Is there a place for truth in music? Jump to main content

Is there a place for truth in music?

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, examines the unfashionable idea of ‘truth’ in music.

Throughout history the quest for truth constituted one of the most positive manifestations of our human qualities. Through this search we have developed our cultural imagination and gained important insights into the workings of the world. Experience has shown that we gain a glimmer of truth in the most unexpected of ways. Sometimes we are caught unaware when truth grants us an all too brief audience. We think and see and dream to get close to it. And we listen and hear sounds that affirm its presence. Over the centuries we have learned that although its pursuit engages our entire personality there is more than one way of grasping it. As Pascal remarked, ‘we know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart’. The capacity of music to reveal to us the truth of an important dimension of existence has inspired generations. Robert Browning captured this sentiment through his poetry when he wrote that: ‘There is no truer truth obtainable / By Man than comes of music.’

Back in Browning’s day (1812-1889) the idea that there was a place for truth in music was relatively uncontroversial. Today we often appear to be uncomfortable about even using the term. And Browning’s idea of a ‘truer truth’ does not resonate with the temper of our time. Certainly Truth with a capital T is treated with scepticism if not derision. We suffer from a heightened sense of moral insecurity where terms like the truth, good or bad are rarely applied to issues that really matter. Public figures, politicians and opinion formers rarely describe policies as wise or true or good. Instead their proposals are justified on the basis that they are evidence-based. Instead of avowing that their scheme is good and serves the truth, politicians are more likely to argue for it on the ground that ‘research shows…’. The claim that ‘research shows’ is also regularly associated with promoting the alleged benefits of music. One psychologist insists that research shows listening to music 20 minutes a day can reduce ‘perceived pain levels among older people suffering from chronic osteoarthritis by two thirds’. Others claim that research shows that babies remember music from even before birth and such exposure has long-lasting positive effects.

There is little doubt that scientific research plays an important role in enhancing the quality of life and is vital for securing our future. However the term ‘research shows’ is often deployed because we find it uncomfortable to justify music, art, or indeed anything cultural as true or good in its own terms. Cultural entrepreneurs sometimes rhetorically affirm that music is important in its own right. But such declarations appear to have an entirely ritualistic character. The Government-sponsored Music Manifesto plays lip service to the idea that ‘music is important in itself’ as a prelude to treating it as a means to an end. After praising its supposed educational and therapeutic benefits, the authors of the Manifesto assert that ‘we believe that music is important for the social and cultural values it represents and promotes, and for the communities it can help to build and to unite’. Apparently music is also good for the economy: ‘We also recognise music for the important contribution it makes to the economy’. The Music Manifesto has little interest in music as such. Its energy is devoted towards promoting the political, social and economic merits of music.

Hostility to the truth

Cultural entrepreneurs often assert that their treatment of a culture as a means to achieving some external objective is only a pragmatic response to world where support for the arts can only be gained through resorting to such instrumental arguments. ‘I know that Arts and Culture make a contribution to health, to education, to crime reduction, to strong communities, to the economy and to the nation’s well-being, but I don’t always know how to evaluate it or describe it’ stated former Education Secretary Estelle Morris back in 2003. And she insisted that ‘we have to find a language and a way of describing its worth’ because ‘it’s the only way we’ll secure the greater support we need’. Such appeals to pragmatism often obscure the fact that there are far more philistine forces at work. The idea of Truth lacks cultural affirmation and authority. That is why another recent Secretary for Education, Charles Clarke was able to dismiss ‘the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth’ as a ‘bit dodgy’. The association of seeking truth with an outdated medieval practice is symptomatic of the narrow-minded ethos that informs policy towards art and culture today.

Of course narrow-minded attitudes towards art and culture are not a peculiarly recent development. Some of the great thinkers of the past were concerned about the way in which the impersonal force of the market impinged on the development of art and culture. Today, however, such influences have been reinforced by cultural and political attitudes that are genuinely hostile to the ideal of pursuing the arts for their own sake. There is a new breed of cultural managers and entrepreneurs who regard the content of art with total indifference. Their preoccupation is to use culture to achieve objectives that have little to do with the aesthetic experience of engaging with music or art.

This sentiment is most systematically expressed in the Music Manifesto. This is a manifesto that is not so much about music as about the way that music may be used to help realise a variety of social policy objectives. It is the imperative of social engineering that leads this document to exclaim that ‘the time is ripe for a Music Manifesto’. The time is ripe because ‘there is an increasing belief in the power of music to contribute to whole school development and community regeneration’. In other words music is a useful tool for motivating people to buy into the agenda of policy makers. From this perspective music is evaluated according to its contribution to community cohesion and economic development.

It is important to understand that the current opportunistic manipulation of art has the effect of devaluing it. Cultural entrepreneurs are not simply indifferent to the content of a musical experience, they are actually hostile to the idea that it ought to be appreciated for its own sake. Their interest is not art or music but the way these experiences can be used to involve people in official cultural institutions. From this standpoint what matters is the audience, rather than the music they listen to; who sits in the audience, rather then what they hear, shapes official thinking on music. That is why the Culture Minister Margaret Hodge expressed such negative sentiments about the Proms. She had nothing to say about the musical experience of listening to the performance. Her focus was entirely on the audience. She observed that ‘the audiences for many of our greatest cultural events – I’m thinking in particular of the Proms – is still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this’. The corollary of this approach is that the merits of a concert ought to be assessed on the basis of who is in the audience.

It is worth noting that in her speech Hodge acclaimed the soap opera Coronation Street because it is an icon of a ‘common culture’ – which is another way of saying that it has a wider audience than the Proms. So for Hodge and other supporters of the politicisation of culture, the value of classical music is put to question by the fact that apparently the wrong people listen to it. ‘The main problem with classical music is its audience’ wrote Sean O’Hagan in The Observer. That’s another way of saying that because its audience is predominantly middle-class, classical music is judged to be an unreliable instrument for promoting social cohesion and community regeneration. Unlike the icons of ‘common culture’ favoured by Hodge, such music is denounced as elitist. ‘Anyone who still thinks classical music is not elitist should take a look around them when they next take their seat at a live performance’, notes O’Hagan. Sadly once the composition of the audience is seen as more important than the performance, the content of music becomes devalued. From this vantage point there is little place for truth in music.

Populist snobbery

The belief that classical music is elitist has become an article of faith driving current art and educational policy. This sentiment has as its premise the belief that ordinary folk lack the aesthetic or intellectual resources to appreciate any experience that soars above ‘common culture’. Consequently music needs to be recycled in a form that can be mass consumed. Sadly such patronising assumptions underpin the way that music is taught in schools. In many schools, instead of being given an opportunity to study and learn about music, children are provided with what are euphemistically called ‘music making opportunities’. In practice ‘music making opportunities’ often turn out to be attempts to involve children in playing around with digital media and pretending to be DJs. Some educators justify this dumbed-down initiative as a pragmatic response to the shortage of music teachers. But frequently this approach is praised because it allegedly removes the barriers that prevent children from ‘making music’.

Often teachers who attempt to provide a genuine musical education are criticised for being inflexible and elitist. Recently I received an email from an Oxbridge undergraduate who applied to Teach First. As some of you might know Teach First is a scheme started in 2002 that aims to recruit exceptional and highly motivated students and place them in challenging teaching positions in schools in deprived areas. My correspondent had attended an assessment day for this programme which in his case involved a five minute prepared music lesson: ‘Sadly I did not get a place but what really surprised me was their feedback. The thing they could find most gripe with was that I had played “classical music” during my sample lesson’. The message was clear – children from economically disadvantaged back ground can’t understand classical music, so Teach First teachers need to provide the kind of ‘music making opportunities’ that these children can grasp.

Paradoxically the most inflexible elitist snobs turn out to be those members of our educational and cultural establishment who have such little faith in the ability of children to appreciate and learn about classical music. Their anti-elitism is a populist gesture that is designed to flatter ordinary folk and reassure them that not much is expected of them. Sadly this populist orientation does little to overcome the disadvantage suffered by children from economically deprived areas. On the contrary: the provision of so-called music making opportunities instead of music education serves to consolidate disadvantage. Such children will be denied the opportunity to undertake the voyage of discovery that can sometimes occur through exposure to an education in music.

Let’s get back to music

Musicians have always had to struggle and make sacrifices for their art. In previous times commercial and political pressures often work to create a climate of insecurity for music. Today the problem is a little bit different. Outwardly, music and art is celebrated as never before. But it faces relentless pressure to serve causes that have little to do with its inner meaning. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair stated last year, part of his project was to make ‘the arts and culture part of our “core script”’. Of course music that is composed and played to someone else’s script is unlikely to inspire the kind of inarticulate revelation of the truth that stirred Browning to write his poetry.

Indeed the current focus on who sits in the audience and on the therapeutic value of music represents a demotion of its status and its truth. That is why the current trend of subordinating music to someone else’s script needs to be challenged. And that can be done only if we have more confidence in people than those populist snobs do, who imagine that children must make do with second-rate ‘music making opportunities’. Classical insights into the status of art – beauty is truth and truth is beauty – have served to rouse the human imagination. They will do yet again, especially if we have the courage to confront the current obsession with the composition of the audience and allow the sound of music to speak for itself.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the ISM’s Annual Conference, Commanding Performance, at Buxton on 8 April 2008.