cultural values it represents and promotes, and for the communities it can help to build and to unite’. Apparently music is also good for business and economic wellbeing – as the Music Manifesto declares: ‘We also recognise music for the important contribution it makes to the economy.’ The manifesto has little interest in music as such; instead its energy is devoted towards promoting the political, social and economic merits of music.

Hostility to the truth

Cultural entrepreneurs often claim that they treat culture as a means to achieving some external end only because we live in a world where the authorities support the arts on the basis of such instrumental arguments. ‘I know that Art and Culture make a contribution to health, to education to crime reduction, to strong communities, to the economy and to the nation’s wellbeing, but I don’t always know how to evaluate it or describe it’, said the former UK education secretary Estelle Morris back in 2003. She insisted that ‘we have to find a language and a way of describing its worth’ because ‘it’s the only way we’ll secure the greater support we need’.

Such appeals to pragmatism obscure the fact that there are far more philistine forces at work in the debate about art and truth today. The idea of Truth lacks cultural affirmation and authority. That is why another recent UK secretary of state for education, Charles Clarke, was able to dismiss ‘the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth’ as a ‘bit dodgy’. That is, he thinks universities need to update themselves and get with the times. The description of truth-seeking as an outdated medieval practice shows how narrow-minded is the authorities’ attitude towards art and culture these days.

Of course, narrowmindedness over art and culture is not a peculiarly recent development. Some of the greatest thinkers of the past expressed concern about the way in which the impersonal force of the market impinged on the development of art and culture. However, today market influences have been reinforced by cultural and political attitudes that are genuinely hostile to the idea of pursuing art for its own sake. There is a new breed of cultural manager and entrepreneur, who seems to regard the content of art with total indifference. Instead, their preoccupation is to use culture to achieve objectives that have little to do with the aesthetic experience.

This sentiment is systematically expressed in the UK’s Music Manifesto. This manifesto is not so much about celebrating music as it is about using music to help realise a variety of social policy objectives. The imperative of social engineering leads the authors of the manifesto to proclaim: ‘The time is ripe for a Music Manifesto.’ Apparently the time is ripe because ‘there is an increasing belief in the power of music to contribute to whole school development and community regeneration’. In other words, music is a useful tool for motivating people to buy into the agenda of policymakers. Music is judged and evaluated by how well it contributes to community cohesion and economic development.

It is important to understand that the current opportunistic manipulation of art ends up seriously devaluing it. Cultural entrepreneurs are not simply indifferent to the content of a musical experience – they are actually hostile to the very idea that it might be appreciated for its own sake. Their interest is not in art or music, but in the way these experiences can be used to involve people in official cultural institutions. From this standpoint, what really matters is the audience rather than the music that the audience listens to. The question of who sits in the audience, rather then what they hear, shapes official thinking on music today.

That is why Margaret Hodge, Britain’s culture minister, expressed such negative sentiments about The Proms recently. The Proms is an eight-week summer season of orchestral classical music that takes place in Britain every year, most of it at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Hodge had nothing to say about the musical experience of listening to performances at The Proms. Instead she focused entirely on the audience. She observed that ‘the audiences for many of our greatest cultural events – I’m thinking in particular of The Proms – is still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this’. In essence, she was arguing that one should judge the merits of a concert on the basis of who’s in the audience.

It’s worth noting that in her speech, Hodge also acclaimed the long-running ITV soap opera Coronation Street, because it is an icon of a ‘common culture’ – which is another way of saying that it has a wider audience than The Proms. For Hodge, and other supporters of the politicisation of culture, the value of classical music is called into question by the fact that apparently the ‘wrong’ people listen to it. ‘The main problem with classical music is its audience’, wrote Sean O’Hagan in the Observer. That’s another way of saying that because its audience is predominantly middle class, classical music is an unreliable instrument for promoting social cohesion and community regeneration. Unlike the icons of ‘common culture’ favoured by Hodge, such music is looked upon as elitist. ‘Anyone who still thinks classical music is not elitist should take a look around them when they next take their seat at a live performance’, says O’Hagan. Sadly, once the composition of the audience is seen as being more important than the performance itself, then the content of music is devalued. From this viewpoint, there is little place for truth in music.

Populist snobbery

The idea that classical music is elitist has become an article faith in the area of art and educational policy. It is premised on the belief that ordinary folk lack the aesthetic or intellectual resources to appreciate any experience that soars above ‘common culture’. Consequently, music apparently must be recycled in a form that can be mass-consumed. These kind of patronising assumptions underpin the way that music is taught in schools today. In many schools, children are provided with what’s called ‘music-making opportunities’. Instead of providing an opportunity for pupils to study and learn about music, ‘music-making opportunities’ are often about involving kids in playing around with digital media and pretending to be djs. Some educators justify this dumbed-down initiative as a pragmatic response to the shortage of music teachers. But frequently the ‘music-making’ approach is praised because it allegedly removes the ‘barriers’ that prevent children from ‘making music’.

Often, teachers who attempt to provide a genuine musical education are criticised for being inflexible and elitist. Recently I received an email from an Oxbridge undergraduate who applied to Teach First. As some of you will know, Teach First is a scheme started in 2002 that aims to recruit exceptional and highly motivated students and place them in challenging teaching positions in schools in deprived areas. My correspondent had attended an assessment day for the Teach First programme, at which he was called upon to prepare a five-minute music lesson.

‘Sadly I did not get a place, but what really surprised me was their feedback’, he informed me. He reported that ‘the thing they could find most gripe with was that I had played “classical music” during my sample lesson’. The message seems to be clear: children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds cannot understand classical music, so Teach First teachers must be able to provide the kind of ‘music-making opportunities’ that their classroom charges will probably be able to grasp.

Paradoxically, the most inflexible elitist snobs turn out to be those members of the educational and cultural establishment who have so little faith in the ability of children to appreciate and learn about classical music. Their anti-elitism is a populist gesture designed to flatter ordinary folk and reassure them that not much is expected of them. Sadly, such a populist orientation does little to overcome the disadvantages suffered by children in economically deprived areas. On the contrary, the provision of so-called ‘music-making opportunities’ instead of music education only serves to consolidate disadvantage. These children are being denied the opportunity to undertake the voyage of discovery that can sometimes occur when one is exposed to an education in music.

Let’s get back to music

Musicians have always had to struggle and make sacrifices for their art. In previous times, commercial and political pressures helped to create a climate of insecurity in the world of music. Today the problem is a little different. Outwardly, music and art are celebrated as never before – but they also face relentless pressure to serve causes that have little to do with their inner meaning. As former UK prime minister Tony Blair said last year, part of his project was to make ‘the arts and culture part of our “core script”’. Music that is composed and played to someone else’s script is unlikely to inspire the kind of inarticulate revelation of Truth that so stirred Browning.

Indeed, the current focus on who sits in the audience and on the therapeutic value of music represents a demotion of music’s status and its truth. That is why the current trend for subordinating music to someone else’s script should be loudly challenged. And that can be done only if we have more confidence in people than those populist snobs do, who imagine that children must make do with second-rate ‘music-making opportunities’. Classical insights into the status of art – beauty is truth and truth is beauty – have long roused the human imagination. They will do so yet again, especially if we have the courage to confront the current obsession with the composition of the audience and instead allow the sound of music to speak for itself.

Frank Furedi is author of many books, including Where Have all the Intellectuals Gone? published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

In an interview with Brendan O’Neill, Frank Furedi urged ‘Down with 21st century philistinism’. He said the media should not be blamed for dumbing down. John Tusa gave Ten Commandments for the arts. Angus Kennedy slammed New Labour’s Hodge-podge approach to high culture. Munira Mirza said museums have impoverished aims. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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