Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Music as science?

It's a long time since I've had time to sit down and write an article on my own blog. However, in the past months I've been busy working on various papers for my university, several of them have been based around music and science, something that a modern day music fan, or musician, may not make the link to at first thought. What might surprise many people is that music was considered science until the 17th Century. Only in recent times have we decided that music is an art, and not a science. And why the move away from science towards an 'ego' based vision of music? Probably in part due to Descartes stating that 'The basis of music is sound'!

More importantly I wonder what would have happened if we had stayed with our concept of science and music? I try to imagine how our world would look at music as something of value, not just as an art, but as an investment to our society. We are reassured to know that somewhere in a laboratory whole teams of scientists are researching cancer, cardiac problems, HIV, depression and a whole lot more. Most of these are based around our egocentric vision of the world. How long will I live? How long will our earth be around? How much money can I make out of ...? But what would people think if we invested more in musical research? 

In terms of investment the entertainment industry is really only interested in one thing, profit, which is fair enough considering our business model in modern society. What may be interesting is to ask how this has also influenced our musical tastes. Music is no longer of any intrinsic value to many people. Try to imagine a 'Britain's Got Talent' style program where the audience watches a panel of properly qualified judges examining new developments in composition, sound research, and instrumental development! What was originally seen as the job of a clown is now that of mainstream television shows such as the x-factor. It's difficult to know if people enjoy these programs because it's (apparently) funny to watch sincere people, no matter how bad they are, being insulted by a panel of non qualified judges, or whether the general public really do enjoy seeing copycat performers who are often a pale imitation, or pastiche, of some already known singer. 

So, should our society be prepared to invest in music as something other than 'clown' entertainment? If so how could we change the attitude of society to understand music as something worth investing in? As I mentioned at the beginning of the post we did once take music very seriously. Boethius 480AD to 525AD, taught what he called the Quadrivium. The four subjects that made up the Quadrivium were: music, astronomy, mathematics and geometry. These were considered the subjects to study, and naturally all intellectuals studied these. Even up until the 1500's and beyond these ideas were taken very seriously. For another example see the picture at the top of the page taken from Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica (1512). Reisch was one of the several people that wrote about music as a science. At this period the general thinking, influenced by the 'mythical' discoveries of Pythagoras relating to intervals and pitch, was that anything that moved produced a sound, which is perfectly true. Sound was what our world was made of and was a way of understanding how the planets, the earth and the solar system were linked via sound. Our world vibrated in harmony! Connections were made linking the distance between the earth, the moon and the sun, and the distance between our feet, heart and brain. Of course we've come a long way since then, but probably what might surprise many people is that another important discovery was made via music. In part due to astrologists and scientists people like Robert Fludd (see the diagram below) along with Johannes Kepler studied distances between the planets in terms of musical intervals. Due to this 'musical' scientific research Kepler cracked the big nut, understanding the idea of planetary ellipses.  

At the moment the only real money being invested into music is sadly, although understandably, for commercial gains. Even though society has, often without being aware, benefited from research in universities, it seems that most people still think that the only important music is the commercial music field. I wonder how many people are aware that universities have developed keyboards such as the Yamaha DX7, software like Max-MSP and games such as Guitar Hero, to name a few. Without these inventions we wouldn't have had even half of the pop music that we've taken for granted since 30 years. As mentioned already TV spends it's time trying to persuade us to participate in modern day gladiatorial style media shows, where we witness people who have no sense of self value. I suspect because of this much of our capacity to evaluate real culture is fast disappearing. Modern avant garde music is of minority interest and considered marginal, when in fact it's this music that develops the sounds that we take for granted tomorrow. Governments still refuse to invest properly in music (not pop music, variety and television), and that also includes helping struggling artists who can't make ends meet without taking day jobs to pay the telephone bill.

Unfortunately it is not possible to go further into all these theories in this blog post. However, considering these ideas shaped our culture, both east and west, up until the seventeenth century. So how come we've strayed so far from the notion of music as something central to understanding ourselves, our universe and lives? Will we ever see a resurgence of music as science? We take it for granted that one has to pay for health care, after all we couldn't live without it. But could we live without the arts?

We probably spend most of our waking hours listening to music via the radio, on computers, watching films on YouTube, looking at images in newspapers and magazines. All these are part of the arts and one has to wonder what type of world our society would be with none of these. Seems like a bleak prospect to me!

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