Music. What is it good for? (Old Words #1)


I first heard The House of the Rising Sun as a child, one night in bed, when I was supposed to be going to sleep. I’d recently been given a big old radio, the size of a toaster, and I was turning its Bakelite knob when this sound came out of the static. I didn’t know then that the musicians called themselves The Animals, but the name was well chosen. I don’t like to speak of ‘impact’ where art is concerned, because it gives a falsely one-sided idea of what happens in artistic experience, but hearing that sound really was like being struck. The guitar’s electric opening notes, the singer’s lived-in voice, the acidic, swirling organ, the complicated storytelling (a woman’s tragedy re-cast as a man’s) and the arrangement that builds through layers of pain and despair—I had literally never heard anything like it. 

Nor had anyone else. Even Bob Dylan, who’d recorded the song on his first album three years earlier, says he jumped out of his seat when he heard it on a car radio.[i] That record, which topped the British and American pop charts in the summer of 1964, was like a meteorite that smashed into music and sent it spinning away on a completely new course. It did so not only because of its own musical power but also because of how people responded to it. Both its creation and its effect are inseparable from its time and place: lucky Animals, lucky listeners. This duality—a kind of creative cooperation between speaker and hearer that exists in all art forms—should be understood by every artist, but especially by those who hope to pass on a knowledge and love of art through education. 

Hearing The Animals’ recording of The House of the Rising Sun changed my life, not because anyone intended that it would, but because of how I reacted to the experience. It introduced me to ways of responding to, expressing and sharing what it is to be alive of which I, as a child, was completely unaware. It began a lifelong relationship with music that has been incalculably rewarding. It has led me continually to seek out new musical experiences, to learn about music practically and theoretically, and to reflect on what it means to me personally and to human beings socially, philosophically and culturally. If I draw on my own experience to reflect on those questions, it is not because there is anything special about that experience but precisely because it is, like everyone else’s, both ordinary and unique: a regular marvel. But, by placing myself in this story, I intend also to work with a core truth about art, which is simply that it is always, inescapably and wonderfully, personal. It exists only in our minds and so, paradoxically, it is one of the best ways we have of reaching out to one another in our ultimate aloneness. 


Music, which has no permanent or visible existence, is an art form particularly well suited to exploring those ideas because it is impossible to mistake the art for the object that enables its transmission. Music is not an instrument, a score, a recital, a record or a gig, though these and many other technical and social means enable its creation and distribution. Music is not a performance, or even the recording of a performance. It can exist without a musician, though a human intelligence must at least start the ball rolling. We cannot know how other animals conceive of the sounds they make, so calling birdsong music is a form of anthropomorphism; still, as Olivier Messiaen knew, such interpretations are just one more way of creating music, Another French composer, Edgard Varèse, defined music as ‘organised sound’. It is a beautiful phrase that, unlike almost every other definition of art, manages to be clear, unpretentious and genuinely universal, crossing cultures in time and space. But it is also a deceptively simple idea that requires some unpacking. 

Let’s take the second word first: sound. What I heard in Hilton Valentine’s guitar arpeggios, still one of the most recognisable openings in recorded music, was pure sound. And it was thrilling. I’m good with words, but I cannot explain why that sound is exciting and moving, why it gave me pleasure to hear. I just loved it, instantly and deeply, the way one can like an arrangement of colour or the taste of olives. Music’s nature as sound gives it some distinctive qualities as an art form. Although it cannot be seen, music is physical and can produce instant and powerful effects on our bodies. It can calm and reassure, excite or even be experienced as a violent assault that will make us cover our ears. It has, it’s lamentable to say, been used as an instrument of torture. No other art form affects us in such immediate, non-rational and physical ways. But if its effects can be instant, they can also demand time. You can stroll through a gallery and think you have seen an exhibition because you’ve glanced for a few seconds at the paintings. You can train yourself to skim read texts. But there is no such thing as speed listening. It is not possible to hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony without giving an hour and ten minutes to it, and you might have to repeat the experience to get much from it. At the same time. it is easy to hear it without listening. We speak of background music, but not background novels or theatre. All art rewards attention, but in none is the spectrum of possible engagement as broad as it is in music. Music really is what we make of it. There’s no accounting for taste, as has been proverbially said for centuries. How we hear music is a personal experience that can neither be explained nor justified. However, because of the second part of Varèse’s definition, because we are human beings who create meaning through organisation, we do try very hard to do both. 

It is in organisation that sound becomes music. Organisation changes everything. It can make sounds enjoyable that we would otherwise avoid. People who love Neil Young’s guitar feedback might cross the road if they heard the sound coming from a building site. It is organisation that makes sound tell stories and evoke feelings. It is what can make hearing the Quattro Pezzi Sacri a religious experience for some people, although Verdi was, according to his second wife, ‘a man of little faith’. It is organisation that can make music—an essentially abstract art—inflame people’s feelings to dangerous degrees. There have been riots after concerts, and banning records remains a divisive issue, as the BBC found when Margaret Thatcher’s enemies pushed Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead, to second place in the pop charts. It is organisation that has made music an instrument of war, from ancient horns to the drums and trumpets of Waterloo. The role of turbo-folk in expressing nationalism during the Yugoslavia wars in the 1990s remains so contested that the Wikipedia article on the subject has its own dispute page. It is organisation, in short, that gives sound meaning, and so turns it into music, into art, like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, all his power held in the meaning of his meaningless name. Organisation is the difference between sound and music. 


But music is, before anything else and after everything else, a source of pleasure. If we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t create it or listen to it. But I want to go a bit further, perhaps too far, and suggest that, of all the arts, music is particularly hard to respond dishonestly to. Because its physical impact on our bodies is immediate and non-rational, we know whether we like something almost before we’re aware of hearing it. Many years ago, when Radio 1’s playlist had more cultural significance than it does today, I was shocked to hear a producer say that he knew from the first ten seconds of a record whether it was worth hearing any more. Now I think he just meant that if he didn’t like a song for the station in its opening bars, he knew that what followed would not change his mind. So, on reflection, perhaps that is a kind of speed listening. The point is that it’s very difficult to persuade someone to listen to music they don’t like. 

For much of my life I thought classical music was tedious and worthy. I knew it was supposed to be great art, that it had given deep pleasure to countless people for centuries, and that it was central to any understanding of Western culture. But if someone put on Mozart or Fauré the music would wash past me unnoticed. If I did try to listen, I could find nothing there to hold my attention. Its sounds brought none of the visceral pleasure I found elsewhere. But my lack of interest was not due to lack of exposure, despite what many arts educators believe. I was taken to concerts as a child—I remember one interminable weekend at a harpsichord festival, when I can’t have been more than eight—and one of my siblings was training to be a violinist. Later, the desire to please a girlfriend could make me sit and listen, but orchestral music remained boring. Then in middle age, inexplicably, classical music spoke to me, and for a while I was so enthralled that I listened to nothing else. For whatever unfathomable reasons, I was ready for it.

That is why music is not very price sensitive. I paid £75 to see Leonard Cohen at Manchester Opera House, and thought it a bargain: I wouldn’t give you 50p for Madonna. There are musicians you couldn’t pay me to hear. We can pretend, to ourselves and to others, that we like art or culture that actually we don’t much enjoy—and we do, because of the social pressure to be seen as a certain kind of person. It’s not so hard to wander through the latest exhibition or feign interest in some cool TV show, but sitting through a concert we don’t like is something else. We might pay tribute to music we don’t listen to, much as I suspect more MPs claim to read Trollope than really do, but we know what we like. Our record collections or Spotify playlists tell the truth. 

So that’s another thing that music is good for: finding out who we are. As we grow up, we discover music that gives us pleasure and is meaningful. In doing so, we work out what kind of people we are, what we believe and care for and, by extension, what we don’t. In saying that I’d prefer Leonard Cohen to Madonna, I’m not just expressing a taste. I’m defining, at least in part, a cultural, ethical and intellectual world I identify with and another that I reject. Of course, human beings are very complex. Many people enjoy Co-hen and Madonna, at different times, in different ways and for different reasons. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that it was the sign of a first-class mind to be able to hold two contradictory ideas at once. I think he was flattering himself: people do it all the time. Our minds are capacious and we can stuff in all sorts of inconsistent ideas to be drawn on as and when wanted. And when it comes to our tastes, there are equally broad variations. The music I like is organised in a complicated and changeable ranking that embraces all sorts of ideas and feelings. Recently, I’ve been listening to Joe Henry, whom I’ve found difficult in the past, because of a remarkable radio interview with him by Krista Tippett. Perhaps the most important distinction is between music I’ve liked throughout my life and music that I loved at a particular time, with which it is always associated but that I don’t need or want to listen to any more. Its importance now lies in the distance it marks between who I am and who I was, or between who I am consistently and who I’ve tried out being, to see what it felt like. 

So music is a powerful way of understanding, defining and testing identity. When I was young, friendships were made on the basis of shared musical enthusiasms. Being the only kids in school who like Kevin Coyne is to be in a club whose members hold secret knowledge and can look down on the sad types who prefer Eric Clapton or Wishbone Ash. What’s exciting and frightening, when you’re young, is the changeability of identity as you explore, discover and outgrow different ways of being in the world, different groups with which to identify. Music allows us to learn not just about ourselves but also about people who may be very different from us. The House of the Rising Sun is the story of a New Orleans prostitute, though it took me a long time to get it and longer still to know enough of the life of black women in segregation America to appreciate the song’s full bitterness. What understanding I have of black people’s experience has been partly shaped by listening to Chuck Berry and Nina Simone, Gil Scott Heron and Mavis Staples, Joan Armatrading and Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tiken Jah Fakoly and Archie Roach. I could say as much of many other lives and identities, many other ways of being human, that are different from the particular one that is mine. Music has taught me as much, perhaps more, about other people’s experience as any art form. And it has done so as a friend, never as a teacher. It has been experiential learning—exciting, passionate and some of the best fun I’ve had between my ears. 


So, music can bring intense, immediate pleasures, it can create and share meaning, it can guide us to understanding honestly who we are and who we have been, it can establish bonds of solidarity and it can help us know, however incompletely, what it is to be someone else, to have experiences we will, can, never have. And it does all that in ways that no other art form can do—not better, but differently. Surely, that quick run through some of what music can give is enough to say what it is good for. 

Yes and no. For most people it’s more than enough, since they’ve no need to have it explained to them. They play and listen to, share and enjoy music without official help or permission, and I’m sure they will for as long as there are people. The explanations aren’t needed by anyone who loves music. They’re needed by administrators, policy-makers and governments who set out for complicated reasons, some better than others, to encourage the creation, teaching and social enjoyment of music. That encouragement takes many forms and touches aspects of musical life as different as the arts, broadcasting and the creative industries, but the area of most immediate concern today is music education. And now I step onto even thinner ice than has supported me thus far. I’m not a teacher or even very knowledgeable about educational theory or practice. I also carry the memory of a mediocre music education, that consisted mostly of having to listen to records and being sent out of the choir for singing flat. Even at the age of 12, I could see that it was the teacher’s job to show me how to sing better, not dismiss me as unteachable. Where was Gareth Malone when I needed him? 

I mention that experience not to embarrass any teachers here but to explain how ill-equipped I am to speak about what you do in the classroom. I’ve long thought that one of the problems faced by educationalists is dealing with people like me, who filter their understanding of teaching through their own out of date experience. Why do we believe that what happened to us in the 1960s or 1970s is any kind of guide to what children need in first quarter of the 21st century? Only because these were, literally, formative experiences and because most of us haven’t spent more than minutes in school since then. 

But if I can’t offer any insights from the educator’s perspective, I can say something about what I’ve learned in 35 years as a community artist and researcher, working with and listening to thousands of people involved with music. At the heart of that is the question of what music and art generally is for, what value it brings to our lives. I’ve spoken about pleasure, meaning, emotional bonds and the capacity to help us understand ourselves and others, but our utilitarian culture requires more from its investment in formal and informal education. It wants to know how the arts can develop skills, competencies, social cohesion and economic potential. So let me turn briefly to that question, with the caveat that music would have no value there if it did not already have the vital qualities that I have described. 

It’s more than 20 years since I began researching the social outcomes of participating in the arts, and much has happened in the intervening years. My original hope was to understand better what I had observed through my practice as a community arts worker. I’d seen at first-hand how much people’s artistic and social experiences could mean to them, and the many changes that followed. I believed—and still do—that these were important aspects of what we all get from social participation in general and from the arts in particular, but I had a lot to learn, practically and theoretically, about what happened and why. Between 1995 and 1997 I led a research project with others, based around a series of case studies of community-based arts activity from the Outer Hebrides to Portsmouth. The resulting report, Use or Ornament?, was published in 1997 and it established concepts about the social outcomes of participation in the arts that still shape thinking about these questions today. It has been praised and critiqued, but its rather cautious conclusions have not been shown to be wrong. And though my thinking has developed a lot since then, I think it remains broadly true, as I wrote 18 years ago, that:

Participation in arts activities brings social benefits; the benefits are integral to the act of participation; the social impacts are complex but understandable; social impacts can be assessed and planned for. 

From ‘Use or Ornament?’

But note the difference between the suggestion that something can be planned and that it can be planned for: the first is directive, while the second is enabling. I believe, as I said then, that the creativity, openness and elasticity of the arts are the roots of their social outcomes and that both good art and good outcomes depend on creating an environment for success rather than trying to produce certain results. I see no reason why that should not be as true in the classroom as anywhere else.

Children benefit greatly from participating in music—intellectually, creatively, socially and in other ways. These outcomes will be very familiar to community musicians and teachers and do not need repeating here. The important question is not whether participation in the arts brings benefits—I should be interested in any research showing that it did not—but how and why those benefits emerge. What I didn’t understand in 1997, or for many years after, was that my suggestion that benefits exist and can be planned for (in the sense of being taken into account when planning a project or a lesson) would be interpreted as saying that these benefits exist and can be delivered. The consequences of that misreading have been problematic, in my view, for both policy and practice. 

Nothing worth having about artistic experiences can be delivered. It can only be enabled. Let me take you back to the ten year old child hearing The House of the Rising Sun for the first time. It’s not just that The Animals didn’t intend to produce any effect in me or any other listener, other than to excite and give pleasure. It’s that to do even that was absolutely beyond their control. They could only arrange, perform and record the best music they could. What any of us made of it, whether we liked it or not, whether it electrified the British invasion of the American charts begun by the Beatles, whether it would be played at a conference fifty years later—all that was down to the listeners not the musicians. And the same is true of every other kind of music, including what is played in classrooms. The only thing a musician can control, and that’s all but impossible already, is how well and how creatively they play. The only thing a music teacher can control is how well and how creatively they play with their music resources. The rest is up to those who listen, and the reasons they might want to include, but are not limited to, those I’ve already mentioned: for pleasure and delight, for feeling and excitement, for meaning, personal and shared, for the windows music opens in our own hearts and lives and into those of people who are so different from us and yet perhaps more similar than we know. If we trust music to do that, and work at enabling it to do its work as well as we can, the rest will follow. People will get the multiple, complex and enriching experiences from it that make sense to them, not what the musician or the politician might, even with the best of intentions, believe they should get. Music, and its benefits, can only be allowed to happen. It cannot be forced. 

In the 1970s, at a time when we were less anxious about many things than we are today, there was a vogue for adventure playgrounds in which young people could scramble about, get dirty, build dens and invent games with only minimal adult supervision. It was a good idea, I think: we all need a bit of freedom and wildness, if we are to grow. Most of the adventure playgrounds have gone or been sanitised to meet the standards of today’s more fearful culture. Music, though, cannot be tamed. It is one of our very best adventure playgrounds. 

Music. What is it good for? Playing.