09 January 2014
This is no doubt why Ludwig van Beethoven said,
...and William Congreve famously wrote that music,
And music's power is tacitly acknowledged all the time.
For example, last year Michelle Obama lent her name and image to a rap album that complements her "Let's Move!" anti-obesity campaign.
And while a track featuring a trio called "Salad Bar" and a song entitled "Veggie Luv" is easy to mock (given their mother's priorities, I can just hear Sasha and Malia singing, "And we'll have fun, fun, fun till daddy takes the tea cake away"), there is method to the first lady's madness.
As Boston College professor emeritus William K. Kilpatrick wrote in his book Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong:
To this day I can recite a McDonald's Big Mac-recipe jingle I heard as a little child - verbatim. And I only had to hear the weather advice "Red sky in morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor's delight" once to remember it forever.
But since all power can be misused, can music
possibly usher in a storm of civilizational upheaval? If it can soothe the
savage breast, does it not follow that it can also inflame it?
He once warned,
And it's no surprise that Plato was intensely aware of music's power.
As Kilpatrick wrote:
For sure, but what is music mainly used for
today? We still do use it to teach, and we know it can sell junk food. But
can it also sell man on the junk food of thought, word, and deed known as
First we must overcome the old-fuddy-duddy phenomenon whereby we say "These kids today… " while reflexively viewing the ways and entertainment of our own generation as the gold standard.
We have to ask ourselves:
The second matter is one possible response to this: that it is all a matter of perspective, that we respond to sound in accordance with our conditioning.
This may be a basic assumption in a relativistic
age in which most believe that even Truth is in the eye of the beholder. Yet
I would suggest that there are absolutes with respect to sound and that,
like the frog, we may accept the noxious as normal, but it will still have
its negative effect - it's just that we may never know the purity that could
Ponder how a city child who hadn't ever heard a cougar's roar would still likely find the sound bone-chilling (I suspect this would be the case even if the child didn't know about dangerous animals and roars). And even if a girl had never previously heard a baby cry, wouldn't the sound trigger her maternal instinct to at least some extent?
Note here that "instinct" refers to an inborn tendency to action, not a quality dependent on conditioning. And, in fact, research also indicates the universality of sound.
As professors Donald F. Roberts, Peter G. Christenson, and Douglas A. Gentile wrote in their book Media Violence and Children (MVC),
This thesis makes sense within both the creationist and evolutionist contexts.
Whether a species was given its instincts via divine design or developed them through adaptation, it wouldn't survive unless those instincts were equal to the task of negotiating this world.
So it's not fanciful to conclude that man is
born with a somewhat "trained ear."
Sure, we accept the phenomenon unthinkingly as we do rising prices, but there is no genetic difference that could account for why each generation now finds the music of the last unsatisfactory.
And note that tastes in food don't change so radically; for instance, today's youth love McDonald's and pizza just as their parents did 35 years ago. Moreover, musical tastes weren't always quite so transitory, either.
There were times and places - in the Europe of
the Middle Ages, as an example - where music might remain largely the same
for hundreds of years.
This explains why musical tastes change so quickly today:
...society is prone to continual arbitrary change.
This gives us the Infantile Civilization.
This means that unlike an adult, who has become
a relatively stable being more resistant to flights of fancy, it is like a
child, prone to instability, undisciplined change (and hope?), and
Mind you, this isn't to say we would necessarily recognize such music as reflecting a roar, but that it would possess certain relevant tonal elements that would cause it to have the same general effect. Also note that there is individual variation. After all, a tune that would normally induce, let's say, sadness, may induce happiness in an individual who strongly associates the melody with a joyful life event (e.g., the day he met his true love).
Yet particulars don't change principles, and as the Guardian pointed out in 2011 when reporting on research out of Bristol University's Department of Physiology,
The last thing that should be emphasized is that, just as with television or the Internet, since music can have influence, it follows that it can have a destructive influence if misused.
There is no shortage of examples insofar as this goes, either, so pick your poison.
Marilyn Manson sang in "Get Your Gunn,"
...and Jay-Z disgorged in "D.O.A.,"
...and note that far more vulgar lyrics can be found.
But what is the precise effect of such material? Is it possible it simply facilitates the release of negative emotions, as the "venting" theory suggests? Research indicates the opposite.
As Science Daily wrote while reporting on a 2003 Iowa State University study by doctors Craig A. Anderson and Nicholas L. Carnagey:
In other words, garbage in, garbage out. Note, too, that this aggression is also directed at the self.
As Roberts, Christenson, and Gentile report in MVC,
Yet it would be a mistake to simply focus on lyrics. After all, music played during a thriller or romantic meal is usually instrumental, yet it can still have profound effects.
In fact, MVC tells us,
It's undoubtedly true that certain musical sounds correlate with certain "schemata," or patterns of thinking.
For example, almost no one understands the Latin most Gregorian chants are sung in, yet even self-professed atheists will speak of how the music touches their souls. (Such testimonials can be found on YouTube Gregorian chant pages).
Likewise, heavy metal's lyrics also can seem a
different language and be unintelligible to most, yet its discordant sounds
also can touch us.
I remember when a friend told me that he would stand in front of a mirror listening to rock and fantasize about being a music star, and an athlete may listen to a song such as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and imagine glorious victory on the athletic field.
Could you visualize Gregorian chants facilitating this kind of fantasy? It's a comical notion.
And while these ideations are relatively innocuous, what of the stoking of darker urges? Which of the aforementioned two kinds of music would be used to get psyched up to commit a crime or a war atrocity, for instance?
As to the latter, in "African Rebel Soldiers and Their Eerie Obsession With Tupac Shakur," Paul Rogers of LAWeekly.com quoted a Libyan fighter as saying,
Rogers also cited Sierra Leone's soulless Revolutionary United Front rebels and wrote of how they,
By the way, this is the band of musical warriors
whose greatest accomplishment was chopping off the hands of innocent
Addressing the argument that rock's value is in,
In contrast, consider that in many churches the choir would traditionally be situated in a loft well above and behind the congregation (not always the case today).
The musicians were in a position of humility,
where they'd be invisible to the congregants and it would seem as if the
music was coming down from Heaven. But the modern singer? Not only do his
emanations often seem anything but Heaven-sent, his performances certainly
do not reflect humility.
This, in its essence, is all that rock is about.
And it is precisely because of this juvenile core that rock never delivers
on its promise of creating community.
For what do we feel as intensely as our feelings? We don't in fact feel anything but our feelings. We should be governed by Truth, by moral absolutes, but except insofar as our emotions have been shaped by them, they're only apprehended by the intellect.
And this is trumped by living the quoted proposition because if nothing is set above our emotions, they are then the best available yardstick for determining behavior, leaving us with no reason to even think.
Saying that nothing is above our emotions
implies that there is no Truth (no moral absolutes), which certainly would
be above them, and this is the precise message of moral relativism, the
philosophical disease sweeping the West.
The fact is that a community is defined and woven together by a set of norms, and norms are boundaries; thus, to reject norms is to unravel your community.
This should be fairly obvious - if one thinks.
Feelings, however, have no acquaintance with logic.
Oh, this doesn't mean it will always feel right, but they can be satisfied that it is right with Truth as their mediator.
But if people en masse believe that "it can't be wrong, when it feels so right," as Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" says, what can be that credible arbitrator?
For then it follows that there is no objective universal residing outside of man, only subjective particulars originating within every man. So in a relativistic, emotion-driven society, you end up with millions of people guided by a multitude of different feelings.
And then it is not truly a society, but a land with nothing to bind people together but the iron fist of government. And the feelings rock and rap trade on are our most basic.
As Kilpatrick also wrote:
One of the things that rock and the rock industry do best is to take normal adolescent frustration and rebellion and heat it up to the boiling point.
A lot of this hatred is directed toward parents - the people who usually stand most directly across the path of self-gratification. Antiparent themes are quite common on MTV, and heavy metal has been described as "music to kill your parents by."
When I once asked some recent college graduates to explain what they thought was the deeper meaning of rock, I was surprised at how frequently the word "alienation" came up over the course of several separate conversations.
Robert Pittman, the inventor of MTV, confirmed this interpretation of the "meaning" of rock in a published interview with Ron Powers:
Thus much of the solidarity rock supplies its
young audience is a negative solidarity, a bond achieved by excluding those
who should be closest.
Yet this matter cannot be fully understood if we
view it as merely an "adolescent" problem.
After all, I'm now basically Mayberry meets the Middle Ages living in a land that increasingly is Beelzebub meets the Tower of Babel.
But my point is this:
(Note: This is relevant in our fractured civilization. In an insular tribal society with iron-clad traditions unchallenged by competing cultural influences, it likely wouldn't apply.)
But then there are some questions.
It has already been pointed out that when people are thoroughly unmoored from one another, only tyranny can bind them together, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia. Yet there is far more to it.
Plato asserted that the purpose of the arts was to help shape emotions properly, to take children too young to grasp virtues in the abstract and instill in them a passionate (feelings-based) attachment to virtue, so that they would become instinctively virtuous and fertile ground for the acceptance of reason's dictates later on.
Unfortunately, attachment to vice can be created
in the same way through exposure to corruptive arts - and far more easily.
Lewis was likely, of course, thinking primarily of personal temptation, but there is another time this phenomenon becomes apparent.
If you've engaged in political debates, you've no doubt encountered people who operate based on feelings and are so resistant to reason's dictates that your intellect is powerless against them. This is especially typical of a certain type of political partisan in our time, one I won't call by name here (though I can tell you what I'd like to call him), but with whom, let's just say, conversations can't exactly progress.
But whatever you call such a person in a given
time and place, what you're witnessing is always the same: an individual
with a corrupted emotional framework that engenders attachment to misguided
This is clearly a complex matter, but here are a few obvious examples:
Having said all this, I don't want to be misunderstood as placing the onus solely on music. There are other powerful agents of cultural change today, and we can imagine what Plato would have said about television and the Internet.
But this essay's focus is music, and with 16 percent of young people ranking it,
Yet, as Allan Bloom lamented, a serious critique of music "has never taken place."
This is not only because we tend to be that proverbial frog mistaking toxicity for normalcy, but also because we become emotionally attached to our entertainment and then reflexively justify and defend it.
But if we're governed in this by what feels right, are we giving "reason's dictates" their day in court? Most of us would recognize "If it tastes good, eat it" as a prescription for a junk-food diet and possible heart disease.
But, likewise, isn't "If it sounds good, listen to it" a prescription for a jukebox-junk-food diet and heart-and-soul disease? Wisdom informs that we must question not just the musical taste of the next and previous generations, but also our own.
Because America might have gone from Daniel
Boone to Debby Boone and beyond, but it can be wrong - even when it feels so