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Morality of music: Because music primarily communicates emotions, its morality may be judged according to whether the feelings conveyed are positive and noble or negative and base. (Cover Story: Music).

It's often said that music is the universal language, a simple truism with many implications. Spoken languages use sets of agreed-upon symbols to express emotions and to reason abstractly. Communication through symbols, the quintessential human trait, is an absolute prerequisite for all other human action. But language isn't just a tool to communicate morally neutral facts; language is both manifestly moral and suffused with the power to sway, persuade, uplift, degrade and deceive. To claim otherwise is to ignore a vast range of sociolinguistic activities, from debates, political propaganda, and "cuss words" to poetry and sacred writ.

Music, through its patterns, rhythms, melodies, and tempo, not to mention its lyrics, is at once less capable of logical precision, and more capable of conveying emotional nuance, than spoken language. But like spoken language, all music communicates something.

All languages, including music, derive their power from two universal human traits, traits which are unavoidable consequences of our constitution as social beings. First is the ability to form habits through repetition, without which we could not come to automatically associate words with meanings, nor learn complicated physical activities like speaking or playing a musical instrument. Second is our tendency to sympathize, to reach out to others and to form relationships with them. Because of these two characteristics, our surroundings always influence us. We must consciously ignore people trying to speak with us, and our head turns automatically when our name is called. We cannot entirely stifle the desire to sing along or to tap our foot with music, nor suppress the emotions that music can elicit. For these reasons, music and language powerfully influence us, whether we like it or not.

Both music and spoken language rely on the organization of sound to communicate. In the case of spoken languages, the arrangements of sounds chosen by each community of speakers to denote things and ideas might seem completely random. Yet spoken languages are far from random. Because languages arose in the first place to communicate, they must rely on certain universal principles to make their message intelligible. For example, all languages have both nouns and verbs, because rational thought is predicational in nature -- that is, it proceeds by qualifying one idea with another. Reason cannot simply meditate upon things in isolation, e.g., "the man," but must conclude the thought in some way, like "the man is tall" or "the man works." Interestingly, though, philosophy, and especially the science of logic, came about partly through the observation of language. Philosophers, observing that grammatical predicates are universal, concluded that they must embody some higher, universal principle of thought.

In the same way, if we observe universal features of the language of music, we may conclude that they represent underlying principles, even if our understanding of music's communicative powers is incomplete.

One immediately evident feature of music is the unique power of percussion on the senses. More than any other instrument, drums entrance, energize, and sensualize. Heavy percussion, often with no other musical accompaniment, is used worldwide, among cultures that have no contact with one another, to induce trances and states of euphoria and even possession. This writer has personally observed this phenomenon many times in India. While the exact reason that drums have this effect isn't clear (though there are plenty of interesting theories), without question percussion-generated sounds appeal to some universal facet of human psychology.

Obviously, all percussive music is not evil; but it is obvious that, the heavier the percussion, the greater the effect. Interestingly, all of the works generally considered to be the "highest" forms of music-- the compositions of Bach and Handel, and other great oratorios like Mendelssohn's Elijah, make little if any use of percussion instruments.

Another interesting, and less remarked-upon, trait of music is the power of portamentos (also referred to as slurs), the sustaining of a single note as it slides from one pitch to another. Slurred notes are often used in conjunction with heavy percussion to bring about altered states. The author has watched shamans in India use squeezebox drums -- instruments that combine heavy percussion with a constandy changing pitch -- to attempt exorcisms and to induce oracular trances.

Also used worldwide to create altered states is endless repetition, usually of a simple, monotonous musical motif. Again, Hindus and Buddhists make use of mantras and bhajjans -- simple, one- or two-tone recitations, repeated for hours on end -- to facilitate meditation. Tribal dance rhythms also gain force through long repetition of a simple musical phrase.

All of these elements -- heavy percussion, slurred notes, and hypnotic repetitiveness -- figure heavily in many modem popular music idioms. And they're employed by rock musicians and DJs to achieve results similar to those obtained by shamans and priests in pagan traditions. Anyone who has ever observed the behavior of rock musicians and their manic fans at a concert, or of "ravers" -- dancing literally to exhaustion under the hypnotic influence of strobe lights and the throbbing, repetitive strains of techno music -- has seen people transformed, and seldom for the better, by the power of such musical forms.

On the other hand, who hasn't been inspired by a great hymn, anthem, fugue, or symphony? How many appreciate the simple elegance of a folk song, the sophisticated spontaneity of many forms of jazz and big band music, or the haunting nostalgia of a love song calling to mind a former romance? All of these musical forms seek to invoke, at one level or another, order, beauty, and harmony. They, too, seem to tap into a well of universal principles; our intuitive appreciation of musical harmony, for example, seems grounded in the physical laws of wave harmonics.

Good music can transform for the better, even to the point of healing the physical body. The relatively new branch of medicine known as music therapy has reported amazing success in healing through music. Neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks regards music therapy "as a tool of great power in many neurological disorders -- Parkinson's and Alzheimer's -- because of its unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged."

Judging the value of language or of music depends on our ability to understand their ultimate causes. As Virgil wrote, "happy is he who has been able to understand the cause of things." Both language and music, as intrinsically social phenomena, seek to communicate. Spoken language seeks primarily to communicate ideas, and secondarily emotions. We pass moral judgment on language, therefore, based on what is communicated. Language intended to deceive, to insult, to belittle, to provoke, to blaspheme, and to degrade is bad, because its content is bad. Language that informs, edifies, comforts, strengthens, and so forth, is good, because it tends to promote these traits in others.

The language of music is no different, except that music is primarily a vehicle for communicating emotion, and only secondarily ideas. But communicate it does, and inasmuch as it conveys negative, false, venal, or evil emotions or states of being, such as rebellion, chaos, anger, violence, atheism, or moral relativism, music must be considered bad. However, where it appeals to our higher emotions and aspirations, whether by lyrics, tempo, or melody, music is good, and at times, even heavenly.
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Author:Bonta, Steve
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 8, 2002
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