What is music for? Jump to main content

What is music for?

‘Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.’

Victor Hugo

Vying for top place in the list of over-used and misused words is surely the word ‘creative’. So many aspects of life formerly dubbed ‘artistic’ are now ‘creative’, and everyone whose job is in the arts has become part of the ‘creative industry’. It sometimes seems as if the only people still using the word ‘create’ in its dictionary sense, ‘to bring into being out of nothing’, are religious fundamentalists.

Who, then, in music, are genuine creators, and what is the measure of their creativity? Turning to composers, the simplest benchmark to apply is the originality of their work. All composers, though, are influenced by someone, and some of the finest pieces of music owe their greatness not necessarily to the originality of the material, but to what the composer does with it. Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms are obvious examples. Then there are those, the second rank, you might say, who, in spite of obviously being influenced by a greater figure, nevertheless produce pieces which give great pleasure in their own right. Sullivan is an obvious choice, and the English composers working under the shadow of Elgar, from Edward German to Roger Quilter, Eric Coates and John Rutter have given us delightful musical experiences. When we come down to more ephemeral popular music the old formula still seems to hold sway - 99% familiarity plus 1% originality.

All have something to say, but we must allow that there is still a huge difference between the greatest and the least in what we, as listeners, get from them. At the simplest level there is rhythmic stimulation and excitement; at the highest a profundity which has the power to change lives. The greatest music, like all great art, rarely reveals itself at first hearing, and the primary job of musical education is surely to lead young people to discover what the greatest has to offer.

Where does the performer come in all this? Most people can read a Shakespeare play and some can mentally hear a Beethoven symphony through the printed score, but these works were meant to be interpreted by performers, who inevitably add something of themselves. Are acting and musical performance, then, acts of creation? In one sense, yes, in that the performer applies his imagination and experience in interpreting the work to his audience. But he is not merely influenced by the composer - he is the composer’s servant, and his imagination should only serve to understand and project the composer’s intentions. The letter is more important than the postman. Nevertheless, for those who have any gift, great or small, for performance, the activity is in itself invaluable. The benefits to a young person of playing a musical instrument, emotionally, socially and in the acquiring of mental and physical skills are far too well documented for me to need to repeat them, and I am the first to say that anyone who is able to learn an instrument or to sing should be given the chance. This universal provision should be a vital part of music education, and central to the task should be well funded and rigorously inspected music services.

However, the pleasure and satisfaction of performance is not ultimately what music is for. The performer is the vital and necessary bridge between the creator and the listener, but to inflate performance as an end rather than as the means is both wrong in itself and in some ways dangerous. Firstly, not all people who could enjoy music have the talent, or even the will, to perform. There are a host of reasons why someone, young or old, should not want to be on a stage or even attempt to play or sing in private, and many without natural performing gifts quite naturally find it irksome to practise. This should not exclude them from being eager listeners. If ability to draw was a requirement for appreciating a painting, I for one would never darken the doors of an art gallery.

This leads on to another danger - cultivating the myth of ‘musicality’; that only specially gifted people can enjoy great music. This is nonsense. In this country I am afraid that it is still respectable for an otherwise cultured person to display indifference to music on the grounds that they are ‘not musical’, but to be indifferent to art on the grounds of being ‘unartistic’, let alone to theatre on the grounds of being ‘undramatic’ would be to invite ridicule, and Heaven help those who are not familiar with Jane Austen, let alone Shakespeare. It cannot be said too often that there are no special gifts required to appreciate music. The abstract nature of the art means that music demands more effort and more single-minded concentration than the other arts, and music has no convenient handles to grab hold of, such as words and pictures, but for this very reason it can say things denied to any other form of expression. As for special gifts, it is a fact that ‘tone deafness’ (or, more correctly, amusia) is much rarer than blindness.

The greatest danger of all lies in giving too much importance to the activity of performance alone and too little to the quality of what is played. The act of performing is one of the best introductions to the whole art of music, and I myself came to love music through performing it. It was fascination with the engine room of the ship which led me eventually to take the world cruise, but it needed a performance of a great piece, in my case Brahms 4, to teach me to see beyond the end of a clarinet. And it is here that I must take issue with the proponents of the Music Manifesto, who, when they mention actual music at all, usually talk of ‘a range of musical experiences’, and use the oft-repeated phrase, ‘music of all styles and genres’, as if the difference between Elton John and Schubert were only one of kind, not of quality. After having attended the two days of the ‘State of Play’ conference in 2007, I can vouch for the delegates’ overwhelming enthusiasm for children’s performance, but there was little or no mention of the quality of what they played and sang. It was as if, having taught a child to read, a teacher was content for him or her never to progress beyond the Beano. At the end of the first day, and in a packed forum, the overwhelming vote against Julian Lloyd Webber’s advocacy of classical music came as no surprise.

In spite of some good intentions, the Music Manifesto does not address the real issue, and the ISM is right not to lower its sights by subscribing to it. The long term aim of music education must be no less than to inspire the new generation, not just through performance but also from inspired teaching, to value fine music as they are at present taught to value fine literature, regardless of whether or not they are active in it. You don’t need to be an actor to enjoy Twelfth Night. Primary school teachers can and should be trained in music as they are in any other subject, and music must be in the mainstream, not merely an out-of-school activity. Just as the influence of a good teacher guides the student along the path from FHM and Marie Claire to Thomas Hardy and Julian Barnes, so the new generation of students can be led from the simplicities of pop to those works of art which the genuine creators, composers from Monteverdi to Bartok and beyond, have given us. ISM members should be content with no less.

Clarinettist Colin Bradbury has been a member of the ISM since 1966 and was the Society’s President in 2006-07.