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Book Review

Why Music Moves Us

Why Music Moves Us
Jeanette Bicknell
New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2009. 208 pages.
ISBN-10: 0230209890
ISBN-13: 978-0230209893
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Engrossing.

When I first looked at the title, I said to myself, "This woman has at least some kind of stones." The topic, I believe, interests many music lovers. We all have our – sometimes very different – reasons for liking music, and as we think about it, all sorts of conundrums arise. Is there an objective way one can legitimately rate one piece of music over another? Is it simply a matter of like? Is there anything inherent in the music itself that separates, say, Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic" from Chopin's Prelude in c, on which it's based? What about the listener whom Bach or Brahms or Sibelius bores to tears? What about popular music? Where does that fit into a value scale? Is a blues like "Crossroads" "at the same level" as Schubert's "Leise flehen?" How? Why? In what sense?

Bicknell, a professional philosopher, tackles these questions, and if she doesn't settle some of them, she illuminates the problem. This isn't light reading, despite the breezy title and despite the readable prose. Bicknell writes very well for a philosopher, but I found the density of thought and minutiae of analysis slow going. I could read it only about ten minutes at a time before my mind cried, "Enough!" For comparison, five minutes is about my limit with Kant and Kierkegaard. On the other hand, even though it took me the same amount of time to read a page for any of them, I could read more Bicknell pages per day. The book consists of 153 pages of text. Although it's a slim book, don't expect to get through it as quickly as you would a Robert Parker.

The book, however, repays the effort. Bicknell takes it largely for granted that music does move us. After all, we have philosophical, poetic, anthropological, and ethnomusicological testimony to that, going back thousands of years and across cultures and continents. Plato thought music so powerfully subversive of reason, he wanted to ban certain types of it from his republic. Pythagoras reportedly interested himself in the effects of music on the mind, almost as if he studied a medicine or a drug. Bicknell also notes the ubiquitous use of music in religious rituals throughout the world for inducing trance-like states, from voodoo drumming to the church organist's playing during Sunday prayer. However, she starts for real with the treatise On the Sublime, essentially a treatise on rhetoric, which became, with Aristotle's Poetics one of the basic documents of literary criticism in the western world. We don't really know who wrote it, but custom and convenience attribute it to "Longinus," perhaps a Hellenized Jew of the First Century A.D. or a Greek familiar with Jewish culture, since unusually the treatise refers to passages in Genesis as examples of sublimity. In my experience, this seems to me as a place to begin, somewhere out in left field. Longinus after all is writing a "how-to" – what you do to achieve an elevated, persuasive style. However, his description of the sublime assumes great importance. The sublime leads its audience not by reason, but by ecstasy. As he writes, "… persuasion, as a rule, is within everyone's grasp: whereas, the Sublime, giving to speech an invincible power and [an invincible] strength, rises above every listener." Incidentally, Longinus also contends that only a great spirit can either create or recognize the sublime, to my mind a curious notion that has survived to this day. Great writers must be great human beings, until you find out about the lives most of them actually lived. At any rate, from rhetoric, as you might guess, it's a short step to music.

Bicknell moves on to Burke, Kant, and a little Schopenhauer. To Burke, we owe our distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. Burke to a great extent ascribes the sublime to feelings of terror – which does not exclude aesthetic pleasure, especially when you know that in art, the terror usually is only make-believe, rather than real. But this depends on a subject's awareness of his own weakness and limitations, rather than on feelings of transcendence and thus ultimately unsatisfactory. Kant tries to address the latter. To grasp this, one needs a grounding in Kant's epistemology, because he uses terms that suggest their opposites to most readers today. The main idea to take away, however, is that the sublime is "formless, without borders" and conveys immensities larger than the mind can hold. For details, you can read Bicknell (or Kant, if you want to put yourself through all that).

Most philosophical investigations of music I've read concern themselves with what makes a piece objectively great, in effect asking about music's inherent value. Bicknell brilliantly asks a more basic question: Why should music, good and bad, move us at all? Sure Herrman Hupfeld's "As Time Goes By," especially sung by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca, affects a listener. Nevertheless, in one of my favorite movies, Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective, which among other things parodies that old classic, the former lovers' song – "their" song, in fact – turns out to be Warren and Mercer's "Jeepers Creepers," a fine song, but hardly one, at first glance, to torture a lover's soul. And yet, if one, why not the other? Why does Simon's substitution strike us as incongruously funny?

One of Bicknell's big ideas is the social nature of music, even when we listen alone or with headphones as a vehicle of inner meditation. I had a great deal of trouble accepting this, even conceiving it, but Bicknell convinced me. First, she doesn't mean necessarily "social" vs. "individual." She also means "social" vs. "natural" or even "supernatural." That is, music for humans is a human product. Even "infantese" or "parentese" or even "petspeak" ("Who's a pretty girl? You are! You are!") is, if not music, very close, with rhythm and pitch. And there is evidence that babies respond to this more readily than to normal conversational tones. I've conducted some experiments of my own, simply humming to an infant and noticed responses. Of course, my test subjects (nephews) grew up to be musical, so I don't know whether this holds true for most hearing infants. Bicknell speculates about brain pathways, higher and lower brains, and you can read the details in the book. Indeed, Bicknell impresses me with the range of her references, across many disciplines, not often encountered in philosophical work. I'm less impressed with her knowledge of music (she knows much more about music than I do about philosophy), but she does feel passionate about it, and she shows an eagerness to learn more.

Music is also social in the sense that it depends on a number of conventions assumed and understood by its listeners. For instance, Bicknell reports that the music inducing trance states in other cultures, do not do the same for her. I've heard voodoo drumming. I stayed fully conscious and in control myself, even though I knew the intended effect. If music is social, even communal, then it has both purpose and context. If music is "good," what is it good for? Would Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier be good for ballroom dancing? Bicknell cites several times the experiment of Joshua Bell (slightly disguised, of course) playing on his Stradivarius The Bach Chaconne in a large square for spare change. People went by. Some threw quarters. One listener stayed, realized who it was, but didn't stay till the Chaconne was over. Tasmin Little repeated the experiment in London. After 45 minutes, Bell made 42 bucks and Little 18 pounds – really, the same dismal results. This provoked all sorts of doom and gloom from various writers, but were they really justified? After all, the listener had a job to get to, as undoubtedly did many others. Furthermore, children and young people wanted to linger, possibly because they had nothing else on their agenda or, for that matter, preconceived ideas about where one encounters art. Art is largely perceived through a frame. Duchamp's urinal "ready-made" transcended its utilitarian function and context, once he displayed it in an art show as a sculpture. Just because you don't expect to find a vending machine dispensing medicine, I'm sure some of those who hurried on would have loved Bell's and Little's performances in a concert hall.

But is music merely a medicine or drug, something that alters mood? If so, why do we commonly call certain pieces profound? How can a non-verbal (leaving aside songs and operas), non-representational art be profound? For this, Bicknell combines Kant's idea of the sublime with the idea of music as a "cognitive object." A piece of music is also something we think about and in several ways. Listening to a work, we can recall a particular event in our lives. I, for one, can't hear the Bach English Suite #2 without recalling my mother playing it on the piano with 4-year-old me on the bench cuddling up beside her. If she played "Flat Foot Floogie" instead, I would have had that memory instead, God help me. We can also listen to music aesthetically, contemplating its form in itself, noting the special craft that went into it. We can listen to it for a "social" connection: we want to know or attach ourselves in some way to the mind of its creator. Because music takes place in time, we can listen to it as we would a narrative or even a sermon, with our minds making the same directional shifts, and thus falling into a rhythm of contemplation, often of our own lives. Where the music's essence eludes us – and it always seems to, at least in part – there is where we encounter the immeasurable, transcendent sublime.

Bicknell, to her credit, resists the temptation of some of her fellow philosophers who attribute moral lacks to certain music. Mozart is morally deep, Tchaikovsky is shallow and self-indulgent. She does get my goat by calling Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture "superficial" and this I attribute to her uncertainty and lack of experience. Furthermore, she has forgotten her own precepts. Superficial in what context? We listen to music, after all, for all sorts of reasons. We are not all just one thing, both points she herself makes. I can consider a Poulenc novelette as deep as a Beethoven sonata movement, when I set the context. In short, great art needs a great audience, just as Longinus said.

Again, this isn't light reading, but it does repay your interest and time. Bicknell hasn't solved everything, of course, and recognizes the provisional nature of some of her conclusions, but she does shed light on many persistent problems. If not allergic to this kind of intense cerebration, pick up this book.

Copyright © 2010 by Steve Schwartz.