[Marxism] Reply to Ben on music

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Sun May 30 08:14:54 MDT 2004

Hi Ben,

You argue that "There's nothing particularly liberating about [playing songs
in your bedroom], other than in a bourgeois, consumerist sense.

Brief comment: that's obviously not true. Listening to music in private can
be a way of revigorating the spirit, find personal inspiration, motivation,
harmony or concentration, send a signal, find some peace (e.g. baroque
music), get in touch with your feelings or get your yaya's out. That can be
liberating, insofar it strengthens or centres yourself.

There exists considerable musicological research which has established the
psychological effects which particular genres of music are likely to have.
Music through trance effects can have a powerful impact on human emotions,
and on people's spiritual sense, hence its widespread use in advertising and

The reification of music comes about through its use as a means to privately
appropriate (possess) something else. All reification in some sense involves
an inversion or distortion of object and subject, and of means and goals,
resulting in the attribution of human powers to things and the
objectification or dehumanisation of people (a misplacement). Reifying the
function of music is based on the ability to be, or associate with,
something which does not express our own nature, or our own creativity.

In the symbolic interactionism of postmodernist culture, this can become a
real disease, because music may become just a functional "sign", a means of
communicating a message for which the music itself is only a medium or
conduit and not the true expression. If lying in some form or other is an
aspect of seduction, just so music can be used to convey lies, to deceive or
beguile - music might seduce, but the seduction involves a falseness, a
deception, a story which is not true or authentic.

In this use of music, the music may no longer appreciated for its own sake
or its intrinsic merit, or express something about ourselves, but is
appreciated only because of what it might enable us to get, enforce,
reinforce or appropriate, by playing it, or it just functions as an
adornment or propaganda instrument, as in an advertising jingle.

That can be a manipulative, narcissistic or shallow use of music, in which
case, the music no longer expresses something specific and authentic about
ourselves, not does it indicate a true enjoyment of that music by ourselves.
It has become just a "media sign", a tool, a bit of abstract labor. This is
a kind of musical functionalism, i.e. the use of music as a functional sign
which decorates ourselves, or else indicates our intentions and desires to
the outside world.

But, of course, music has no fixed meaning or intention, and its formal
meaning can be subverted as well; and we may have no particular reason for
listening to it, beyond a mood or an appreciation. At its simplest, meaning
can be subverted simply by changing the context in which music is created or
played. Quite a different meaning can be attached to a piece of music, than
its authors or performers originally intended, and indeed its meaning can be
perverted beyond recognition.

Musical functionalism is only really possible on the basis of either somehow
having the social power to command music, or on the basis of sound
recordings. Many radicals therefore accept the functional (instrumental
means/ends) use of music, but they argue that, if then you play the music
for that purpose, then you must also authentically participate in the "live
experience" which comes with playing the music, otherwise it's "just noise"
or miscommunication, a breach of contract.

The point here is that the functional use of music, to be effective, still
requires a personal "system", a systematic pattern of behaviour which is
culturally accepted, which shows other people what you mean by it, and in
which you decide to participate. The ability to buy and play musical
recordings is undoubtedly progressive, insofar as it develops the human
capacity to appreciate and create music. But the point is, that it is also
contradictory, since as soon as music is separated from its "live" context
involving a real interaction between the musician and the audience, then it
can be put to uses for which it was not intended, and become an intermediary
abstracted from its original contexts. Those uses might of course be valid
or perverse.

You write:

"Proportional to all the "noise" there's not much creative or authentic
going on in modern music."

I would dispute that. In assessing the creativity of music, we are normally
biased by our own history of musical appreciation, and creativity in music
can really only be objectively assessed by

- comparing the piece to the genre or tradition of music to which it belongs
- the specific context and relations in which it is created and played.
- the way in which it is actually used in a given context

What is true is, that in the age of mechanical reproduction of music, a lot
of musical expression becomes standardised, and that it is much easier for
any particular musical innovation quickly to become a commonplace (cf. e.g.
Walter Benjamin, "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction").
This leads directly to "collage art", because since it is difficult to
create any truly original, wellformed composition expressive of somebody's
real nature, originality can only inhere in the juxtaposition of different
unoriginal objects and the juxtaposition of different contexts. In addition,
if music is created with the overriding criterion of "what music will sell"
based on a market assessment, this is unlikely to lead to anything

But a more substantive critique would investigate how music is actually used
by people and who uses what, i.e. the supply-side and the demand-side of the
issue, and the social relations involved in that. Music may be good or bad
within a genre, or we may like it or dislike it, but, certainly from a
political point of view, rather than an aesthetic or psychological point of
view, the question is one of how music is actually used, what it actually
motivates, and what sorts of interpersonal and social relations that
involves, which groups or social classes are involved..

A modern trend in musical functionalism has been the formation of music
which rejects the need for anything other than the most minimal expression
of any cogent, recognisable or coherent thought in a piece of music, a
purely abstract music which does not convey any distinct or coherently
expressed human emotion, so that it could evoke any kind of emotion among
listeners depending on the person. This is based on a specific idea about
the function and use of music, namely that it should just break us out of
our day-to-day preoccupations and trend of thought, or place us in a
pleasant, relaxing trance, so that we "stop making sense". In its purest
expression, music=sexual desire.

The argument may indeed be that "meaningful music" permits manipulation, and
to foreclose the possibility of manipulation, the music should be as
meaningless as possible, so that the trance returns us to ourselves, rather
than provide any signal to others. That is quite legitimate of course, but
it is doubtful whether this elevates the human spirit in general in any way,
or that it provides any new insight into the human condition in general. It
may only promote nihilistic, egocentric moods and cultures.


More information about the Marxism mailing list