The Psychology of Music 2

last year

book

I thought I would follow through with some more music anecdotes and commentary on this present theme of The Psychology of Music.

In regard to ‘understanding’ music; by this I mean; psychologically being moved by it according more or less to learned rules or customs embedded in our minds; rules or customs which also reside in the tunes or melodies themselves; both the mind and the music as it were communing and aligning in a kind of psychic harmony. Yet as far as understanding music in this way goes – that is, with our whole bodies; sometimes music we are unused to can ‘go over our heads’.

But not as it being ‘too hard’ for us; rather more often it is too ‘new’ or ‘of too new a style’ when it is not appreciated or understood by us; and it can even be rejected by us because it makes us angry at its effrontery to have put itself forward as being music. There is plenty of evidence in music history to support this idea that our responses to ‘too new’ musics are at first anger and rejection; but yet these styles of music can be learned to be appreciated by way of acclimatising oneself over time to their ‘newness’.

In the simplest and most commonplace sense this idea can be illustrated by the experience most of us have in regard to hearing for the first time newly released popular songs. These fledgling songs and melodies, arrangements and harmonies, are able soon to become well known to us and their ‘languages’ understood; by them having ‘grown on a person’; so that a song and melody which passed you by when you first heard it; will gradually ‘educate’ you into its subtleties and its beauties; so that at first you begin to notice it and then soon you start to want to hear more of it. Maybe nearly everyone has had this kind of experience?

And again, there are some other ‘new ventures’ in music which have been misunderstood and violently rejected at their first outings – big-time. It is well known that Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ composition at its premier performance provoked rioting and confusion in its first audiences. It was received by them as an affront; a shock to their tastes and to their expectations; and was vilified as ‘primitive cacophony’ and considered a fraud and an utter failure.

Of course, in our day Stravinsky is considered a ground-breaking innovator; one who tapped into new ideas for Classical music; in taking up the new studies as influences; like those of anthropology and psychology. ‘Rite of Spring’ can be said to be the first piece of modern music; music which is inseparable from the society and outlook of post WW1 industrial nations.

It was written and performed first before WW1; but the modern age really begins with the post war years; the leap from genteel Victorianism into a business, technology and industry oriented world was bridged by the rapid rate of invention and ‘progress’ which that War stimulated. Mass society was born therein as a ‘feeling’.

Music like Stravinsky’s was music which at the time was not wanted to be heard. It offended the ear. Stravinsky was in fact retraining the ears of his listeners in new and fruitfuls direction for music; and it took time – years even.

Likewise, still with classical composers, Mahler’s works were not well understood at their first airings. Their textures were singular and disturbingly unfamiliar and ‘new’ or ‘modern’. Only by the insistence and support of a few adherents to his work did Mahler by the end of his lifetime become ‘established’ as a musician composer.

Then there are the examples of Vivaldi and of Bach. Ezra Pound himself championed Vivaldi and his works at about the same time (around WW1 and thereafter) and that work which seems to be on the end of every call you are left on hold with; Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – was unknown to Victorians and the 19th century in general. That seems to us now hard to believe – that such a work of great accomplishment and so generally pleasing to so many could have been ‘lost; in some Venetian or similar backwater archive for so many centuries.

Bach himself, perhaps the composer of composers, was neglected for many years once his works took a fall in popularity after his death (Such a fall seems to happen to every great artist immediately upon their deaths). But even when his works were resurrected and played everywhere; there remained some works of his which were considered even by the best critics as ‘teaching exercises’ and no more.

Bach’s solo cello suites in particular were ‘rescued’ from this status of being considered merely ‘teaching exercises’ during the mid 20th century. Nowadays they are prized as some of the finest parts of his oeuvre.

So like Abe Lincoln said; ‘You can’t fool all of the people all of the time’. Like truth greatness will out.

This is not to say that because greatness and truth win out in the end that no truth and no greatness has been lost to us over the ages. There are records of a fire at the great library at Alexandria in 2nd century, which destroyed perhaps thousands of ancient works of which no other copies have come down to the world today. Handel himself I believe lost works in a fire at his home; as did the dramatist Ben Jonson. A painted portrait of Winston Churchill by the eminent artist Graham Sutherland was destroyed by the Churchill family out of dislike for the ambience it appeared to put Churchill in.

And also undoubtedly there are treasures – in music and the other fine arts – to be discovered and unearthed, and also yet to be lost and/or fallen into neglect. In 2016 a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works was ‘discovered’ which had been unrecorded and not known by its owners to be in their library.

The doyen of 20th century poetry the great TS Eliot has taken a severe mauling from those who judge and assess these things since his death in the 1960s. Nonetheless his works have begun to work through the dudgeon and dismissal they suffered and are making an approach into their place in a permanent canon.

But back to music. Like many things in life, music, which we have said ‘jerks you about violently’ and emotionally in particular, but also thought-provokingly too; music and all the other arts and the social mores and customs, expectations and positions, etc, etc; all these things and more are part of ‘the cloud’ our minds subsist together inside (I use the term ‘cloud here in its Information Technology sense). As such our minds are not only supported by and in the ‘cloud’ but are melted into it and are absorbed from into it, and generally are reactive and responsive with and within it; and reciprocally the ‘cloud’ itself reacts and responds within itself, to our minds. We are carried along in this ‘cloud’ which moves amorphously and absorbs things and excretes things, as do we. For instance it was only a few years back that suicide and homosexuality were crimes under British law; yet now it is a crime to persecute homosexuals and suicide is being lobbied for by and in certain quarters and this lobby is quite respected and accepted by many of us among the ‘cloud’.

But like the weather (we even talk of the social and political and economic ‘climates’) the ‘cloud’ is not easily forecastable nor can it be controlled. It is like the Holy Spirit in the way that is ‘goes whither it list’ and we are like those who heed the motions of the Holy Spirit in that we are carried hither and thither by what comes our ways from it. This is true for us all to greater and lesser degrees.

Our ‘cloud’ is like a hive – it is our cultural and psychic home – and I can take this simile yet further and say that for much of our lives and for most of us this hive is a shelter and a barrier between us and what rests outside the hive or the ‘cloud’.

What I mean by this is that we human beings are pretty obsessed with ourselves and with what we, and others we follow, are up to. We get absorbed and involved and so commit to this general flurry of communication and interrogation and engagement with our activities as people and with people. We are an inward-looking species for the most part. We have our Facebook pals and our Twitter accounts and our coffees with friends; our iPhones and Androids, and our trips abroad or on cruises; all whereabouts we for the most part club or dance or drink and socialise our time away.

Very little of our time or thought is spent in consideration of what might be termed ’externals’ such as nature and learning (disinterested study) or on working on or thinking about problems other than our human relations’ problems. Hence we are ‘hive’ animals; animals who like to ‘data-mine the cloud’.

So; we are in a cloud; we don’t know where that cloud is heading; nor do we have more than a very little power over steering it. We also indulge that ‘cloud’ by making it our main and almost sole occupation, resource, and place of experience for enjoyment and sadness. The ‘cloud’ is amorphous and ever-changing unaccountably and without direction or care for quality or tendency for consolidation. It is almost an autonomous entity to which we all subscribe and go along with it. For the most part – and don’t let them tell you differently – it is like this for top politicians; for big industrialists; for what are called ‘opinion-formers’ and for other top of the tree persons who might claim or believe they make a difference.

Harold Wilson, a late and outstanding Prime Minister of the UK was asked; what was the most difficult thing about being a political leader? – and he answered sagely: ‘Events, dear boy, events’! How true indeed.

Music then is just one, a powerful one but just one, of many items in our lives which are capable of and do ‘jerk us around’, often violently and without us having control or often even knowledge of what is going on and what might be happening to us. Music can be pretty innocuous – as a pastime listening to or dancing to or singing it perhaps – but like other ‘jerkers around’ it can creep up and grab you and use you and steer you whilst you are occupied watching Bruce Willis or NCIS, X-Men or Watchmen – and most of the time you don’t even know it.

That travestied poet now rehabilitating, TS Eliot, believed and said that he thought that in the way everything we digest as food becomes us – we are what we eat – a rational and incontrovertible physical fact – everything we watch, hear, say, think, do, read, and use the mind for, or have the mind used by – all these things, he said, are like ‘mental food’ and we become – our minds become – what we digest from amongst it.

So we are back to Plato and Socrates and with their dictum again: ‘Know Thyself’, This is because the only remote chance we have of getting at least a little on top of the ‘cloud effect’ upon us, and so of seeing the wood beyond the trees, or as I have written before – of seeing the view at the front of Plato’s Cave or escaping the toils of The Matrix – is to Know Thyself.

But a word of caution. Knowing Oneself is not navel-gazing; it is not narcissism; it is not an egocentric occupation; nor does it aim to forward the self for the self’s, one’s own, sake. Here to round-off this piece of writing is for your enjoyment a set of verses by a very great man (not TS Eliot but a priest and a poet called George Herbert, who lived during the first half of the seventeenth century in England and Wales). It is titled ‘The Pearl’, which title refers to that ‘Pearl of Great Price’ which the Lord Jesus tells us of in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 8). It is a pearl for which a wealthy man sells everything he has to obtain enough money to buy it. The pearl is an emblem for The Kingdom of Heaven and the wealthy man is that person who like Matthew himself drops everything when:

Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. Matthew 9.9

This poem ‘The Pearl’ is about the attractions for persons of the variety and fun of those things to be found ‘in the cloud’. It is a mediation on these delights and on their attraction, and how they are what commonly occupy a lifetime. The poem is an address to his God; and address in which George Herbert sees beyond the draw and attractive busyness of being ‘in the cloud’ and perceives deeper that a life devoted to God and to attempting a life in image of God’s righteousness, is not only what is due and fitting before God; but it is also what is also most preferable and most real and fulfilling for himself – indeed the utmost fulfilment and realisation for a human purpose and lifetime.

George Herbert ‘The Pearl’

I know the ways of learning; both the head

And pipes that feed the press, and make it run;

What reason hath from nature borrowed,

Or of itself, like a good huswife, spun

In laws and policy; what the stars conspire,

What willing nature speaks, what forced by fire;

Both th’old discoveries and the new-found seas,

The stock and surplus, cause and history;

All these stand open, or I have the keys:

Yet I love thee.

I know the ways of honour; what maintains

The quick returns of courtesy and wit;

In vies of favours whether party gains

When glory swells the heart and moldeth it

To all expressions both of hand and eye,

Which on the world a true-love-knot may tie,

And bear the bundle wheresoe’er it goes;

How many drams of spirit there must be

To sell my life unto my friends or foes:

Yet I love thee.

I know the ways of pleasure; the sweet strains

The lullings and the relishes of it;

The propositions of hot blood and brains;

What mirth and music mean; what love and wit

Have done these twenty hundred years and more;

I know the projects of unbridled store;

My stuff is flesh, not brass; my senses live,

And grumble oft that they have more in me

Than he that curbs them, being but one to five:

Yet I love thee.

I know all these and have them in my hand;

Therefore not sealed but with open eyes

I fly to thee, and fully understand

Both the main sale and the commodities;

And at what rate and price I have thy love,

With all the circumstances that may move.

Yet through the labyrinths, not my grovelling wit,

But thy silk twist let down from heaven to me

Did both conduct and teach me how by it

To climb to thee

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