Thursday, August 8, 2013

Music and Belonging: Another Perspective

The other day I put up a post lambasting this article about music, evolution and social belonging. Even with my going on at some length, I'm not sure I managed to get across how fundamentally ludicrous this sort of "research" is. So today I am going to demonstrate another way of going about it.

There are several problems with the kind of research outlined in the article I linked to:

  • the researchers are almost completely ignorant about their subject-matter: music
  • the scale of their goals, to explain why we invented music and how it connects to social belonging, is absurdly lofty compared to the meagre amount of data they are prepared to consider: clumsy and rudimentary psychological surveys of small groups of as few as 112 people
  • their obliviousness to the incoherent nature of their conclusions: “The powerful psychological pull of music in modern life may derive from its innate ability to connect us to others.”
If you actually know something about music, then you have access to about a thousand years of excellent information that you can use to discover many specific things about how music functions in a social context.

First of all, virtually all music is designed to be part of a social context, but the ways in which this works are multitudinous. To go back a very long way, to the earliest time about which we have some information, music played a large role in the society of ancient Greece. The opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article gives us some idea of the range of this:
The music of ancient Greece was almost universally present in society, from marriages and funerals to religious ceremoniestheatre, folk music and the ballad-like reciting of epic poetry. It thus played an integral role in the lives of ancient Greeks. There are significant fragments of actual Greek musical notation[1][2] as well as many literary references to ancient Greek music, such that some things can be known—or reasonably surmised—about what the music sounded like, the general role of music in society, the economics of music, the importance of a professional caste of musicians, etc. Even archaeological remains reveal an abundance of depictions on ceramics, for example, of music being performed. The word music comes from the Muses, the daughters of Zeus and patron goddesses of creative and intellectual endeavours.
The information is gathered from numerous ancient sources including Plato and Aristoxenus. Unfortunately, the living traditions of the music died with the ancient world and their notation only gives us a rough idea of what the music actually sounded like.

We have much better information about music as it was developed in Europe during the Middle Ages. For one thing, a new kind of notation was developed that, in an improved form, is the one we still use today. Also, there is a continuous performing tradition that stretches back about a thousand years. I wrote about the chant of the Church in this post. Let me quote from that post:
 Chant is the foundation of Western music and why that came to be is rather interesting. Turns out that political considerations were crucial. In the 8th century the pope, Stephen II, had to ask Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, for protection against the Lombards who were threatening Rome. Pepin agreed and this collaboration led in time to an alliance between the Franks, soon to be led by Charlemagne, Pepin's son, and Rome, whose then pope, Leo III, would crown him ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. This led to a happy time, the Carolingian renaissance, and the growth and stabilization of many civilized institutions. A system of education was developed and, in order to enable the standardization and dissemination of the chant of the church, the first practical musical notation was created. What we use today is at the end of a long period of development and improvement of this same notation.

The northern Franks practiced the Gallican Rite at the time and this was replaced by Roman liturgical texts and, at first, the melodies used with them. At this time, Christian worship was largely sung--one sang to the Lord, one didn't chat with Him. Suppressing the Gallican rite and replacing it with Roman was easy to do with the text, but harder when it came to the music. In order to teach everyone to sing the same melodies in the same way, a better method had to be found than just teaching by rote, which was the only one available at the time. No-one thought it was sufficiently important to write about at the time, so we don't know exactly where and how it happened, but this was when melodies began to be written down and it was the Franks who started the process.

The Franks took to all this with delight and soon ended up shaping the music and texts of the liturgy to their own musical tastes and gifts. This repertoire is what we now call 'Gregorian' chant even though Gregory I himself had only an indirect role.
The so-called 'Gregorian' chant arose in the Christian monasteries sometime in those obscure times between the disintegration of the Roman empire and the Carolingian renaissance. There was a great deal of recitation of the Psalms and other liturgy in the monasteries and it was the most natural thing in the world to sing these often-repeated words. I honestly don't think there needs to be any scientific explanation of what is a natural human capacity: we sing because we can and the monks began to sing  because it was very, very boring not to. None of these early chants have composers because they were created as a kind of originally improvised chanting that only over time coalesced into the melodies that were written down starting around the first millennium. Here is an example of an early chant, an Easter introit, Resurrexi, the earliest notation for which dates from around 920 AD:

The purpose of this music is to be, according to St. Augustine, "the expression of a mind poured forth in joy." It is communal praise of the Lord and, together with later religious music such as the masses of Palestrina and the cantatas of Bach, is one of the basic categories of social music making. Here is a movement from a Palestrina mass. This is a Gloria and begins with a brief chanted Gloria before the polyphonic setting.

Bach's cantatas are a huge body of music that were designed to supplement the Lutheran liturgy--a kind of musical highlighting of Lutheran theology by setting the ideas and sentiments to colorful and expressive music. Here is a bit of Wikipedia's description:
[D]uring Bach's tenure as a Thomaskantorcantor of the main churches of Leipzig, especially the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, it was part of his job to perform a church cantata every Sunday and Holiday, related to the readings prescribed by the Lutheran liturgy for the specific occasion. In his first years in Leipzig, starting after Trinity of 1723, he composed a new work every week and conducted soloists, the Thomanerchor and orchestra as part of the church service. Works from three annual cycles of cantatas have survived.
Here is one of those cantatas, Cantata 140, which has a Wikipedia article all to itself. The opening chorus, which gives its name to the cantata is Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls to us). The English translation of the German text (a chorale written by Phillip Nicolai in 1599) tells us what is going on:
Awake, calls the voice to us
of the watchmen high up in the tower;
awake, you city of Jerusalem.
Midnight the hour is named;
they call to us with bright voices;
where are you, wise virgins?
Indeed, the Bridegroom comes;
rise up and take your lamps,
Make yourselves ready
for the wedding,
you must go to meet Him.

And here is the complete cantata with the score:

All this is, if you like, an enormous trove of wonderful evidence as to how music functions in a social context. Infinitely superior to asking 112 adults if
they agreed with such statements as “When I listen to music, I can feel it affect my mood” and “When I hear music, my foot starts tapping along with the beat.”
Another particularly valuable source of information would be the "fêtes révolutionnaires" of the French revolution which were secular festivals using music designed to promote the values of the revolution. Wikipedia notes that
The official nationwide Fête de la Raison, supervised by Hébert and Momoro on 20 Brumaire, Year II (10 November 1793) came to epitomize the new republican way of religion. In ceremonies devised and organised by Chaumette, churches across France were transformed into modern Temples of Reason. At Notre Dame in Paris was the largest ceremony of them all. The Christian altar was dismantled and an altar to Liberty was installed; the inscription "To Philosophy" was carved in stone over the cathedral's doors. The proceedings took several hours and concluded with the appearance of a Goddess of Reason who, to avoid idolatry, was portrayed by a living woman.[7] The overarching theme of the ceremony was aptly summarized by Anacharsis Clootz who claimed that henceforward there would be "one God only, Le Peuple."[8]
Here is a site that collects together some of the music of the French revolution (though I didn't have much success playing the clips). The most famous example is the Marseillaise:

This was composed by Rouget de Lisle in 1792 with the title "War Song for the Army of the Rhine" which pretty much explains its social function!

I could go on and on and on citing examples of the thousands of ways that music functions in a social context, but I really don't need to, do I? I believe that I have shown a better way of approaching these kinds of questions than the pseudo-scientific one of the article. Just have a look at the music. I am really, really sure that you will have something much more cogent and coherent to say than:
“The powerful psychological pull of music in modern life may derive from its innate ability to connect us to others.”
Which is close to being 100% meaningless.

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