On the inherent value of music

Everyone has been passing around this article from the NYT lately. It's a good article, but my friend David Von Kampen rightly asked earlier tonight:

I get why people like this article, but I wish we would put more emphasis on music's inherent value rather than its usefulness as a means to success in other fields.

(By the way, go to David's website and buy his music.)

Too be sure, people have been talking about the inherent value of music since at least the Pythagoreans and certainly Plato. Of course, the people talking about it usually aren't the ones that are making it. Plato, was convinced of music's value and power, but also a little hesitant to condone studying it too much without balancing it out with gymnastics. Too much music=too girl-ly. To much gymnastics=dumb jock. For Plato, the actually playing of music was something for hooligans and morally corrupt people. It turns out Plato was just about spot on about that last bit.

Throughout the middle ages, the final subject in the quadrivium studies for the Masters degree was music. Again, this was generally more theoretical than practical music making. The point at the time was that studying the Greek math surrounding music was the culmination of all intellectual pursuits.

By the time we get to the Renaissance and the Reformation, we have some more statements that could qualify as praising music for its own sake, but the real victory for musical independence happened about 200 years ago.

The young Turks immediately following Beethoven began comparing Beethoven and Shakespeare. Hoffman's writings influenced the whole generation of early Romantics at the same time that Shopenhauer's philosophical ideas were giving them an underpinning. There was a concentrated effort to make dead Beethoven equal in importance to dead Shakespeare by numerous authors.

I'm brushing quickly through history tonight, but the point is that at the beginning of the 19th century, the assertion was made that the thought process, the ingenuity, the artistic courage, the emotional content in a Beethoven symphony was equal to that of a Shakespeare play. Music was not simply entertainment or a pleasant pastime. It was intellectually on an equal footing with any other human endeavor. At least for the early 19th century, they argued that it was better than any other human endeavor because of its ability to combine emotional and intellectual pursuits and open the listener up to a new spiritual world. In some ways, the argument is a little close to the Pythagorean position.

That the side-effects of musical study turn into success in other fields is not that big a surprise. Just like the Nobel Prize winner who thanked his bassoon teacher recently shows, a music teacher's influence can have far reaching effects. However, that doesn't mean I'm going to head down to my local bassoon player when I need to have some surgery done. It turns out that playing the bassoon doesn't turn you into a surgeon.  But the NY Times article does sort of hint that music is good because of what it does and not because of what it is.

I'm compiling a list of suggestions for musicians using the inversion of the argument. Please feel free to add to it.

My friend Paul Barnes plays tennis terribly well, and that has helped him to be successful at playing Phillip Glass's music because he learned that hitting a little yellow ball over and over made him appreciate redundancy. So play tennis if you want to be a successful musician.

John Cage was one of the world's foremost experts on mushrooms which made him want to hit furniture. So study mushrooms if you want to be successful writing beautiful music for your kitchen.

My friend Jason Mendelsohn is an accountant, and studying accounting has made him want to systematically write music and give an account of every Metro Station in Washington D.C. So, if you want to do that, you better study accounting first. Else you might be apt to leave one out.

All three are wonderful musicians. They would be no matter their background. It's not that there aren't interconnections between things. It's just that the attempt to create a one to one ratio between doing a thing and having success is always doomed to failure. Many musicians die in poverty. Many surgeons never study music.

Ultimately, the NY Times article is after that pernicious argument that goes, "If I do X, I will be successful. If I make my kids do X, they will be successful." As long as music is a means to an end, you will never find out its delicious secrets.

Trying to write in words about what the inherent value of music is - like the old Martin Mull quote says - "trying to dance about architecture". Better go out and make some music yourself to find out what all the hullaballoo is.