why are we afraid of music? TOK thoughts


Updating this piece in 2017, as a piece of shameless skulduggery: this blog has been read in a vast number of countries around the world. I am wondering of the citing of Kim Jong Un’s name will ‘break’ me into North Korea. I am reluctant to believe that his regime encourages the consumption of music other than that which is closely controlled. The article below examines this issue.

I wrote this piece in 2012, when newspapers had reported a spate of cases of Muslim parents seeking to remove their children from primary school music lessons.  My idea was to engage students in a consideration of the power and purpose of music in our lives, not to critique this action, if true as reported.  A had been reminded of it by the recent comments by Nicky Morgan which seemed to downplay the importance of music in society and by the breed of apparently emotionless automaton commuting murder on the streets of Paris and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Jonathan Peel 15/11/15


“[1]If Music be the food of love, play on” says Count Orsino and in Shakespeare’s mind there is no doubt that music is inveighed with an ability to work on our temperaments and emotions. Whether this is for good or ill remains to be seen as the play unfolds. Indeed the cynical songs of Feste help to show that music can carry a more malign influence. Elsewhere in the literature you read for IB, music is given undue prominence – Nora will dance the Tarantella as a prelude to bursting the shackles of 19th century society[2] and Kate Chopin’s Edna[3] will be given a musical path towards her awakening in which the author is clearly specific about the actual pieces of music she hears, presumably because the power is so great, there is a need for precision.

In our minds, therefore, there is a latent acceptance of music as some form of channel through which emotions can be accessed or massaged.

Recently in the news there was a report of Muslim parents removing their children from primary music lessons since they were “unislamic” and likely to undermine the character of their children. Over the 20th century there hang the ghosts of Hitler, Stalin and Mao (to cite three) and their attempts to remove “unhealthy” music from their new societies. In each of these cases composers were ruthlessly rounded up and incarcerated or murdered for writing music that did not conform to the party line.

To be clear, the Nazi Entartete Musik ban which resulted in many composers being arrested or fleeing the country and Stalin’s constant attempts to crush “formalism” as the enemy of the communist plan have similar roots. Can it be, however, that a county could be morally corrupted by music?

Dmitry Shostakovitch is probably the most high profile example of the debate in Russia. A hugely successful young composer, Shostakovitch was able to premiere his first symphony at the age of 19, whilst a student. He moved quickly into the musical life of St Petersburg/Leningrad and composed much interesting music ranging from the proto-Jazz of the Soviet Union to film scores and large scale symphonic work. Here there is interest. His 2nd symphony sets texts hailing the revolution, all is well. The fourth was in preparation in 1936 when his huge opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” opened in Leningrad and Moscow. This was well received until Stalin saw it in Moscow. Overnight, as a result of the leader’s displeasure, Shostakovitch came under attack in the press and feared for his life. His son, Maxim, remembers his father living a life in which the suitcase by the door hinted at the continual fear of the nocturnal visit from the KGB.[4] The condemnation of Shostakovitch in Pravda referred to his “formalistic perversions and undemocratic tendencies in music”.

What could this mean? The clue comes from composers such as Aram Khatchaturian, who followed a similar attack with works such as “ The meeting of the Volga and the Don” to celebrate the opening of a canal. It is no surprise that the fifth symphony was subtitled “ A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”. Opinions are sharply divided to this day over the “meaning” of the final minutes of the work. A triumphal march or a satirical march to the scaffold? The fourth symphony was not heard until 1960 when in post Stalin Russia there was something of a thaw. If Art in this form could result in death – literally- for someone “moved” to create in opposition to the government, what is the truth in art? The Formalist slur was more than name calling. The artist was shunned and ritually humiliated in public and in the press. Yet formalism implies an abstract form – something removed form easy, every-day life. Something that might make one think? Shostakovich is quoted as saying “meaning in music… must sound very strange for most people, particularly in the West. It’s here in Russia that the question is generally posed: “What was the composer trying to say, after all with this musical work? What was he trying to make clear?” The question is naïve, but despite the naivety and crudity, it must be asked…”. Should we be scared of something as abstract as music? Can we be scared of Beethoven symphony? For Stalin, as soon as a there was a possibility that a message “might” be hidden in a work, the work was suspect.

This is interesting since for most people, music has a function as being “happy” or “sad”, “moving” or “exciting”. It seems strangely affected to talk of the “meaning” of a series of chords and for most it simply does not happen. Yet historically music has been considered to have a link to the soul.

Plato’s republic takes a totalitarian view towards music. Instruments are banned and poetry heavily censored “Never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved” says Socrates. The Medieval Church forbade music based around the Tritone – the interval of a fourth. This was quite obviously the Devil’s chord (Diabolus in musica). Composers using this harsh interval were threatened with hearing the sound in hell, so evil was the music created. To Theodore Adorno, the Marxist philosopher, musical forms “ are internalisations of social forms”.

If you don’t believe me, consider the outrage when Beethoven inserted a funeral march into his third symphony and forced the audience to confront emotions raised by the Napoleonic wars. Emotions. A short step to Romanticism. Individual emotions. The fear of the Romantic in music can be seen in Vienna in the early 19th Century where not only was Beethoven encouraging anti- Hapsburgian emotion in the concert hall, but Schubert and others were taking the individual exploration into the drawing room in the explosion of Lieder written at the time, which focus on the individual rather than the general good.

No wonder tyrants fear music. An abstract art form which engages with emotion and raises the spectre of a populace free to feel their own emotion rather than to toe the line of state-sponsored complicity. It is no surprise that Beethoven was banned in Mao’s China. It is no surprise that Shostakovich had such a struggle toeing the line between satisfying the state and satisfying his wishes. The Eleventh Symphony – The Year 1905 (celebrating the first, failed, revolution) is an example. On one level bemoaning the fate of the revolutionaries gunned down in Leningrad in 1905, yet written in 1968 after the same fate had befallen the anti-communist demonstrators in the Prague Spring.

To a tyrant, formalism is threatening since the individual can “read” the truth in so many different ways. Consider the simple musical forms so loved of the Communist states as their anthems. Stirring, martial music (even the Marseillaise can be considered in this light), then consider the complexities of emotion and thought in a Mahler Symphony or a Berg Opera. If we consider the bombastic, simplistic march so loved of tyrants, the power to subvert by the addition of a discord here or a minor key there is obvious. Music has a power to inspire fear and to anticipate the worst fear of the totalitarian regime – uncertainty.

As to why the Muslim parents are so scared, maybe that is your “real life event” in an embryonic TOK presentation. The nature of emotion and rationality via perception is fascinating.

[1] Twelfth Night, 1.1. Shakespeare

[2] The Doll’s House Act 3 Ibsen

[3] The Awakening, Chopin.

[4] Maxim Shostakovitch and Dmitry Shostakovitch can ber further explored in Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” which purports to be the unexpurgated views of DS.