Monday, 16 November 2009

What does music mean?

In the spirit of Twitter, at this very moment I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Sonata Number 13 in B Flat. It has changed my condition for the better, but I cannot tell you how it has managed to do this.

I was reflecting on this puzzle last Friday in the glorious Chapel at Trinity College Cambridge where the choirs of Clare and Trinity sang works by Purcell, Handel and Christopher Brown. Christopher Brown? More of him later.

How did music evolve? Some early psychological theories were that a rhythmic beat was useful in coordinating physical work, and singing was a way of getting individuals to move in unison, doing useful things. From that point of view, music is an elaboration of group cohesion, closely related to working and dancing. This seems likely, and on that basis one could start looking for musical centres in the brain.

Steven Pinker’s more recent view is that music is a by-product of our language system. It does not have any specific brain centres, nor any intrinsic meaning, but simply exploits the margins of linguistic communication. It is not essential, but simply a nice-to-have, in which brain systems designed for speaking and listening can also be titivated by an artful construction of sounds. It has its own “language rules”, but meaning is not one of them.

On this theory, music has an effect on us because it exploits a gap in our defences. It “gets to us” because it can arouse what seem to be meanings without having to commit itself to definitions.

Purcell and Handel certainly mastered this language of the emotions. Few contemporary composers can match them, and certainly not Christopher Brown, whose atonal composition produced at best serious expressions in audience, and at worst a wish to leave until Handel could take over. Brown was trying too hard not to please us, showing off a talent to jar the senses. The composer was also burdened by a long poem, which it would have been better for its author, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, to have got up from his pew among us and read aloud, without accompaniment.

Ode for St Cecilia’s Day is a joyful celebration of heavenly harmony. That evening we were uplifted by a great choir, and marvellous trumpeters. All the young soloists were fine singers, and charming with it. In his great work Handel relied on the sparse text of John Dryden, who should have the last word:

What passion cannot music raise and quell?

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