Going off the rails
Norman Lebrecht has a lot of critical insight to share for those who care about the classical music scene (I don’t know if I do, anymore, but I do appreciate people caring). Recently (well, in January anyway — I’m slow) there were reports of railway stations in England playing classical music over the speakers, with the effect that the crime rate dropped dramatically.
“Wonderful! Behold the soothing effect of classical music on the human mind!” We’ve heard it before (“Mozart makes you smarter”, etc.).
Lebrecht comes to a different conclusion:
It works as a deterrent effect rather than a corrective one. Hooligans are not reformed by Mozart, so much as driven away by a noise that is as alien and hostile to their world as whale song to a camel herd.
there is not a jot of evidence to show that music can be made to work one way or other as a force of social engineering. The reports from peaked-cap inspectors at Elm Park, Whitley Bay and Sow Hill, as well as results from Canada and Australia, are anecdotal. They demonstrate only that in a limited area, for a short period, hooligans can be deflected by unfamiliar sounds.
I’m not saying that it may not be a good thing, and neither does Norman, nor the average traveller:
Travellers in musically protected areas say they feel reassured for their safety and culturally enhanced by the accompaniment to their waiting time.
So far so good. Music doesn’t make you a better person. If you like it, it may give you a good time, but the hooligans don’t become better people — they don’t disappear, they just move on to the next station, where there aren’t these strange, non-sampled sounds coming out of nowhere.
But to me, the most important question is: what does this use of music do to us, or to our appreciation of music? It’s related to the question why we don’t just DNA register the whole population — law-abiding citizens will have nothing to fear, and the positive effects are considerable. So why not do it? Well, because —
Music is a vast psychological mystery, and playing it to police railways is culturally reckless, profoundly demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilisation.
That’s why. Music and art are too important to be left to commoditifying and utilitarian officials, because they relate to how we think, and how we think to how we act. I say: musical structures can be meaningful because they resemble a language — the stylized sounds through which we think — and knowing them (and knowing them as such) can give us a glimpse from the outside of how language works, of how we think. But it is also a stylization of how we act: an aestheticization — a systematization into a framework of thought about physical acts — of common actions like walking, breathing, making love: a meetingplace for body and soul.
Now, after this cannonade of simplified aeshtetic theory, answer this: if music is a translation into sound of the patterns and tensions we live by as human beings, what does it do to your breathing (or your love-making) to be constantly surrounded by stylized versions of it, e.g. while you’re running to catch the next train?
I’m not saying the answer cannot be: “It does me good!” I’m just saying that as long as we can’t rule out that the consequences of this light-weight, ill-planned use of the materials of mind and body are potentially disastrous, I’d rather have my soundscape as clean as possible, as the default.
And crime rates? This isn’t a nice and cozy society we’re living in, as a rule, and don’t tell me that a little beautifying, some aural cosmetics here and there, will change that. The grim realities are that “Legalized abortion was the single biggest factor in bringing the crime wave of the 1980s to a screeching halt [during the 90s].” Not Mayor Giuliani’s efforts in New York, but the fact that “hundreds of thousands of prospective criminals had been aborted”, who previously had been brought into this wonderful world of ours. This is the conclusion that the Indiana Jones of economics and statistics, Steven Levitt, has come to in his book Freakonomics. Truly food for thought. Seen this way, legalized abortion is a self-regulating safety valve of a society — a political stroke of genius, albeit unplanned: let the poor buggers weed out their own scum before it even sees the light of day. Perhaps this is putting too much weight on links between socio-economical conditions, abortion, and crime, but at least it puts some huge issues on the table, and and the more I think about it, the more the thought of hearing music in trainstations makes me sick.
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Norman Lebrecht doesn’t like this (ab)use of music either. He suggests an alternative: Look to Finland!
What are the Finns doing right? Every child in Finland is given an instrument to play from the first day at school. They learn to read notes on stave before letters on page. They spend hours at drawing and drama. The result is a society of with few tensions and profound culture. Finnish Radio broadcasts in Latin once a week.
Is it possibly as simple as that? Probably not, but it’s a nice idea.