When instrumental music strikes a false chord

When music is used as a weapon, a shopping aid or an educational tool, we lose sight of its ability to move us.

Patrick West
Columnist

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When one thinks of ways that music can be used as a means to an end, rather than enjoyed for its own sake, several examples spring to mind: supermarkets piping easy listening to encourage shoppers to take their time; labourers singing in unison to alleviate boredom; parents playing Mozart to their babies in the belief that it will make them clever; or the US military blaring heavy metal and punk rock at Manuel Noriega when he hid in Panama’s Vatican embassy in 1989, in the hope of flushing out the Latin American dictator.

Whether these tactics and methods work is a moot point, particularly in regards to the so-called Mozart Effect. The idea that playing Mozart to babies enhances their development was popularised in the 1990s by Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher at the University of California. Their research purported to demonstrate that ‘music enhances higher brain function required for mathematics, chess, science and engineering’. It gained such wide credence that the states of Tennessee and Georgia started programmes giving Mozart CDs to every newborn child, while Florida passed a law requiring classical music to be played every day at state-funded childcare and educational programmes.

Yet subsequent research by John Bruer, author of The Myth of The First Three Years (1999), and Kenneth Steele, psychology professor at Appalachian State University, has pooh-poohed this notion – the latter, in a case study of 125 students, declared he could not ‘find any effect at all’. Of course, playing Mozart to your baby is not going to harm it. The little thing might even enjoy it. But believing in the ‘Mozart Effect’ will hurt the wallets of impressionable parents and taxpayers.

Older children, however, generally hate Mozart. Indeed, piping classical music in public spaces has for years been employed as a method of deterring youths from loitering. Just last month, West Midlands Police announced a reduction in ‘anti-social behaviour’ outside a shopping centre, a month after a PA system started playing Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. This move was made ostensibly to ‘create a welcoming environment for shoppers’, but within days shopkeers and police noticed the number of teenagers hanging around had also reduced; they returned only when the system was briefly switched off.

And who could blame them? When classical music is employed as ambient muzak, it becomes intolerable. Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ played on a loop becomes shrill and tinny; Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is correctly the preferred torture instrument of helplines when you are put on hold (only interrupted periodically by the insulting avowal about how important your custom is). Indeed, as a method of tormenting people, music is excellent, as anyone who remembers the summer of 1991 will testify. This was when ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ by Bryan Adams topped the UK singles chart for 16 bloody weeks. AC/DC may be a favourite sonic weapon of US forces, which has used ‘long-range acoustic devices’ to repel Somalian attacks, but I think it would be far more effective and horrifying to play Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ loudly and repeatedly. Indeed, in 1996, two women in Britain were sent to jail for doing exactly that.

Still, I’m not entirely comfortable with the utilitarian application of music. If youngsters come to associate Mozart with authority and repression, it may put them off classical music for good, which is a shame, especially as I hear it is hardly taught, or is taught badly, in state schools these days. And after all, not all kids who hang around in malls are up to mischief.

Nor am I particularly happy about music being employed as an adjunct to such a banal activity as shopping. What is more, constant wallpaper music makes us forget the value and pleasures of silence. This, I think, is what John Cage was getting at with ‘4’33”’. And I fear that pirates and dictators worldwide will as a consequence never come to appreciate Guns’N’Roses and Van Halen properly.

Although I’m not particularly antagonistic towards Classic FM, one of the reasons I stopped listening to it was its constant exhortations to ‘relax’, or listen to some ‘relaxing classics’, which seems to be like treating music as a kind of aural bubble bath, rather than as something to be savoured for its own merits. It also assumes that I need relaxing. This is nearly as annoying as the valediction ‘take care’, which presupposes that everyday life is very dangerous indeed, or that you juggle chainsaws blindfolded for a living. (My mother, who especially hates the phrase, replies to it with Nietzsche’s maxim: ‘Live dangerously!’)

I am guilty myself of sometimes using music, rather than listening to it. BBC Radio 3 is playing from my stereo as I write this, but I couldn’t tell you what it is playing, as I wasn’t paying attention to the continuity announcer. Yet I sometimes find music does help me work. And there are arguments, scientifically and anthropologically speaking, that music intrinsically has a purpose: sweet melodies produce serotonin and dopamine and so on; sad music serves as catharsis, or, like dreams, help us process thoughts and emotions; football chants, church hymns and national anthems help to forge allegiances and augment tribal cohesion.

So instead of adhering to the ‘Mozart Effect’, I cherish my own illusion: that music can be inspirational for its own sake. Babies often love music, and on a purely visceral level, not because they think it’s good for them. I like to believe the same.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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