Point of View
We asked respected Australian
to answer the following question...
Is music essential or just an optional extra?
by Greg Foster
Music is definitely much more than just an optional extra.
It doesn't matter which of the thousands of cultures of the world you
consider, every single one of them, without exception, has music in some
form as an integral part of its make-up, and often at its very heart.
Doesn't this tell you that music is necessary and perhaps even essential
to humankind? Creativity is one of the prime qualities that defines
humanity compared to the rest of life on earth, and one of the first
expressions of man's creativity was surely through some form of music.
Over hundreds of thousands of years, as homo-sapiens spread from the
source of humanity somewhere in East Africa to all corners of the globe
(Does a globe have corners?), evolving and developing into races, sects
and cultures, languages also developed and diversified but the first
form of language was most probably music and it is still considered “the
universal language of mankind” (Longfellow). Music just seems to be a natural extension of spoken
language or perhaps, in fact, music came first and languages arose out
of it! Steven Mithen in his book, "The Singing Neanderthals", refers to
Neanderthals as having a kind of humming communication that was almost
like proto music, which may have preceded language. It is thought that
"music may have increased cooperative survival strategies in early
humans and helped define kinships and delimit tribal boundaries." (Alan
Harvey, professor of neurosciences at the University of Western
Music transcends the boundaries of ethnicity and overlaps physical
borders, and provides the common ground for mutual understanding that
other forms of language cannot. Music can “express” emotions and
feelings. It can be exciting, relaxing, dramatic, majestic, sad, awe
inspiring, humourous and countless other adjectives describing the gamut
of human experience. How does music do this? Isn’t it just a collection
of sounds and rhythms arranged in various combinations at different
speeds and dynamics? Somehow it “magically” gives audible expression to
intangible components of the human psyche. It excites, releases or
activates these in a way we don’t really understand but just take for
competent musician from Istanbul, one from Iceland, one from Siberia,
one from Tierra Del Fuego and one from Australia got together they would
be able, without any other form of spoken language, to create a musical
It makes you wonder why some folk get so precious about “their” music.
You hear “Classical music is for snobs”, “Country music is too
plebeian”, “Rock and Roll is vulgar”, “Jazz is a load of intellectual
Even within the various genres of music there are factions. I remember
many years ago I was playing with a traditional jazz band to a Jazz Club
crowd of mainly “jazz purists” and the band leader called “Watermelon
Man”. We played it and afterwards one of the organizers complained. He
said “That’s not jazz”. For people like him “real jazz” had finished
developing with King Oliver & His Dixie Syncopators. What jazz is and
what it’s not would be an interesting area to explore but that is
another topic, another question to be asked and answered.
In my view there are only two kinds of music…Good and Bad!
Just as an exercise, keep an open mind and go out and listen to a band
playing the kind of music you don’t really like. If they are respected
musicians in their particular genre I think you will appreciate that, if
it is well played, it is “good” music.
Each genre of music reflects an aspect or stratum of society, provides a
glimpse at the pace, colour and cultural depth of the life and times
from which it sprang. Each genre is intrinsically entwined in the lives
and cultures of the people of its period. Even short-lived experimental
musical trends had their followers and devotees which gives them
legitimacy as an indication of historical modes of thinking.
It is, however, also interesting to note that although a type of music
may be associated with a historical era, some music never sounds dated.
When performed today it sounds just as fresh as it did at its inception.
In my view this quality sets music apart from most other art forms.
Music also seems to have a
connection with the natural laws of the universe just like mathematics,
physics and other pure sciences. You only have to examine the modulating
sequences of one of J.S. Bach’s 2 or 3 part inventions to witness the
combination of aesthetic beauty and structural perfection. This could be
compared, in visual terms, to the beauty and structural symmetry of a
flower or crystal.
It is believed by many that music has healing powers. It is certainly
true that music, thoughtfully composed and performed, can help to
relieve the stress of life’s pressures. It is thought that certain types
of music organised and ordered in specific ways can be a helpful therapy
for children with ADHD, autism and other learning disorders. It can be
used by music therapists to help disturbed individuals to create order
and a positive direction out of the chaos in their minds. Music can be
used to help induce the trance-like state of meditation. Monotonous
rhythms and repeated bass lines can induce a hypnotic effect on masses
of people, possibly by mimicking the rhythms and tones of natural
metabolic processes. Music is used to enhance religious experience. It
is also well known to enhance romantic urges. It is used to great effect
in movies to invoke the appropriate response in the audience, the fear
and apprehension in a horror movie, the fun and laughter in a comedy.
Appropriate music can help create the historical perspective and
ambience in a period piece. The enormous power of music is realised in
advertising. It is used to create moods and even to encourage the
desired clientele to enter a shop and buy its products, which brings me
to the down side of the use of music today…
The only negative that occurs to me about music today is that it is
difficult to escape it. Everywhere you go music is being played - in
lifts, in shops, in restaurants, in hotels, in cars, on radio, on TV,
via ipods attached to ears everywhere. I’m not sure that this kind of
sensory overload is necessarily a good thing.
It is important to remember that music is made up of both sound and
silence. The rests are just as important as the notes. Likewise, in
life, silence is essential at times and I’m sure we would appreciate
music more if we were not bombarded by it 24/7. However you may decide
to abandon the quest for silence altogether if you listen to avant-garde
composer John Cage. He exploited the notion that silence is impossible
in his most notorious composition, “4′33″, a piece consisting of just
over four and a half minutes of silence. He conceived the idea for this
piece after finding that in the quietest place imaginable, an anechoic
chamber which is designed to absorb all sound, he could still hear the
high pitch of his own nervous system and the low pitched rhythm of his
blood circulating. Without going to this extreme though, if you go out
into the bush and stop and consciously allow silence to permeate your
space you may notice, if you listen closely, that nature provides its
own music. This natural source of music has, throughout the ages, in
many ways inspired or even been incorporated into musical composition,
as has, although possibly at the subconscious, subliminal level, the
rhythmic processes within the human body experienced by Cage.
Music is not just an optional extra. It is an essential element in the
myriad facets of human existence.
Can you possibly imagine what life would be like with no music at all,
© 2007 Greg Foster
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