The need for bad music

Thomas Webster, The Village Choir (c. 1847)
Thomas Webster, The Village Choir (c. 1847)

Dot writes: Recently I read How Music Works, by David Byrne (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012; pbk edn 2013). It’s an excellent and readable book, full of interesting ideas. I learnt a lot about the history of recorded music and the influence of technology upon creative decisions; about where the money goes when I buy a CD or download (this confirmed my preference for buying from Bandcamp where possible); and about David Byrne’s own varied career in Talking Heads and afterwards. I also wanted to talk back from time to time, always a good sign of a book that sets you thinking.

The chapter that got me feeling especially chatty was one entitled “Amateurs!” I’d like to argue with it mildly because it doesn’t say as much as I’d like about amateurs. Byrne argues that the advent of recorded music made people less likely to play music themselves: the focus in music education shifted from trying to play oneself to appreciating the great works of others. That wasn’t true of my experience of music classes at school, though education in listening did play a part – and I think learning to listen well is extremely valuable, a deeply rewarding skill. But I’m sure he’s right that easy exposure to ‘perfect’ performances makes people less motivated to produce their own imperfect ones. He makes the point that capitalism wants people to be consumers of music – buyers of a product – rather than producers of their own (he avoids sounding too radical by observing that industries benefit from people being creative). He is also critical of the way governments, specifically the US government, fund the arts.

Here he gets drawn into what I find a somewhat unhelpful opposition between expensive, prestigious ‘high’ art and popular art. Yes, orchestras are expensive and it would be good to offer support to a broad range of art forms, but I don’t find reverse snobbery any more enriching to the human spirit than ordinary snobbery. Not that David Byrne is any kind of snob. Actually he’s maddeningly reasonable. Most of the things I felt miffed about the first time I read the chapter he turns out, when I look again, to have carefully hedged (for example, he disowns any straightforward rejection of classical music, or an exclusive association of such music with elites or social climbing); but I do feel uneasy at his readiness to criticise, say, opera on the grounds it doesn’t have a mass market, and to complain about certain famous orchestras being stuck in the mud. Good art is worth keeping alive even if not many people appreciate it. Whether something is popular or not in terms of sheer numbers has more to do with how people are exposed to it and the identity politics it’s embedded in than in whether it is genuinely illuminating or beautiful. At the same time I agree that an exclusive focus on selected genres of art is unhelpful, that good music doesn’t have to mean classical music, and that there ought to be some way for people to earn a decent living making music without having to have a job with a symphony orchestra. (Actually I have a couple of friends who work for the RTE Symphony Orchestra and it hasn’t been a very happy place to be employed in recent years. But that’s by the by.)

But what I want to amplify is that there has to be a place for art that isn’t especially good. Byrne talks about the social benefits of making music and the advantages of music education. He mentions El Sistema in Venezuela and various projects bringing music to the favelas in Brazil. Of one of the latter he writes:

I visited José Junior’s center and, to be honest, the music I heard was not always among the best stuff I’ve ever heard in Brazil. That’s not the point, though…. Music as social glue, as a self-empowering change agent, is maybe more profound than how perfectly a specific song is composed or how immaculately tight a band is. (p. 314)

The benefits of learning to make music are most easily argued in relation to deprived neighbourhoods and people drawn out of crime, but frankly the comfortable inhabitants of middle-class neighbourhoods could also do with more opportunities to shake off inhibition and make a noise. If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly; it needs to be easier for adults as well as children to find opportunities to explore and be creative in this way. I’m not saying quality doesn’t matter. One should try to do it well. But there are few feelings better than making music. My own avenues for this are the church choir, the Society of Recorder Players (I took up the recorder again about a year and nine months ago, before my great fit of album buying started), and latterly even my evening class in music technology – we were learning about overdubbing last week and I played and sang all the parts of The Coventry Carol, which was hugely satisfying even though it’s a simple little piece. I would love to get an opportunity to try folk music, as I’ve always been stuck in the classical box (admittedly choral music is what my voice is suited to). Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with David Byrne here so much as wanting him to shout a bit louder. Professional music is worth funding, but amateur music – good or bad – also needs to have its spaces, its teachers, its affordable instruments, for the simple reason that it makes people very happy.

3 thoughts on “The need for bad music

  1. laura

    Dot, your line about …”a thing worth doing…worth doing badly” really applies to most of us, even outside music. At one point I tried to do music, though badly, and still value the experience. Now I do philosophy badly, in my estimation, and find it’s worth it to me. No doing any music or any philosophy would leave me with not much at all: breathing, eating, sleeping, and trying to keep the roof over my head. I’ll be curious to read other reaction to your post on this. * Don’t forget “The Shaggs”, beloved of Frank Zappa. I didn’t call them bad at doing music, but….

  2. Katimum

    I had a colleague at work who loved classical music but who wouldn’t go to live concerts on the grounds that the recordings he had would be far better. This seemed to me sad and a tad selfish; the net result if everyone did this would be that there would be no new performers to record in the future, no further exploration of the pieces, probably the ultimate death of classical music itself.

    As a regular performer of bad music, however, I sometimes wonder why I put myself through it; on the other hand, you do learn so much more from being inside the music rather than just an auditor.

    1. Dot

      After I finished this post I started thinking more about how much better you know a piece of music after not just listening to it but performing it, and how much that deepens your appreciation and enjoyment. I don’t tend to listen to choral music very much, but I absolutely love singing in choirs.

      Concerts usually are rougher than recordings – so much can be fixed in the recording process, which indeed is partly what I’m learning about it my evening class. These days you can even use the computer programme to put a singer’s bum notes back in tune or subtly adjust a line that was out of time, so you get a truly unreal perfection. But there’s a thrill and immediacy to live performance it’s almost impossible to duplicate through a recording, and I think that more than balances things out. (Personally I’m rarely much engaged by television, but I love going to the theatre. That might be analogous.)

      You’re right that the audience makes an important contribution too. I enjoy going to the Society of Recorder Players but wasn’t in the concert, and I don’t feel I need to be aiming for a concert to get something out of playing the recorder. But on the whole it’s good to have a performance as a goal when you’re rehearsing something.

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