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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Music As Medicine

For work reasons I have to read quite some music psychology and music sociology these days. Yes, I understand you envy me. After having read quite some of the stuff, one of the main topics turns out to be the way people use music as a "technology of the self"(say the sociologists, referring to French philosopher Michel Foucault) or - which basically is the same - as a "regulatory device" (say the psychologists, referring to the human being as a machine with buttons you can turn).

I am not sure if this analysis - music is a regulatory device, a technology of the self - is right. Yes, I often use music to match my mood, playing Bach on the stereo if I am feeling reconciliatory towards the world, and sometimes I even use music to change my mood, playing Simeon ten Holt on the stereo to fall asleep. (By the way, recently a psychologist has found out that people use music to fall asleep, and that most of this music is slow, easy-going, and without much dynamics - may I express my congratulations to science and humanity in general with this major breakthrough in knowledge?) And yes, I often use music to express myself, reason why I am learning to play the 5-string banjo by internet these days (prizes awarded to those of you who can explain which part of Me is expressed there), and sometimes use music to change the expression I want to convey to others, for example by occasionally wearing a black AC/DC-t-shirt while playing the bluegrass fiddle (which shows that wearing an AC/DC-t-shirt is considered by me as a form of musical behavior, a topic I will come back to soon) .

But it all sounds a bit cheap to me. I can't help having the same feeeling as the opera-lover I read about in one of those sociological articles. The sociologist in question wanted to do research about opera lovers, but the opera fan was - rather than being honored to be the object of study of a sociologist - reluctant and distrustful, and at some point asked the sociologist straight away if it would be possible for him that the opera fan was not a fan of opera to express his social status but because he liked opera, for reasons unknown even to himself?

Psychologists and sociologists are right: music may be used as a tool, a medicine for anything, by many people and very often. But that doesn't mean music ís a medicine. Rather, music is music; a human product of which we don't understand where it comes from, which has (despite all wild speculations to the contrary) no evolutionary benefits, but has so many characteristics that makes it usable for (there I go again) a million household uses (psychologist Eric Clarke and sociologist Tia DeNora would speak of the 'affordances' of music) that it pervades human life as little else.

Music is only able to work as a medicine because it is, in essence, so much more than a medicine.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

St. Martin's Blues

Last week it was St. Martin's Day. In my region (the tradition is not common in all parts of the Netherlands), kids visit the neighbourhood houses in the evenings with lanterns and special St Martin songs; in return they get sweets. My son toured the neighbourhood with a friend. They sang a special version (their own?) of a well-known song:

St Maarten, St Maarten
Er liepen twee tomaten
De ene had een teddybeer
De ander had een schietgeweer
Poef!

Literally:
St Martin, St Martin
Two tomatoes were walking
One had a teddybear
The other had a shooting gun
Poof!

This rather than the original: St Martin, St Martin / the cows have tails / the girls wear skirts / St Martin's coming.

Although I was not particularly fond of their invention (I don't like violence, being the wimp I am), the people who had to part with their sweets in return for the song did like it - they thought it highly original.

Now there is another St Martin's song I can't get used to. It is a modern invention, probably by someone who thinks that kids these days only like singing if what they sing is 'modern', and therefore he or she invented 'St Martin's Blues'. As much of the modern repertoire composed for kids, the song is problematic in many ways. To start with, a blues is not 'modern'. On top of that, the song only sounds reasonably well if it is sung with an acccompanying band, but as those bands usually don't like to walk around to play for sweets on St. Martin's day (what with the rain and the amplifiers and all...) children have to sing the blues without the band. And then the most horrible thing of the song: because the composer is completely nuts the melody is a blues bass line. Which means the melody of the second line is a sequence of the first line a fourth up, which (given that the ambitus of the line is nearly an octave) brings 90% of the 5 to 9-year old kids in big trouble, song-wise.

So when I had to sit waiting at the beginning of the evening of St Martin's Day in the library annex music school and groups of kids came round to sing their songs there for the caretaker to rob him of his sweets, I could make a detailed study of the devastating effects of kids trying to wrestle their way through St Martin's Blues. And I could compare it with kids singing the good old 'cows-have-tails'-songs.

And after twenty minutes I was sure: I am getting old.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Music as fireworks

I was at a conference on Healthy Ageing. Healthy Ageing is one of the main themes of the university I work for and the region I work in, and hence one of the three research strands our research group concentrates on. So I presented some of our projects on music and elderly people to an audience of people not working in music.

I started my presentation with a very short video made by an art student in one of our projects. The project was about learning to play an instrument at an advanced age. We asked the art student to make independent work which would show his interpretation of our work. He came up with short video's, close-ups of faces of elderly music learners while they were listening to a recording of their own playing. Nothing much happens: you hear the music, you see the face reacting. Great work, to me.

Afterwards I spoke with a man deep into the healthy ageing-topic. He told me he often showed the trailer of "Young at Heart", the documentary about a senior rock choir, in presentations. Man, that worked well! Actually, he thought, I should have done that rather than showing a video in which nothing happened.

I saw his point. I love "Young at Heart", and indeed the trailer is gripping stuff. But when, somewhat later, he explained that Young at Heart was so great because one of the singers could, since the time he was singing in the chooir, cut back on the amount of oxygene bottles needed to live his life - now there's an effective intervention for you - I decided to keep using the video I used.

Fireworks are great, on occasion, and music sometimes is like firework. But I prefer to convey the idea that  for many people most of the time music is rather like a bit of candlelight.

Monday, November 5, 2012

For all the gypsies of this world

I am rereading, bit by bit, The Natural History of Selborne by the reverend Gilbert White (as rumour has it, the fourth most published book in English after Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Oxford Dictionary). Published in 1789, it looks at nature with the eye of a curious nature lover who, with the knowledge of his time, tries to find out about plants, birds and the universe.

Letter XXIV to the honourable Daines Barrington is about the "wonderful spirit of sociality" as observed between animals such as birds, horses, and even as observed between a particular horse and a particular hen. Letter XXVI is about a "very simple piece of domestic economy": how to make torches of the rush plant, a cheap replacement of candles. The intermediate Letter XXV  is written on October 2, 1775, and is about gypsies. It starts thus: "Dear Sir, We have two gangs or hordes of gypsies which infest the south and west of England, and come round in their circuit two or three times a year".