During the weekend of the recent London riots, I was sitting using my laptop with three browser tabs open, one following the Twitter comments, one with live pictures of burning and looting filmed by a BBC News helicopter and the other listening to a prom, Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable". The music was stirring and fitted the images and frantic twitterings well. This wasn't just a form of voyeurism on my part as one of my daughters lives in Tottenham. Maybe, I mused, what the police riot vans needed was a sound system so that they could bombard the threatening, angry crowds with soothing ambient music. Fantasy but, who knows, it might work. Music can certainly affect the way our emotions react, particularly in a crowd situation.
A few days ago I attended a workshop. This was something off the beaten track for me and was stimulating and enjoyable from a musical point of view. It was about the affect that music has on us, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Part of the day was spent listening to extracts of "favourite" music that the participants had brought along and shared with the group. We each had an opportunity to comment on how we responded to these musical extracts. The responses were quite remarkable but not unexpected considering how wide a variety of musical tastes exists even with a small group of people, in this case about ten of us.
The point of the exercise was not to discover if there was a universal reaction to a piece of music but, on the contrary, first to note our personal responses and then to consider, as an individual, why we might have had them. There were no wrongs or rights and what was of particular interest were negative reactions. The styles of music was wide from 16th century choral to 21st century ballads and dance music. When you hear a piece of music that you don't like, the usual result is to dismiss it - what is the point of listening to something that bores or irritates? Well, there is a point, at least in my workshop environment and that was to examine exactly what it is inside us that reacts in a negative manner to certain types of music. This may, the theory goes, lead to the possibility of discovering something hidden, interesting, tucked away in our personalities, even something that we fear to acknowledge. With the subsequent new inner knowledge can come the possibility of releasing and instigating change. Music can do that, can stimulate facets of the mind and personality that normally lie hidden from view.
The day went on to explore the effects of sound, not music, on our inner selves. Fascinating stuff, especially as, when you take the time to focus and meditate on your responses, you discover that they are often quite considerable with extreme emotions possible.
Listening to music should be an enjoyable, positive experience, but that is not the end of the story. There are clearly times when enjoyment or entertainment is not the point, when effort listening to music that might be disturbing, hypnotic, dissonant, threatening even, can have, in the end, a really positive healing benefit by revealing more in ourselves than we realised was there. Some contemporary music is like this. It can be a challenge to listen to it and discover what it seeks to achieve, but taking up the challenge is often well worth the effort.