05/23/2012 08:26 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

The Muse That Roars

Q: We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

(This is a revised version of a submission to Carnegie's Spring For Music blogger competition.)

Let's consider music from a psychological perspective for a moment: Sound waves are generated, and they travel through the air and enter our ears. Upon entering, something involuntary happens in the brain; the listener processes these sounds and almost instantaneously builds psychological and emotional analogies, metaphors, simulacra (call them what you will). These then actually alter the listener's mood. And this happens regardless of whether there are lyrics present or not.

The effect of these sound waves can be profound. Ask the next person you see the following questions: "Why do you listen to music? What does music do for you?"  I'm sure you'll get the same answers I always get when I pose this question:
  • Music helps me to feel happy again.
  • Music makes me feel closer to God.
  • Music soothes me.
  • Music pumps me up for my workout.
  • Music helps me relax.
  • Music helps me to lose my inhibitions.
  • Music helps me get my work done.
  • Music helps me concentrate.
  • Music helps me to sleep and it helps to wake me up.

(As an aside, these responses make me thankful that music is not a new invention; if it were, I'm sure it would be highly regulated and taxed as a powerful, dangerous, and certainly addictive narcotic and a stimulant. I take that back -- they wouldn't regulate it, they'd classify it as a Schedule I Controlled Substance and make it illegal!)

I'm certainly not the first person to talk about music's power as a cultural force. The Ancient Greeks were wary of music's potential to lead a culture to decline, enough so that musicians playing scales or chords that were deemed to be decadent could be forced to leave the city, lest they corrupt the citizenry. Philosophers and others throughout history -- Boethius (c. 475-526), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900), and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) to name a few -- have argued similarly about music and its effect on culture, usually through discussions of music and morality and ethics. (I touched on this topic briefly in a post on heavy metal and jazz.) Far from being finished, the discussion continues unabated in our day, with conservative commentators like Roger Scruton and the Rev. Basil Nortz sounding the warning to be careful with this seemingly innocuous art form. We laugh at such notions today -- music is just entertainment, a fun way to pass the time -- how quaint of those old philosophers and these stodgy conservatives to think such silly things.

But what if they're right on some level? If music can indeed somehow lead a culture in certain directions, we should be able to find some evidence for that. Let's consider the history of American Music in the last century. The story of jazz is the story of an oppressed minority, unable to ride the same bus as white people, unable to drink from the same drinking fountains, unable to live their lives unencumbered by senseless bigotry and hatred. The right to make music, however, was not illegal, and they did indeed make music. Glorious music, chaotic music, heartfelt and deep music, new music that had never, ever been heard before, and music that could only have been Made in America. They developed their own music and their own subculture, existing in the shadows of the dominant culture at first, but then what happened? The barriers between white and black were removed by the musicians themselves at first, then by their audiences.

Over time, popular culture in the United States was centered on jazz culture, to the point where we incorporated and mainstreamed its attitudes, postures, and even its slang. After 40-50 years, this movement was powerful enough to assert its political voice, culminating in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Is it a coincidence that jazz peaked at that time, waning ever since in terms of popularity and relevance? I don't think so. Culture giveth and it taketh away. (Similarly, rock and roll started in the '50s, and 20 years later, a full-blown cultural revolution centered around the music's aesthetics and politics took the country, and indeed the world, by storm.)

In Europe before and after WWII, jazz was in a similar position, residing in the subculture, but the dominant political culture was opposed to it; neither the Nazis nor the Soviets liked jazz very much. These authoritarians explicitly recognized music's innate power to nurture cultural movements, and they acted to prevent people from engaging in forms of music that were, at their core, in their very essence, liberating. Schopenhauer thought that music was the most direct expression of what he called Der Wille (the Will) which we might define as the "life force" inside of us all, the thing that pushes us forward, drives us to invent and create. If he's correct, then it makes sense that the oppressive regimes in the 20th century would try to silence that Will; it was a direct challenge to their control, and they knew it. In both cases (Europe and the United States) people were caged and, sometimes literally, shackled, and it was music that gave voice to their incontrovertible humanity and their cry for freedom. In time, that cry became the thunderous roar of millions and millions who demanded freedom and equality. And where did it start? It started with someone playing a guitar, or a piano, singing a harmless song, while simultaneously sparking the tinder for a big fire to come.

I am not saying that music is a direct cause of any of this, nor am I saying that music is the only art involved in these cultural movements. Poetry, dance, and literature were certainly also involved with jazz culture, but music was, I think, the central and defining element. I am saying, however, that music is the place in our culture where movements and change are born, nurtured, and allowed to develop  before slithering slowly into the dominant culture, where they may or may not take hold. If you want to see the state of contemporary culture as it thrashes, flails, and thrives, look at music in all its various forms; there you'll see myriad cultural movements being born.