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Point of View 

We asked respected Australian
musician/composer, Greg Foster
to answer the following question...

Greg Foster

November 2007

The Question:
Is music essential or just an optional extra?


Response by Greg Foster share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

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 Australia)

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 granted.

If a 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 conversation.

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 wanking”.

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, ever?

I can’t!

© 2007 Greg Foster


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