“IS MUSIC such a serious business?” So asked Franz Joseph, the Austrian emperor, at the end of the 19th century after a performance of new music in Vienna. “I always thought”, he continued, “it was meant to make people happy.”
Contrary to expectation, interest in classical music (the happy or serious kind) may be on the up. A recent YouGov poll optimistically found that, in Britain, those under 25 were as keen to learn about it as those over 55. In China, between 30m and 100m children are learning to play the piano or the violin. The Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu alone is said to have more than 14,000 students.
However, classical music composed during the 20th century still has a reputation for being too difficult, too serious and too perplexing. Experimenting with atonality, microtonality, electronic distortion of sound and the role of chance: the developments favoured by the more innovative 20th-century composers do not make for easy listening. In concert-hall programmes and orchestral schedules in Britain and America works by Arnold Schoenberg, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Gyorgy Ligeti are almost always sandwiched between better-known and loved pieces by Beethoven or Brahms. It is as if an evening of 20th-century composition, even by a famous name, still needs its spoonful of sugar.
“The Rest is Noise”, a year-long festival that is due to start on January 19th at London’s Southbank Centre, hopes to change all that. Inspired by the 2007 book of the same name by Alex Ross, a music critic at the New Yorker, more than 250 events and 100 concerts—starting with Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome” (pictured), and finishing with “El Niño”, an oratorio by a contemporary American composer, John Adams—will trace the arc of music composed in the 20th century.
Academics, curators, theatre directors, composers and writers are all giving talks on related topics: the invention of the production line, the influence of jazz on classical music, and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Over the course of the year 18 orchestras will perform and the London Philharmonic, the leading orchestral partner, has dedicated its 2013 season exclusively to music that was written in the 1900s.
It is an audacious move. As Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre explains, concert series are usually held around “the journey of a composer’s life, or how they may have taken their references from a previous composer.” This is the first to do so through the “march of history”, grappling with how music was coloured by, say, Weimar Berlin or 1920s Paris, the two world wars or by the New Deal in America in the 1930s. It is a way, says Ms Kelly, of “giving context to classical music, which has so often talked about itself in relation to itself.”
Those familiar with Mr Ross’s book will not be surprised that it has inspired a festival. “The Rest is Noise”, which was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, always seemed bigger than its parts, even as it skilfully condensed the history of the 20th century through its music. The original manuscript had to be cut in half, and the book was eventually accompanied by a website, where visitors could listen to selected tracks and read more of Mr Ross’s essays. And although Mr Ross’s gift as a critic lies in his ability to write about music so lucidly that you can almost hear it, this festival will bring to life his belief, as he writes in the book, that “unlike a novel or a painting, a score gives up its full meaning only when it is performed in front of an audience.”
Specialist festivals apart, however, it is still unusual to have a concert series solely dedicated to modern music. Vladimir Jurowski, the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, admits that the Southbank festival will offer “a much more austere menu” than is usually common, something that may not appeal to everyone—at least at first.
Mr Ross senses increasing openness to the modern repertoire, but “it depends on where you are”. That is as true of New York as it is of London or Berlin. At the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan, he feels “a sense from the audience around me that there’s an old automatic…bigoted and prejudicial response to this music…It is a very frustrating attitude; people have grown up with it, and it can be devilishly hard to persuade them to evolve away from it.”
Ms Kelly is confident that the festival will go some way to persuade reluctant listeners. “Audiences who are interested in geopolitics, the history of the 20th century, the economic situation [can find] a route via these things, for them to care who Bela Bartok was.” Mr Jurowski is even more confident of the enlightened attitude of his audience. “My next aspiration would be to do a year that consists solely of music written in the 21st century. But I would need somebody else to write a new book first.”
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Many scholars have discussed potential functions of music exclusively from a theoretical point of view. The most prominent of these approaches or theories are the ones that make explicit evolutionary claims. However, there are also other, non-evolutionary approaches such as experimental aesthetics or the uses-and-gratifications approach. Functions of music were derived deductively from these approaches and theories. In addition, in the literature, one commonly finds lists or collections of functions that music can have. Most of these lists are the result of literature searches; in other cases authors provide no clear explanation for how they came up with the functions they list. Given the aim of assembling a comprehensive list, all works are included in our summary.
Functions of music as they derive from specific approaches or theories
Evolutionary approaches. Evolutionary discussions of music can already be found in the writings of Darwin. Darwin discussed some possibilities but felt there was no satisfactory solution to music's origins (Darwin, 1871, 1872). His intellectual heirs have been less cautious. Miller (2000), for instance, has argued that music making is a reasonable index of biological fitness, and so a manifestation of sexual selection—analogous to the peacock's tail. Anyone who can afford the biological luxury of making music must be strong and healthy. Thus, music would offer an honest social signal of physiological fitness.
Another line of theorizing refers to music as a means of social and emotional communication. For example, Panksepp and Bernatzky (2002, p. 139) argued that
in social creatures like ourselves, whose ancestors lived in arboreal environments where sound was one of the most effective ways to coordinate cohesive group activities, reinforce social bonds, resolve animosities, and to establish stable hierarchies of submission and dominance, there could have been a premium on being able to communicate shades of emotional meaning by the melodic character (prosody) of emitted sounds.
A similar idea is that music contributes to social cohesion and thereby increases the effectiveness of group action. Work and war songs, lullabies, and national anthems have bound together families, groups, or whole nations. Relatedly, music may provide a means to reduce social stress and temper aggression in others. The idea that music may function as a social cement has many proponents (see Huron, 2001; Mithen, 2006; Bicknell, 2007).
A novel evolutionary theory is offered by Falk (2004a,b) who has proposed that music arose from humming or singing intended to maintain infant-mother attachment. Falk's “putting-down-the-baby hypothesis” suggests that mothers would have profited from putting down their infants in order to make their hands free for other activities. Humming or singing consequently arose as a consoling signal indicating caretaker proximity in the absence of physical touch.
Another interesting conjecture relates music to human anxiety related to death, and the consequent quest for meaning. Dissanayake (2009), for example, has argued that humans have used music to help cope with awareness of life's transitoriness. In a manner similar to religious beliefs about the hereafter or a higher transcendental purpose, music can help assuage human anxiety concerning mortality (see, e.g., Newberg et al., 2001). Neurophysiological studies regarding music-induced chills can be interpreted as congruent with this conjecture. For example, music-induced chills produce reduced activity in brain structures associated with anxiety (Blood and Zatorre, 2001).
Related ideas stress the role music plays in feelings of transcendence. For example, (Frith, 1996, p. 275) has noted that: “We all hear the music we like as something special, as something that defies the mundane, takes us “out of ourselves,” puts us somewhere else.” Thus, music may provide a means of escape. The experience of flow states (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009), peaks (Maslow, 1968), and chills (Panksepp, 1995), which are often evoked by music listening, might similarly be interpreted as forms of transcendence or escapism (see also Fachner, 2008).
More generally, Schubert (2009) has argued that the fundamental function of music is its potential to produce pleasure in the listener (and in the performer, as well). All other functions may be considered subordinate to music's pleasure-producing capacity. Relatedly, music might have emerged as a safe form of time-passing—analogous to the sleeping behaviors found among many predators. As humans became more effective hunters, music might have emerged merely as an entertaining and innocuous way to pass time during waking hours (see Huron, 2001).
The above theories each stress a single account of music's origins. In addition, there are mixed theories that posit a constellation of several concurrent functions. Anthropological accounts of music often refer to multiple social and cultural benefits arising from music. Merriam (1964) provides a seminal example. In his book, The anthropology of music, Merriam proposed 10 social functions music can serve (e.g., emotional expression, communication, and symbolic representation). Merriam's work has had a lasting influence among music scholars, but also led many scholars to focus exclusively on the social functions of music. Following in the tradition of Merriam, Dissanayake (2006) proposed six social functions of ritual music (such as display of resources, control, and channeling of individual aggression, and the facilitation of courtship).
Non-evolutionary approaches. Many scholars have steered clear of evolutionary speculation about music, and have instead focused on the ways in which people use music in their everyday lives today. A prominent approach is the “uses-and-gratifications” approach (e.g., Arnett, 1995). This approach focuses on the needs and concerns of the listeners and tries to explain how people actively select and use media such as music to serve these needs and concerns. Arnett (1995) provides a list of potential uses of music such as entertainment, identity formation, sensation seeking, or culture identification.
Another line of research is “experimental aesthetics” whose proponents investigate the subjective experience of beauty (both artificial or natural), and the ensuing experience of pleasure. For example, in discussing the “recent work in experimental aesthetics,” Bullough (1921) distinguished several types of listeners and pointed to the fact that music can be used to activate associations, memories, experiences, moods, and emotions.
By way of summary, many musical functions have been proposed in the research literature. Evolutionary speculations have tended to focus on single-source causes such as music as an indicator of biological fitness, music as a means for social and emotional communication, music as social glue, music as a way of facilitating caretaker mobility, music as a means of tempering anxiety about mortality, music as escapism or transcendental meaning, music as a source of pleasure, and music as a means for passing time. Other accounts have posited multiple concurrent functions such as the plethora of social and cultural functions of music found in anthropological writings about music. Non-evolutionary approaches are evident in the uses-and-gratifications approach—which revealed a large number of functions that can be summarized as cognitive, emotional, social, and physiological functions—and the experimental aesthetics approach, whose proposed functions can similarly be summarized as cognitive and emotional functions.
Functions of music as they derive from literature research
As noted, many publications posit musical functions without providing a clear connection to any theory. Most of these works are just collections of functions of music from the literature. Not least, there are also accounts of such collections where it remained unclear how the author(s) came up with the functions contained. Some of these works refer to only one single function of music—most often because this functional aspect was investigated not with the focus on music but with a focus on other psychological phenomena. Yet other works list extensive collections of purported musical functions.
Works that refer to only one single functional aspect of music include possible therapeutic functions for music in clinical settings (Cook, 1986; Frohne-Hagemann and Pleß-Adamczyk, 2005), the use of music for symbolic exclusion in political terms (Bryson, 1996), the syntactic, semantic, and mediatizing use of film music (Maas, 1993), and the use of music to manage physiological arousal (Bartlett, 1996).
The vast majority of publications identify several possible musical functions, most of which—as stated above—are clearly focused on social aspects. Several comprehensive collections have been assembled, such as those by Baacke (1984), Gregory (1997), Ruud (1997), Roberts and Christenson (2001), Engh (2006), and Laiho (2004). Most of these studies identified a very large number of potential functions of music.
By way of summary, there exists a long tradition of theorizing about the potential functions of music. Although some of these theories have been deduced from a prior theoretical framework, none was the result of empirical testing or exploratory data-gathering. In the ensuing section, we turn to consider empirically-oriented research regarding the number and nature of potential musical functions.