So I was listening to Iron Maiden yesterday, and all of a sudden I had a queer sort of feeling. I was compelled to sacrifice a baby goat to Satan! I briefly tried to fight it, but deep in my soul, I knew I had to do Lucifer’s dark bidding, so I hopped in my car (iPod still blasting those sinister tones), and drove to the nearest farm to find an innocent young life. As it turns out, my travel time just outlasted the modest 39 minute running time of Iron Maiden’s seminal heavy metal album The Number of The Beast, so I pretty well snapped out of my possession by the time I got sight of the most adorable animal in the world.
This story is obviously absurd (I mean who has an iPod anymore), but the debate about the effect of different types of music is one that humans have been having long before Tipper Gore started slapping parental advisory tags on our CDs. The Ancient Greeks believed that music had a profound effect on our Ethos, or that music could influence our emotions, behaviors, and morals. In Plato’s Republic for instance, Socrates said “musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated, graceful.” Plato believed that people should only listen to music that promotes intelligence, self-discipline, and courage.
But the question remains: can music actually effect our emotions, behaviors, and moral make-up? I don’t exactly have an adequate answer to that question. I know that I have at various times been uplifted, or saddened, or put at ease, or baffled, or agitated by music, but I’m not so sure that music has improved my IQ or ever kept me from committing any ritual sacrifices to Beelzebub. The Mozart effect (the hypothesis that listening to Mozart can temporarily improve spatial-temporal reasoning) has been supported by some experiments and contradicted by others— the consensus now seems to be that any improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning is caused by the arousal of listening to the Mozart and not the actual music of Mozart (i.e. many different stimuli could cause this arousal). Instead of arguing one way or another about music’s ability to improve or degrade human capacities, I’d like to ask you to think about that question.
Listen to this piece of music, which was written by an equation in order to utilize every key on the piano and contain no repetition. By objective design, the mathematician who created this piece wanted it to be “the world’s ugliest music.”
Now listen to any or all of Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony.” This piece, like most of Mozart’s works, is a triumph of clear themes, repetition, contrast, and cohesive form. In many ways, this piece makes objective sense.
If I were to ascribe worldview’s to these pieces of music, I would say that the first piece is telling us that the universe is random, ugly, cold, and meaningless. Mozart, on the other hand is telling us that universe is dramatic, meaningful, ordered, and ultimately good. Do these worldviews seep into your soul simply through the act of listening to these pieces? Do they? I’m asking you. If you were asking me, I’d tell you that I think that music undoubtedly does effect us in profound ways. I certainly wouldn’t argue that someone shouldn’t listen to certain types of music, but I would invite everyone to become aware of the effects that different kinds of music have on us.
Personally, I think that it is best to listen to many many different kinds of music! Life is full of all different types of experiences and emotions, and music is here to both represent and encourage that diverse abundance. We can all agree that broccoli is good for you, but that doesn’t mean you should only eat broccoli; and we can all agree that Cheetos taste good, but that doesn’t mean you should only eat Cheetos. Why not approach music like you (hopefully) approach your diet— eat/listen to everything you can stomach. Because yeah, sometimes life is cold and meaningless; sometimes it is beautiful and clear; and sometimes its just damn groovy.