Book Title: Music: Why It Matters
Author: Nicholas Cook
THE study of music is underpinned by the question of value, with the life-enriching beliefs and ideas articulated by artists, thereby infusing civilisation with renewed energy and enhancing the understanding of the world and ourselves. However, the musician’s work arises from a well-defined function determined both by her ideology and times.
Undeniably, art and music enrich thought and action and imbue it with a subtle and fuller meaning. For a complete understanding of Auden’s poetry, for instance, the familiarity with jazz and its rhythms makes not only reading aloud an exhilarating experience, it also throws powerful light on the history of African displacement and alienation. The backdrop is expressed so movingly through the jarring and shuddering tones emanating from rusted and poorly tuned barrel organs (often termed barrel music), left behind by the wealthy landed aristocracy of the American South. It’s like an exceptional language; we use it to say things that we could perhaps never say using words.
It was Plato who said, “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are keys to learning.” The utility of its role in the development of the mind is a vital aspect of why it matters. Take, for example, its therapeutic potential to soothe a colic child to sleep through the lullaby sung by the mother or the symphonies of Mozart or Stravinsky. The tone, cadence and lyrics soothe, teach language, communicate hope and warmth, and provide a sanctuary. Live music is indeed a remarkable carrier of delight and excitement, embracing one, lifting our mood and protecting us from grief and other ailments.
This was observed during the lockdown in 2020 when people fell back on music for relaxation and camaraderie. Neighbours joined in a chorus from their balconies or participated in online music alliances, an innovative testing of socially distanced togetherness. Written during this period, Nicholas Cook’s book ‘Music: Why it Matters’, underscores that music calls for a deep connection with oneself and the familiar world, an investigation into its social and political significance in modern societies. The defamilarised music thereby moves into a more intuitively relevant subject, both intelligible as well as entertaining.
Music, to Cook, is not all for entertainment, but an agency of being and becoming, a crucial art form through which you create a personal meaning, disparaging any passivity in its impact. Justifiably, there is nothing easy about music, a genre that demands an active participation for “cultural tolerance and civil cohesion”. The collaborative effort of producing music inexorably promotes a “relationship of interdependence”, a solidarity between the maker and the listener, thereby giving rise to a “community of mutual obligation and interdependence”.
Classical music and jazz have always been integral to my being. It matters to me not only because it is of huge help to me, but because I love to share it with dear ones so that it resides in their souls the way it does in mine. However, Cook feels that the authenticity of music must not be judged from the traditional practice and standards set by it. Underscoring the “dynamic nature” of music, the logical development from the classical is visibly present in hybrid or the popular. He, thus, counsels for ‘the recalibrating of music”, a possibility only if one were to move from conservative models to the more diverse forms of contemporary music. As an example, the classical encodes values of maturity and demands responsibility to family and society, while rock stands for “youth, freedom, being true to yourself”. Mixing various traditions, Cook argues, is a liberating act of “music making” that breaks the stranglehold of classical norms, as seen in the avant garde music emerging from the Black rights movement .
Take another example of Sudan Archive, a popular singer from the US, who creates a “fiddle-punk sound”, as she blends folk, ambient, soul, and whatever other accessible tradition to reinforce the atmosphere of desperation in music performed by devastated women and regretful men. The 18th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz feels “music is a sort of hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul”. In the words of Andrea Bocelli, the celebrated musician, Leibniz had conveyed “the sturdy power of music over the soul that doesn’t even have the capacity sometimes to measure it”.
The book therefore, has a broad yet theoretically mature approach to music with a historically and sociologically well-versed grasp ranging over a wide spectrum. It succeeds in presenting the western classical tradition within the context of musical cultures across the world. It would be plausible to surmise that any negotiation with the march of history in both happy or apocalyptic times will foreground the function of music as the consequence of cultural patterns and trends in cultural politics. Though it is undeniably problematic to make an unbiased distinction between thought and feeling or the amalgamation of words and music, colour and movement, art and its performance indeed broaden human experience in a way where words fail.