Does music make us better people?

The question has been around for as long as music itself.

William Congreve thought, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare wrote, “Music oft hath such a charm to make bad good, and good provoke to harm.” Yet, it may simply be wishful thinking that great art, music, and literature have a civilising influence. In fact, there is something Pythonesque about the idea: “I was going to shoot you, but I’ve been reading Proust.”

Listening to Mozart does not prevent war any more than listening to Wagner starts it (despite “Apocalypse Now”). There is little proof that Beethoven’s string quartets improve the mind, or that Monet’s water lilies make one more inclined to give money to the poor. And contradicting the claim that “music is a universal language”, it is actually difficult to put music into words. As George Steiner points out in Errata: An Examined Life (1997):

“Music is meaningful to the utmost; it signifies totally. But neither its meanings nor its significations can be verbalised, adequately paraphrased or translated conceptually into any domain except repeated performance. Logic has no purchase on musical sense.”

So it comes as surprise to hear a composer make the following statement, “If my music can inspire people to listen more deeply to this miraculous world we inhabit, then I will have done what I can as a composer to help us navigate this perilous era of our own creation.”

American composer John Luther Adams takes his musical inspiration from nature, especially Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014. His orchestral work Become Ocean was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and his concern for the environment and interest in specific places has led him to explore the concept of sonic geography. He has written songbirdsongs, a collection of pieces for piccolos and percussion based on bird song, and Night Peace, a work that captures the nocturnal soundscape of the Okefenokee Swamp.

There is nothing new in using natural sounds in music. In his “Pastoral” Symphony Beethoven depicts a nightingale, a quail, and a cuckoo at the end of its “Scene by a Brook”. Ottorino Respighi’s The Birds, a suite for small orchestra, is an attempt to transcribe birdsong in musical notation. Olivier Messiaen wrote many works incorporating birdsong, including Le merle noir for flute and piano and Catalogue d’oiseaux, thirteen pieces for piano. And Ralph Vaughan Williams famously wrote a whole symphony based on music from the film “Scott of the Antarctic”. But there is no evidence that any of these compositions has contributed to saving the planet.

However, Adams may still have a point. In “I want my art to matter, I want it to be of use: John Luther Adams” (The Guardian, 30 October 2018), he is quoted as saying:

“For me, music is an invitation to the listener to become more fully present. If we can imagine a culture and society in which we each feel more deeply responsible for our own place in the world then we may be able to bring that culture and society into being. This will largely be the work of people who will be here after I am gone. I place my faith in them.”

Nothing wrong with that, but the jury is still out and may be some time.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

One thought on “Does music make us better people?”

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