by Barry Edelson


The Limits of Music

It may change how we feel,
but it doesn't change the world


On the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia's lovely capital, there is a large open-air theater where a national song festival is held every few years. It is a tradition that originated in the late 19th century, a period in which many of Europe's ethnic peoples experienced a "national awakening." With its presumed capacity to arouse strong feelings of national unity, the festival is given a special prominence in the tiny nation's long history of subjugation by one or another of its powerful neighbors. For example, the festival held in 1988 was a major catalyst in the Estonian version of the Velvet Revolution, which led directly to the demise of the Soviet empire. Or so visitors are told.

Music is a part of almost everyone's life, and essential to the mental well-being of many. There are those (including yours truly) for whom a life devoid of music would present a prospect of unremitting desolation. But though its effects on human emotions are undeniable, what makes us so susceptible to it, and to the belief that it has lasting effects on our lives? Despite numerous scientific studies that have catalogued music's myriad neurological foundations and confirmed its ubiquity among the human species, its psychological impact remains largely a mystery. Moreover, whether the effects of music alter us in any measurable or permanent way is highly questionable. Whether alone at home or part of an assembly of thousands in a concert hall or arena, listening to music can be very moving, particularly if the music in question has extra-musical associations. Music that arouses patriotic fervor, or merely generational or cultural awareness, can produce strong emotional reactions in its listeners. We are deeply affected even by observing other people's response to music, as in the now well-known "random acts of culture" in public places. Even the music of another nation can be inexplicably moving. For example, watch a video of the final night of Britain's annual Proms concerts, and see if you can resist tearing up when the entire audience in the vast reaches of the Royal Albert Hall breaks into "Land of Hope and Glory."

We will leave it to philosophers or neurobiologists to explain how cultural touchtones and their symbolic representations, ingrained from an early age, can set off cascades of feelings in our brains. The pertinent question is to what degree music shapes not only our individual emotions, but the world. Is it truly capable of altering the social or political landscape? Are we to believe that it has the power to move nations?

The question could be dismissed as irrelevant if not for the claims that musicians and listeners make for it. Estonians presumably gather at their song festival in the tens of thousands, not to be entertained, but for the express purpose of sharing strong feelings about their country. Similarly, people gather in Central Park on the anniversary of John Lennon's death, not because they miss him personally or just liked his music, but because they believe that his music genuinely made a difference in the world. They ought to have noticed, however, that world peace has not broken out because "Imagine" has been heard half a billion times. Granted, it is more than a bit much to expect a piece of music to have a salient effect on world affairs, but that does not stop some from believing that it can in fact have such an effect. Lennon's lyrics, in this song in particular, were not written to entertain, but to make us reflect on our lives and our place in society. But one would be hard pressed to find a great many listeners who have given up their worldly possessions because his song strongly suggests that the world would be a much better place if we all did just that.

Last week, the conductor Daniel Barenboim put together an ensemble of European orchestral musicians and led a concert in Gaza, much to the dismay of the Israeli government, and probably to the disgust of many Israelis. The purpose of the concert was — what exactly? To show a different face of the Palestinians to the world, that of a normal people of ordinary music lovers? To demonstrate solidarity with their cause, which is evidently the same reason why Barenboim holds a Palestinian passport? It is naive to imagine that a concert of classical music could have a meaningful effect on an immensely complex conflict between two bitter enemies, one that has confounded the efforts of some of the world's best diplomats for decades. Perhaps it wasn't intended to change anything, but one would be hard pressed to imagine any reason to engage in so provocative an exercise just to entertain an infinitesimally tiny minority of the territory's people. By all means, if people in Gaza or any other downtrodden place want to hear Mozart, let us bring it to them. But let us not suppose that such an event, or any other cross-cultural efforts like the musical or theater companies of mixed Israeli and Palestinian youth that spring up from time to time, will make the slightest difference to the course of their desperately intertwined history.

Those who follow Barenboim's career, or the recent history of classical music, will know that he has been a lightning rod for a while. Notably, 10 years ago he played a piece by Richard Wagner in a concert in Israel, after decades in which the German composer's works were treated as strictly taboo by that country's professional musicians. The performance caused a considerable stir both inside the concert hall and in the media thereafter. There are persuasive arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. To be concise: did the Nazi's adoption of Wagner's works make him an accomplice to genocide, or did the composer's death a half century before the rise of Hitler absolve him of complicity, and render him no worse than any other anti-Semitic artist whose works are not subject to such a ban? Or is the emotionally wrenching association of Wagner with the death camps for Holocaust survivors sufficient reason to keep him out of the concert halls? Wherever you come down on this issue, one argument cannot convincingly be made: that playing Wagner, or any other composer's music, changes anything materially in the social and political world with which we are engaged incessantly when we are not listening to music.

The problem, then, would seem to be two-fold. First, during the time when one is absorbed in listening to music, the concerns of the world may fade from consciousness, and it may even seem possible that one will re-emerge into a better world as a result of the experience. But as soon as the music stops, no matter how deeply one may have been affected by the experience of listening, the conviction that one has been permanently changed is mere supposition. Second, whatever capacities music has to console, enlighten, arouse feeling or inspire thought in the individual, its effect on the collective consciousness is highly dubious. You may think that you are feeling the same emotion or thinking the same thoughts as all the other people in the theater who are engrossed in the same piece at the very same moment, but you cannot possibly know that. One person may interpret the heroism of a character in a Wagnerian opera as an inspiration to live selflessly, while another at the same performance may hear it as an incitement to mass murder. Furthermore, while lyrics may be infused with moral judgment, music by its very nature is morally neutral. It is self-evidently possible to be profoundly moved by rhythm, melody or harmony, independent of words or any other extra-musical associations, but any attempt to correlate such emotional responses to specific real-life changes is futile even for one individual, let alone for great masses of the listening public. The Estonians may suppose that singing brought on their revolution, but the geopolitical forces that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union must surely have played a part in it, too.

The complexity of our response to music suggests a neurological basis for the conviction, however unsubstantiated, that music changes our lives. Researchers have found that the various aspects of music — rhythm, tone perception, emotional response, language processing, and so on — are dispersed in many different parts of the brain, which may explain why those who suffer severe brain injuries or disease often retain their responsiveness to music. Patients with advanced dementia, who can barely function mentally or physically, have been known to play the piano and sing a song from their distant youth — and, astonishingly, often in the same key in which they originally heard it. How could such a person's life, when not engaged in the musical moment, be different in any way? Music can wring the full range of human emotion from our souls, and we may be unable to imagine getting through life without it. But it can't broker peace, or write a constitution.

May 21, 2011


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