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Friday, January 28, 2011

Music is good for nothing

In these days of cuts on the national and local culture budgets, the cultural sector frantically tries to answer the question “What good is culture anyway?” And for good reasons. It is never straightforward that tax money paid by state citizens is spent on roads, hospitals, guns or music. We owe the tax payer a good story.

So, rephrased to music: what good is music anyway? Basically there are two types of answers. One is intrinsic: everybody needs, or deserves, music. Because music is beautiful, or relaxing, or energizing. Music is “good”. The other is extrinsic: music fosters social coherence, for example, or makes you more intelligent. Singing prevents fights. Mozart helps math. Music is “good for something”.

Both answers – “good” or “good for something” – are undoubtedly true. But the answers are problematic for two reasons. One is that it depends too much on a formulation of what is “good”. The other is that, as a consequence, the “bad” comes into play. Music is able to contribute to hypnotize a mass of people towards violence. It is able to distract pupils from their homework. If played long and loud enough, it is able to drive detained people crazy.

An alternative for the “good (for)” justification might be to look for a more neutral one - good for nothing, as it were. Recently, Henk Jan Honing, the Dutch professor in music cognition, started to argue along this path. He discusses the idea expressed by many that the existence of music must be explained in terms of evolutionary advantages. He dismisses all those ideas, and then makes a for me rather disappointing U-turn: because music is evolutionary meaningless, he says, it opens up a place where humans are able to play, to experiment without grave consequences. In making this U-turn, he actually re-introduces via the back door a strong idea of the “good (for)”-argument: music is good for harmless experimenting. Attributing evolutionary significance to that seems just one step down the road.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

“What the hell is going on here?”

“What the hell is going on here?” The question, by many attributed to the famous American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, is at present one of my most beloved quotations. It represents a deep curiosity which I think is vital for anyone trying to understand anything of the world we live in.