Doing good, encouraging evil: The paradoxical power of music

In a culture addicted to sound, do we grasp the full import of the music we choose to hear? Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Marie-Lan Nguyen

WASHINGTON, October 5, 2013 — Among the many exhibits in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, one in particular has surprisingly profound cultural implications. It is an installation of sorts, a collection of small television screens, each featuring a social critic or religious authority holding forth on the negative effects of rock music.

The clear intent of this video array is to mock such moral values, implying that this shrine of popular culture excess represents a clear victory lap around the traditions that once held a nation together. Yet as thinking members of a society that has experienced the cultural fallout from a century of recorded music and an increasingly omnipresent and decidedly commercial popular culture, it is high time for us to seriously reassess, critically and unflinchingly, the musical environment we have all helped to create.

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“Art doesn’t kill anyone.” That is the usual facile response today whenever someone dares to draw a connection between contemporary violence and current aesthetic tastes. Likewise, we are generally unwilling to make strong connections between aesthetic preferences and negative social trends.

Whether criticizing pornographic rap, grindcore metal bands growling about murder and cannibalism, or sickly sweet glossy teeny music conjuring that all-too-familiar, glassy eyed, conformist stare from the faces of impressionable young girls, any individual who questions the aesthetic tastes of another human — not to mention their personal and social effects — has become taboo.

Copy of bust of Plato by Silanion, ca. 370 BC, made for the Academia in Athens. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Marie-Lac Nguyen)

Rather than getting involved in a productive conversation, we avoid the topic, pretending the music and content of today’s soundtracks simply doesn’t matter. This instinctive avoidance maneuver puts us well outside the historical conversation on aesthetics as well as the findings of modern science.

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Plato, nearer to the dawn of western civilization, claimed that music is “most sovereign” because “rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it” (The Republic, III, 399). If Plato is correct, we should not be surprised to learn that this foundational philosopher also assigned music the power to ennoble us, soothe our souls, or, conversely, lead to the upset and even the destruction of our societies.

Would Plato have gotten his own mocking Rock and Roll Hall of Fame TV screen?

What would this careful and pragmatic philosopher, appearing at the time of the lyre and the zither, have made of Woodstock or Lollapalooza, let alone the behavior of the massed humanity attending such events?

Consider how music seems to create or at least fuel entire subcultures or how it always becomes a key part of social movements. The civil rights movement seems inconceivable in retrospect without the galvanizing songs, which helped marchers muster their courage in the face of so much hostility.

On the other hand, it is nearly as inconceivable to turn on MTV or enter a GAP store and hear the strains of a late Beethoven Quartet instead of the latest vapid club hit. Both examples show how musical trends of varying quality attach themselves to positive and negative social phenomena. This alone should give us pause.

Think about the powerful psychological phenomenon known as “earworms.” That term describes a song that, even if you detest it, nevertheless continuously loops in your aural memory as if to torment you. Music has a way of sneaking behind our critical faculties and lodging itself deep into our subconscious: it affects us immediately, and goes on affecting us in often-unknown ways.

If Plato espoused the virtues of music education while looking pragmatically on the possible consequences of music, modern science seems in large part to validate his ideas.

Research on the plasticity of the brain as related to musical training has yielded astounding results, indicating that the benefits of such training flow into the development of other complex cognitive skills.

On the negative side, research has also shown the strong correlation between listening habits and depression. This includes certain genres of music expressing negative attitudes and endorsing violent behavior. This research even suggests that musical style may be more influential than lyrical content. In more concrete terms, that Christian metal band you’re trying to clean up with might not be that much better for you than Slayer.

The music industry is no stranger to the reality of this power. Whether on a fully conscious or a more intuitive level, the people who create popular music are engaging in an increasingly scientific process of intentional manipulation.

There are formulaic approaches to writing hit songs with proven success. The manipulation machine is regularly cranking out what author Michael O’Brien cleverly labels “canned music.” The goal is to catch your attention long enough to satisfy that “earworm” by purchasing an mp3 of the song that has “hooked” you.

Better yet, if the pop music peddlers are lucky, you may stick around long enough to purchase posters, magazines, or even an entire related lifestyle. It comes as no surprise that, as science has confirmed, popular music has been getting increasingly simpler and markedly dumber over the past fifty years. The lower you take audience expectations, the easier it is to satisfy them.

Consider the following hypothetical yet strangely common situation: A young man and his friends drive around in an old car they’ve converted into a rolling audio assault weapon. This unguided, psy-ops weapon cruises the city streets blaring out the most banal music at the loudest volumes in human history.**

After thousands of hours of such sonic bombardment, can we realistically expect that these young men—or those around them who have suffered collateral aural damage—will emerge as adult men worthy of emulation? Will they respect women, abhor violence, love their country, be warm enough to smile at babies, desire to be strong fathers, and in general be good citizens? Will they have the requisite sensitivity to enjoy the finer things in life?

We can argue about whether or not music causes the negative culture associated with it, or merely encourages it. Today’s pop music may simply be chosen as the preferred soundtrack confirming already existing value systems. What we cannot do as adults, however, is ignore the many correlations between behavior, happiness, intelligence and music.

All of the above social scenarios are likely true. Together, they constitute a vicious circle, which – enter Plato – can and does lead to large-scale social degeneration.

Perhaps our current fear of censorship leads us to deny that our choice of music may connect with the negatives inherent in human nature; or perhaps it is due to our unwillingness to question, or “judge” the tastes of others. Yet in refusing to allow that music can connect to the negative, we refuse to acknowledge the opposite possibility, namely that music can also connect to what is positive, inspiring, ennobling, and beneficial.

In short, healthy, uncensored criticism can lead to new insights. Nonexistent discussions cannot. As Alan Bloom wrote in his influential “The Closing of the American Mind:”

“[Students today] know exactly why Plato takes music so seriously. They know it affects life very profoundly and are indignant because Plato seems to want to rob them of their most intimate pleasure. … The very fact of their fury shows how much Plato threatens what is dear and intimate to them. They are little able to defend their experience, which had seemed unquestionable until questioned, and it is most resistant to cool analysis. Yet, if a student can — and this is most difficult and unusual — draw back, get a critical distance on what he clings to, come to doubt the ultimate value of what he loves, he has taken the first and most difficult step toward the philosophical conversion. Indignation is the soul’s defense against the wound of doubt about its own; it reorders the cosmos to support the justice of its cause.”

Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt — once chosen by professional musicians as “the composer they would most like to listen to on their deathbeds” — said in an interview that people don’t “know how strong the music influences us for good or for bad. You can kill people with sound. And if you can kill, maybe there is also sound that is the opposite of killing. And the distance between the two points is very big. And you are free — you can choose.”

Arvo Pärt, Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Woesinger, Wikimedia Commons.

In a society that regularly chooses voluntary aural environments as brutal as the interrogation tactics of a CIA interrogation chamber,  composers like Arvo Pärt consciously choose the opposite extreme.

Pärt’s music grows out of a reverent silence, builds incredible power with a masterful consideration of minimal musical material, and returns once again to silence. It is music that reverences human dignity, fears God, and leaves behind no casualties. In short, it is one good listening choice among many that today are regularly being ignored by our pop music loving society.

“Perhaps it is music that will save the world,” mused fabled cellist Pablo Casals. He also knew, along with the wisest minds in history, that music could do the opposite as well.

One thing is certain: in denying the full power of music to do ill, we deny the full power of music to encourage what is best, and we all lose immeasurably in the process.

**One American company has claimed that their subwoofers can achieve 174.4 db of volume, which is over 30 higher than the takeoff of an airplane from an aircraft carrier and roughly 60 db higher than the human threshold of sonic pain, so the words “psy-ops weapon” are no exaggeration.

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Mark Nowakowski


Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He holds five degrees in various music concentrations, while currently
also serving as the Music Curator and Interim Director for the Foundation for Sacred Arts.

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