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Music in Human Culture

One of the really fascinating things about music is that technically- in a very literal way- it doesn’t exist. A painting, a sculpture or a photograph can physically exist, while music is just air hitting the eardrum in a slightly different way than it would randomly. If you were a space alien trying to define music- you would define it as humans manipulating the way in which air molecules hit someone’s eardrum.
Somehow that air- which has almost no substance whatsoever- when moved and when made to hit the eardrum in tiny subtle ways- can make people dance, cry, have sex, move across country, go to war and more. It’s remarkable that something so subtle can illicit profound emotional reactions in people.

I feel music is an autonomous language. As you are speaking to a German in English here, I am trying to make sense of words- but there’s a whole bunch of things I can’t express in any language. I’m not Shakespeare or Goethe, so I have to resort to notes. Sometimes with two little notes, I can hit an emotional target with more precision than could ever be possible with words.

For me, the operative word in music is play. I’ve never been very good at ‘growing up’- and in fact, that was reflected in what I did last night. I went into a room with a bunch of musicians- we sat down and we just started playing, we didn’t even need to speak with each other. That level of communication, trust and friendship is phenomenal. It’s one of the most special things in my life, and I feel that anyone who can’t have experiences like that may be living a less fulfilling life.

This is a question of whether there are any inherent or innate properties of music that affect people regardless of temporal or cultural context is one that people have been coming up against for a very long time. And the truth is, I have no idea.

I hear Indonesian Gamelan music and it makes no sense to me, but for someone who grew up with it? the same music can create a great emotional reaction.

There’s a great Duke Ellington quote, “there are only two types of music- good music, and bad music” I experienced this last week! Here I am, a film composer, talking with Pete Townsend and he’s explaining the last four Beethoven Quartets to me. We musicians are funny, we’re incredible snobs about music- but this is not dependent on style. We could have been discussing some fantastic country and western song, or a piece of electronica.

A great piece of music has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time.   There are timeless pieces that hit the zeitgeist, and change people’s thinking… but are relevant to the time. If Mozart was alive today, and was composing what he composed during his lifetime, it might not have the same impact now as it had then. At the moment it was being created, it broke a boundary, did something new, grabbed us in a way we hadn’t been grabbed before… and as we look back over time, we can see this is why things withstand time. Why do we still chill when we hear Sinatra, or Presley or The Beatles or Mozart! It’s because at that time, they were breaking through, taking us to a new place. It’s getting harder and harder in today’s world.

Why did the song Happy by Pharrell Williams become the international song that it became, and one of the bigger global hits of the past few decades. I think it’s because, at the time- the world was looking for something…. we were recovering from recession, war and many other things… and we needed a moment of hopefulness that allowed us to stop the madness for a moment, and pick us up. Will it be timeless? Maybe for the generation who were in the heart of the trouble…. Maybe they will reflect back on this time and remember this song, and make it timeless.

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