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Monday, 30 May 2011

Monday Musings: What’s So Good About Music?

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The critic explains.

I’ve been thinking back recently to my abortive attempt to train as a secondary school music teacher, and the furious bout of self-examination it induced. The process, which was not a positive one, but from which I learned a great deal, forced me to question, and explicitly articulate the value that I place on music. This is a very interesting question: most people will not be able to provide you with a coherent response, and there is clearly no single answer, any more than there is one single music. I intend to simply set out my view, and explore what questions are raised by the issue.
I came to realise early in my training that I disagree radically with the way that music is valued by ‘society at large’, and by academic institutions in particular. The ways that music is valued in a British secondary school are basically good ones: it is valued as a creative art form, a cultural artifact, a professional skill set, and an academic discipline. As I began to think through why it all seemed so wrong to me, my first realisation was that it would be very hard to inculcate an enthusiasm for music in most children on any of these bases: so long as music is conceived as ‘cultural’, ‘professional’ or ‘academic’, it will seem to be exclusive and other. Even in the sense of a creative art, most people see music as the exclusive preserve of the ‘talented’. So what is it that I think is so wrong with this picture?
I would contend that music is more than all these things: I believe it is a basic human faculty. It is my belief that music is as fundamental an aspect of our humanity as speech, conceptual reasoning or tool use. Music is the recognition, exploitation, reproduction, manipulation and enjoyment of patterns in sound. Finding and using patterns is what we do: when we learn or analyse anything we are recognising pattern, and this fundamental behaviour as applied to sound is not just expressed in music, but in language, and therefore in thought. Put simply, if we didn’t enjoy playing with sounds, we would not have learned to talk, and without names for things we could not have developed a capacity for abstract thought, or become self-aware in the way that we understand the term.
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