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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is Music Useless?

In the discourse over music and sustainability, one of the important questions is "What is music for?" This question is related to the larger question, "What is music," but the ethnomusicologist's answer to that one, "Music is humanly organized sound," isn't controversial. What is controversial concerns the purposes of music, for many defenders of the arts believe in "art for art's sake," which is to say that arts have no instrumental purpose, no usefulness, beyond the aesthetic pleasure a person experiences when understanding and appreciating great art. And so the job of the artist is to create, of the art critic and historian to evaluate and help interpret, and of the consumer or receiver to gain pleasure. Some say the experience of great art is ennobling, that it raises one's spirit to undertand and appreciate the masterful achievement of great art in terms of its wondrous structure or its meaning (or both). The result is the arts appreciation industry, with everything from concerts and recordings and museum displays and architectural monuments, historic preservation, and college courses that teach appreciation, discrimination, and taste, leading to patronage.

Of course, the art for art's sake argument concerns only the "fine" arts. Popular and folk arts are thought to be sullied by purpose: the popular arts are commodified, the purpose is to sell objects to consumers; the folk arts have "functions" such as community bonding, and so forth. But this is not regarded as great art. Popular and folk music are granted, in this view, usefulness; but the high arts are somehow pure in their intentionality, freed from external purpose to be themselves alone.

As an ethnomusicologist, I am willing to let the apologists for the so-called fine arts make their arguments, even though I think they are weak. But I want to stop them when they take classical music as their only case in point. Throughout the world, music is purposeful in ritual; it opens a channel to and mediates with the divine world: it communicates from the human to the divine, whether a Christian hymn of praise or a Kaluli weeping song about birds. Any song is a powerful marriage of semantic meaning (through its words) with complementary sounds that take on the meaning of the words. True, some classical music is "absolute," free from words and the human voice, made only on musical instruments, and without apparent use except as an aesthetic experience. Yet much classical music involves this marriage of words and melody. Bach would have been puzzled to hear a philosopher praise his music as useless. While it is true that his fugues and suites are examples of absolute music, his cantatas and masses are not: they are vocal, purposeful, and semantically meaningful. In fact, for most of classical music's history, vocal music was dominant. Thus the circular argument that is sometimes advanced in defense of absolute music, that it is a fine art and therefore not subject to the purposes and functions that compromise the pure aesthetic experience of popular or folk music, does not even hold for all classical music. Some music, then, may appear useless; but most is meant to be useful. Is it all worth sustaining?

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