Monday, April 26, 2010

About the Healing Power of Music --Part 3 (of 3)

We may also divide music into fun levels and serious, soul feeding levels. For example, ragtime can be really catchy and fun, but does it suggest deep metaphysical connections? Early rock n roll is fun for me, but not suggestive of depth. Of course, my guess is that not everyone wants to hear depth in music---maybe some find it depressing or even existentially terrifying.

Certain forms of music can have a mathematical aspect, which can be especially appealing to those of us inclined toward math appreciation. Indeed, the opposite could be claimed, namely that to some of us mathematics itself can have an aesthetic component. Equations and proofs can strike some of us a very beautiful, and can excite wonder. But admittedly the person for whom this is the case is probably in the minority. The music of Bach comes to mind here---indeed, I believe that late in his life Bach did join a mathematical society, and provided a fugue or a round as his requisite mathematical work.

I think another level involved in appreciating music is just an appreciation of the level of virtuosity required to play it. Classical piano has an obvious athletic appeal when certain spectacularly difficult and fast pieces are played, such as “the Bumble Boogie”, many of Chopin’s Polonaises, or Liszt’s virtuoso pieces. Or think of Paganini’s music for the violin, which appears almost impossibly difficult. Of course, a great many other virtuoso showpieces by numerous composers could be mentioned. But are such pieces reaching us emotionally and in terms of pure music?

Yet another consideration is whether music, to be appreciated in some ways or at some levels, needs to be uplifting or healing. In a way that is analogous to tragedy in the theater arts, perhaps dark “depressing” music has an essential place in the musical palette of some of us. Of course, it can be argued that while such music is superficially a “downer”, it may on the whole have a positive effect on the listener that seeks it out, just as tragedy does in literature and the other s arts.

To return to one the original questions about what kinds of music are useful in “music therapy”, I think all of the above considerations tend to show that the topic is very complex. In particular, people who merely assume without much thought that “music is healing”, or that “music is uplifting”, have probably not thought through all of the issues. And I suggest that a “one size fits all” attitude to the music therapy issue is as ridiculous as assuming that one particular medicine would cure all the various forms of sickness and ailments that human being can have. Just as in the case with any treatment--medicinal, surgical, or otherwise---the music that might help a given patient will depend on many factors, particularly that individuals tastes, as well as the patients mood, context, and condition at a given time.

Me, I find music indispensable, and certain forms bring enormous joy to my life. But by no means do I love “all kinds of music”, and I strongly suspect that few, if any, really do, in spite of the frequently heard claim.

To sum up, the appreciation of music is a highly subjective and complicated thing. For some of us, music represents the noblest and holiest art form available to us in this world. It can obsess us, and seem to be something we cannot imagine living without. For others, it seems to be primarily a form of pleasantry, something to provide an ambience, or a badge of showing what social group we identify with. Music therapy is likely; it seems to me, to be most effective with the former type.

About the Healing Power of Music --Part 2 (of 3)

For me, the ultimate music is that of Johann Sebastian Bach. And of course there have been many claims by music therapists that his music is somehow almost mystically healing. I recall back in the 60’s and 70’s there were claims made that plants grew more lushly when Bach was played in the air around them. I was always skeptical of this, but suppose I liked the idea from a poetical standpoint. Websites claiming this can still be found (1,2).
(Interestingly, both of the above sites claim that both Bach and Indian sitar music were most effective an enhancing plant growth.)

The music therapist Andrew Weill has written a book about what composers (in the “classical” realm) are effective for healing purposes and which ones are not. Bach along with Mozart and Brahms are composers he seems to find effective for therapy and healing of body and spirit.

But I have number of very good friends who do not seem to enjoy Bach’s music at all. A frequent claim from some of them, which I find astonishingly incomprehensible, is that they find it mechanical. I had another friend, an older gentleman that flew planes in WW II, that even went so far as to claim that Bach’s music was “noise”.

And think not for a minute that a person has to be Christian or even religious to greatly appreciate Bach—prominent atheist Richard Dawkins has asserted that Bach’s St Matthew passion is the one work that he would take with him to a desert island, were he forced to choose only one piece (in BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs )

I know some of my friends and colleagues find “new age” music soothing and relaxing. Though I have heard exceptions, generally I find music that falls within this genre tiresome and even irritating. It tends to stay on the same harmony for too long, and generally involves an unacceptable (to me) degree of repetition of phrases and themes. So for example, if I were confined to a hospital bed, and were to be subjected to this type of music, I imagine my health and general disposition would deteriorate rapidly.

Another aspect of this issue we must consider is the time interval of subjection factor. To take an example from my personal experience: I will frequently turn the XM dial to the bluegrass station (channel 14 at the present time), and become quite enthused and emotional for some interval of time. Typically 20 to 30 minutes. But after that time, the appeal of it will tend to lessen, and I’ll change to another station (or quite often decide silence is the best environment within the car---such as it is in city driving).

So, generalizing recklessly, I suggest that there are forms of music that may appeal to a given person for some interval of time, but not for an indefinite time. For example, one often hears another person say something like, I enjoy listening to bluegrass (or bagpipes, or pipe organ, or flamenco guitar , etc) for a short time (e.g., maybe 20 to 30 minutes), but after that it all starts sounding the same to me, and loses its punch or appeal.

The social context necessarily enters into ones appreciation and dislike of a certain form. For example, I suspect that “country” music has a strong socio-economic correlation. The life style, tending towards a “red neck” one, that tends to be represented in C&W is something that not all of us city bred folk can relate to. The same thing probably works in reverse with regard to classical or jazz, i.e., people whose live contexts are primarily rural and/or blue collar may find it difficult to relate to these forms, because they tend to (perhaps in some cases rightly) associate the followers of those styles with “elitists” and even pretentious snobs. I realize I am generalizing outrageously, and there are a great many exceptions on both sides of the equation. The point I am trying to make is that the life style and context of a person’s life is probably statistically correlated to what kinds of music they like. This is perhaps strongest in connection with rap and hip-hop, where the music has originated in a black inner city context. That the lyrics are often obscene and violently racist is a further turn off to a lot of people that live outside of that environment.

Do people sometimes posture as liking a kind of music that places them in a desirable (in their mind) group? I suspect that yes, this is often the case. Maybe classical music would in fact be a good example here, where an appearance of being interested in “long hair” music can easily be associated with being “intellectual” and a member of the social elite.

Nostalgia plays a very key role, I am sure. For example, when I hear Rock a Billy or pre 1965 black blues, I am thrown back to my youth. Would I love that music if I were hearing it for the first time, with no memory involved? I don’t know (but I am guessing that I would love the pre 1965 black blues—it had an immediate appeal to me as a teen, in spite of it not being a mainstream, popular (among suburban white kids) form.

We must also consider the situation that one is in. If I am driving in heavy traffic, it is not a good time to appreciate an intense, deep form of music such as a Bach organ fugue. The harp music of the Irish bard Turlough O’Carolan can evoke wonder and imaginative images, but it will not be likely to do so if I am having a cavity drilled in the dentist chair. Maybe the deepest music requires a context where on can be in repose.

Yet another aspect of music that might affect ones judgment of it is the physical. That is, the timbre and tone and volume of the particular musical style or piece. Examples: some love the Scottish bagpipes, while many profess to hate them. Doubtless there are cultural associations at work too, but it is likely that the physical characteristics of the bagpipes sound, even when well played (maybe especially when well played, ), offends some ears. In my case, while I love the bagpipes, I could probably not enjoy listening to solo pipes for more than about 30 minutes or so. The effect, pleasing and exciting at first, begins to pall after a time. I know people who dislike the sound of the pipe organ---the opposite of me, as I love it with a passion---but perhaps the sound causes some kind of unpleasant resonance effect in their ear drums, precluding any enjoyment of the composition itself. The guitar is an instrument that, assuming it is reasonably well played and, most importantly, in tune, appeals strongly to me in all of its various forms. Even a piece of “new age” music, if not too heavy on monotonous repetition or simplistic harmony, can have some appeal for me. So if I am typical, certain instruments have an inherent appeal simply because of their physical characteristics, such as overtones, volume etc. I must add a personal note: I had not thought much about this until writing this essay, but in my case there are not really any conventional instruments that rub me badly. But there are certain ones that tend to inherently appeal more to me: the classical guitar, the organ, the piano, the lute, the fiddle (played in folk styles such as Celtic and bluegrass), the trumpet (in a bebop or post bop style), the saxophone (in rock n roll or bebop like Charlie Parker), the pipes (Irish or Scottish), the Irish flute, the cello, the harp (folk or classical), the oboe, the clarinet, and the harpsichord. Instruments that tend to have a more limited appeal (in spite of there being appealing musical pieces using them) are the flute (the classical metal one), drums (in isolation from pitched instruments).

(continued in Part 3)

About the Healing Power of Music--Part 1 (of 3)

What kinds of music are healing, what kinds of music are uplifting, or pleasing in various (sometimes subtle) ways. This is a topic of some interest, not only to me, but to many people in the field of, for example, “music therapy”. It is of immediate and pressing interest to me at the present time, being involved as I am in playing music for patients in hospitals and sometimes even for hospice patients. I want to be assured that the music I play (on classical guitar) helps them, and above all, is not hurtful to them in any way.

Of course, the issue of the effects of music on people is of practical monetary interest to such groups as the advertising agencies, since usually music accompanies an ad, and they want it too be effective---and this certainly means, at the very least, not annoying to the potentially buying public. Also, restaurant owners would seem to have an interest in the issue, since most restaurants today use “background music” (in some, such as the typical “TGIF” watering hole, it is not even background, but often “in your face”, making it difficult to converse). But I will not be concerned with such commercial issues, only more or less with the therapeutic aspect.

I believe that the simple truth is that we in the western world hear too much music today. What with iPod’s, MP3 players, iTunes, Pandora, XM radio, Youtube, plus the usual fm & am radio and the easy availability of music CD’s, it is almost impossible to find a public place where some kind of music is not being played.

So what is “too much music”? I would suggest it is analogous to what a life of constant nibbling on snacks does to the enjoyment of good food---it tends to minimize its effect, reduces its enjoyment, and most people actually tend to “tune it out”. A shame really, as this means that too many people today are losing the ability to really get a big bang out of music.

Contrast this with what surely must have been the situation throughout most of human history, certainly prior to the advent of electronic recording media, where music was necessarily restricted to live performances. For example, somewhere I read classical guitarist/composer Andrew York’s poignant speculation about a rural person in the 1500’s making a trip into a city, and happening to pass by the outside of a cathedral from whence the practicing of a choir could be heard. York imagined that the person had never heard such music in his/her life, stood transfixed for a few moments, and for the rest of his/her life would savor and never forgot that experience. A poignant image, although hard to imagine ourselves in that situation today.

Of course, the music we hear now is a mixture of music we choose---such as that we might listen to in our car’s CD player or on our ipod—and music we do not choose, such as what is played in airport lounges, restaurants, gyms, etc. In the latter case, the music is quite often, and dubiously in my opinion, functioning as “background music”, and is not always intended to be listened to that way one would be expected to listed to a symphonic or jazz concert. Exceptions here are cases where the music is at such a strong volume that it is not easily possible to tune it out, and in fact can be difficult to converse with associates over the music. And rock concerts, in my experience e, far exceed even that level, and may require the use of ear plugs to reduce the sound level to non-painful levels. (I admit to be completely contemptuous of this latter phenomenon, which seems the height of irrationality---seeking out and paying for experiencing music at levels that can permanently damage or degrade ones capability for fully hearing music in the future).

Is there ever a place for background music, we might wonder? Actually, maybe---for me, certain forms of jazz can be effective. But since we all differ in what we consider acceptable and unacceptable forms of jazz, even that would seem to restrict its use to situation involving persons of like tastes (such as might happen at a private party).

Some forms of music can be relatively controversial, such as rap or hip-hop (I know some will immediately say that “that is not music”, but rather a form of rhythmic chanting---I disagree, and do recognize it as qualifying as music in the general sense of the word).

Musical forms exist today in an amazing variety. One cannot even sensibly speak of classical, jazz, rock, and folk, as there are dozens or even hundreds of sub genres and nuances within each of these broad labels. I am always amused, and privately very skeptical when people give the common reply, when asked what kind of music they like, “I like all kinds of music”. In the first place, I am pretty sure they do not, and in the second place it is unlikely that they have any idea what exactly “all kinds of music” involves. I am sure I do not.

The Onion has spoofed this “I like all kinds of music” response . And by the way, a google search on “I like all kinds of music’ will bring up a great number of interesting blogs and discussion forums, most of them seemingly poking fun at the people that make this statement. I am not the only one that is skeptical about that oh-so-common claim.

But surely most everyone today has heard, whether they explicitly realize it or not, a great many kinds of music. Maybe some of it was in the background, and was largely unheard consciously.

I want to suggest that most people really like some small set of musical types, perhaps 4 or 5 genres that they might actively seek out. How do I think this is plausible? Well, partly based on my perusal of friends and acquaintances “shared iTunes libraries”, where I usually see a mixture of folk and rock with a bit of light classics thrown in. Admittedly, this is based on very limited “statistics”, so I am indeed going out on a limb here. But this is really not my main pointy that I want to make—rather I want to say that it is probably rare to find two people with exactly the same palette of musical genres that they actively collect and listen too by choice. And I suspect that in general, persons A and B chosen at random would probably find that some of the genres in each others palette are mutually agreeable, while some are neutral, and quite a few positively annoying.

If I am right about this, it raises some doubts about the general efficacy of “music therapy”. Are there, let me ask, forms of music that virtually everyone would fine agreeable, let alone profoundly uplifting and “healing”. Maybe there are, but I am not sure.
(to be continued in Part 2)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two kinds of intelligent design

Today, there is a strange movement afoot referred to as “Intelligent Design” (ID). I say strange because the motivation behind it is to me not so clear. It appears to be culturally related to the earlier and very dubious “young-earth creationist” movement. But whereas one could perhaps understand (but not condone) the theological motivation behind that (shifting the blame apparently for animal suffering from God to mankind’s “fall”), I wonder what the motivation is for this newer movement?

Well, I know that it focuses on claiming that certain animal cells or parts could not have evolved in the gradual manner that Darwinian evolution postulates. Simply put, a principle of evolution is that for a trait or organ to evolve in stages, it must represent an advantage to organisms at each stage along the line. For example, for an eye to evolve, partial light sensitivity must be useful for organisms in the lineage (and I think it is easy to imagine that it would be useful to have even a very slight degree of light sensitivity). I believe that the flagellum is one example of “irreducible complexity” that ID proponents use, and I do not pretend to know anything about these biological systems, I find it dubious on the surface to argue that some trait can not have evolved gradually just because it isn’t clear how it could have. A great deal of info can be found on the web about this controversy, but most of it seems to claim that there are plausible ways that it could have evolved in the gradual way that Darwinism requires.

From a theological angle, what does this “biological ID” solve? If young earth creationism tried to provide a way around the “problem of pain” in the animal world, this latter form seems to do nothing of the kind. Animals would seem to have still killed each other and suffered long before man appeared on the scene (it is my impression that the ID movement does not dispute the billions of years old earth idea).

For my part, I think it very likely that Darwinian Evolution (in the modern post gene discovery era where it is called Neo-Darwinism) can account for all of the life forms, given that life somehow started. Now whether we will ever fully understand how exactly living forms got started, I do not know, but again my strong suspicion is that life did begin in some natural manner. I do not believe this in a dogmatic sense, but I would be surprised if it were not true. Proving it to be true is another manner, and, short of actually producing life from non-life, it is possible that we never will.

But I want to distinguish what might be considered a different kind of ID from te biological version, one that wonders if the physical universe is somehow designed by (in some sense) an enormously subtle intelligence. It could be something like a “God”, though by no means necessarily the type of God that the world’s theistic religions imagine. Or it could be a collection or panel of supernatural beings, or some kind of entities that we cannot even possibly imagine or grasp. The point is, there might be conscious agency involved in designing the laws of the universe. Suppose that the emergence of life was designed to an inevitable outcome from the initial conditions of the Big Bang, for example. It would not be necessary to imagine that a particular form of life (such as humans) might have been foreseen by the designer---indeed perhaps the chaotic, unpredictable nature of things required something like evolution to eventually produce life forms that are conceptually aware. In this view, there could be countless billions of intelligent life forms scattered through the universe, or there could be just one (us). We have no data on this.

One can imagine hundreds of variations on this idea, some involving the eventual spreading of consciousness throughout the universe. As numerous speculative science writers have pointed out, this could be the reason for the universe having “life built into it from the git-go”.

I do not, of course, know if this any of cosmological ID is actually true, or even close to the truth. I must confess that it does seem highly plausible to me that something like it is true. But I do want to point out that such a position might be called a form of ID—perhaps, “cosmological ID” would be an apt term for it—and that it would be vastly more plausible and respectable than the position represented in the current ID movement.