These days, listeners of popular music tend to think of music-making in terms of songwriting – the construction of short poems set to music, that reflect a certain universal emotion (Love, Joy or Sadness), or perhaps to tackle a big issue of the day such as war, poverty, or politics. As much as it is there to be simply to be enjoyed, music, to listeners of the early 21st Century, has also become something used to demonstrate to others something about who we are and where we fall on the cultural map. Soundtracks and playlists dominate our conception of how we listen to and “use” music today. (Fitting that social media as we know it actually started as way for people to share new music with one another, MySpace, was a place for bands to create free web space and become part of a listener’s list of new music.) The Playlist has lately been raised to the level of cultural icon. The DJ, once just a guy paid to spin records, is now a musical sorcerer who manages, through a unique sequence of pop songs, to weave a story-line or landscape for party-goers on the dance floor.
The more we listen and think about music in this way, the more we tend to want to make it for ourselves. Computer software companies have found a large profit in offering musicians of all stripes a way to record music at home rather than have to use a professional studio.¹
But as we think more deeply about the presence of music in our surroundings, a different conception occasionally comes to mind, that of a connection with the cosmos through the of a different kind of music, one that occurs outside of our selection and iPod. Occasionally, we can allow the existence of incidental sounds in a stage, film or telelvision production, but we increasingly fail to perceive these sonic occurrences as any sort of music at all. They are ‘just noise’, the sonic version of detritus washed up on the beach.
Several months ago, Susan Boyle stood in front of a panel of judges on the UK television program, Britain’s Got Talent, before an audience and celebrity judges who, looking at her rather frumpy face and equally disheveled attire, instantly decided that she was there to provide some comic relief. There’s hardly a soul anywhere today who does not know what occurred next: the moment her mouth opened it was clear that she was going to be a sensation, at least for a time, and the judges and the audience sat stunned at the powerful singing voice that belted out “I Dreamed A Dream”. The message was clear, whether it was staged or genuine. Sound, good sound, has the power to transform any effect fom visual stimulus, transforming Susan Boyle from an ordinary, perhaps irritating presence, to someone that belongs on stage.from the Flickr collection of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Just how dramatic this transformation is can be glimpsed in a book like this one, which seeks to unite some of the technical facts about sound and frequencies, with the more esoteric ideas of the past, rooted in religion, ancient philosophy and mysticism. It does so in a way that doesn’t seek to teach us too much about the details, but helps us recognize presence of details nonetheless. It is often difficult to put the arts in a proper historical context without first seeking to strip away all of our present-day received ideas about what qualities we most enjoyable. As making music to make money becomes a nearly obsolete concept, this insight should be welcome to musicians and listeners alike. Art and music, like language probably had very different contexts surrounding them in other periods of history. Some elements of a period can be recalled easily, pieced together from our general knowledge of history or the lucky acquisition of the right manuscripts, while others must remain a mystery until historians stumble upon the perfect missing detail.
As small and pithy as The Elements of Music is, it manages to convey some big ideas. For one, it demonstrates how music and all art may have served practical purposes very different from those of today. The book and its companions published under the Wooden Books imprint by Walker & Company manage to pack in enough information without over-explaning. They are a bit like greeting cards, with more philosophy and interesting facts. The key is that the books use visually arresting graphics (woodcuts, intaglio, and line-drawn cartoons printed in black and white). The effect is something that a bit less practical and more philosophical than the Dummies series. Instead of getting us up to speed on any given topic, books in the Wooden Books series give us something to sink our teeth into (and it makes a nice gift).