Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Aaron Copland wrote a brief and candid article for the music industry magazine Billboard in February of 1964. In it, he explained the dilemma of the modern symphonic composer, whose livelihood is built on commissions, royalties and rights collected for public performances. It is a ruthless system that grants few successes, partly because there aren’t many places or productions that pay well for original works, and partly because of something Copland was brave enough to admit: “Composers tend to assume that everyone loves music. Surprisingly enough, everyone doesn’t.”
Sitting through an orchestral performance is not something most people were born to do. Patient reception of drawn-out passages and serene acceptance of slowly developing movements are virtues obtained through discipline, education and cultural training. Even some classical musicians will confess—usually off the record—that lengthy performances can be less than tolerable. Copland found it refreshing whenever people told him they cared little for orchestral fare. He knew that as a composer and music educator, he could drift out of touch with the average listener.
There is one instructive exception to this orchestral rule. Composers have a firm and steady place in movies and television. Anyone who has watched an anxious or action-packed scene with the sound turned off realizes that it is far less anxious or action-packed without the frantic strings, blaring horns and penetrating percussion. The ears are more emotionally attuned than the eyes. Visuals attain their full effect through the aid of the score.
The cinematic example is reflective of how humans have utilized music since the dawn of the species. Music’s original and still overwhelming purpose is as an accompaniment to other things: teaching, storytelling, dancing, healing, praying, relaxing, eating, competing, warring, rejoicing, socializing, driving, watching, shopping, napping, waking. Listening to music for its own sake is a recent and largely Western phenomenon, and the amount of people for whom absolute or “for itself” music has any real appeal is so small as to be statistically insignificant.
A multitude of musical functions might be simultaneously present in a given context. For instance, melodies sung and played at a religious service establish sacred time, foster cohesion, encourage introspection, enliven texts, guide choreography, focus concentration, recall memories, inspire sensations, affirm heritage, facilitate moral instruction. The list could go on, and similar lists could be devised for other musically aided events.
It is difficult to imagine just how impoverished a service would be without its musical component. If melody were eradicated, attendance would surely diminish and would probably disappear altogether.
This returns us to Copland’s observation. It is certainly the case that not everyone is a music lover. The pure musical experience removed from any practical purpose is a learned and essentially artificial activity. Yet, it is also true that human beings are music “needers.” Whether we are conscious of it or not, we rely on musical sounds to support, assist and enhance all sorts of endeavors. This is what Austrian-Jewish musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl meant when he penned these dramatic yet hardly exaggerated words: “man without music is not man and a world without music is not our world.”
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