Sound may be structured or unstructured. Unstructured sound is what we call noise. We all know the effect ‘noise’ has on us: it makes us irritable and distracted. The louder it is, the more irritating it is. It makes us want to flee. If we can’t escape it, it jangles our nerves and makes us aggressive, even violent. Pity those that work in loud and noisy environment, such as jackhammer operators or horn players or violists who have to sit in front of the trumpet section in the orchestra.
Some noise is soothing. This is usually ‘white’ noise, which is mix of all frequencies, like ocean surf, a breeze, a radio tuned to no station, a waterfall. Why is this noise soothing? Perhaps because it is usually soft and continuous, without loud spikes of treble.
No one doubts that music has an effect on the human psyche, but it is interesting to compare the viewpoints on this by different cultures. Prehistoric cultures saw music as a magical healer for body and mind. In the Old Testament, David cured Saul’s madness by playing the harp. Trumpet blasts brought down the wall of Jericho.
The ancient Greeks thought music came from the gods – the first musicians were gods and demigods (Apollo, Amphion, and Orpheus). Music was a necessary part of religious ceremonies. There were two musical ‘cults’, each with its own instrument. The cult of Apollo used the lyre, while the cult of Dionysus used the aulos (like an early oboe). The Greeks believed that music had the power to influence human thought and action. Aristotle said that music represents the states of the soul – gentlelness, anger, courage, temperance, etc. Thus, to be the ‘right’ kind of person, you had to listen to the ‘right’ kind of music. For example, soft and expressive music was to be avoided for those training to become governors of the state. The Dorian and Phyrigian modes (kinds of minor scales) were recommended to promote the virtues of courage and temperance. Plato and Aristotle were not wild about the aulos, which they believed encouraged enthusiasm and excitement. They preferred the lyre for calmness and uplift of the spirit. This attitude has characterized the ‘system’ ever since, right up to the present day. Church music was based on bare-bones chorales – no ornamentaion, no appeal to the senses. ‘Classical music’ (in the Apollonian tradition) is promoted as uplifting; rock music (Dionysian) has known scorn as supposedly having a negative effect on the morals of young people.
Another aspect of the effect music has is subjective perception. Can you hear (e.g. understand) what’s going on? Kids can’t hear any structure in ‘classical music’ – it seems long and boring. Adults say that rock or pop music all sounds the same and they can’t understand the words anyway. People from western cultures think that African music is ‘primitive’ because they hear no melody or harmony, and can’t discern any patterns to the rhythms. An African native would find any kind of western music incredible boring with its complete poverty of rhythmic interest (bam bam bam bam – four beats repeating; once in a great while you might get a three against two, but no nineteen against eleven against eight against forty-seven) – harmony and melody would seem like pointless distractions from the rhythms.
We can all improve our ability to hear structure in different kinds of music with education. As someone once said, there are only two kinds of music – not pop music and classical music – there is good music and bad music. As we learn more, the more we broaden our enjoyment and broaden our minds and tolerance of other norms, cultures, and systems. There is good in every kind of music that can be appreciated. Both Apollo and Dionysus need to be part of our lives. The end result will be that less music will be irritating to you and more will be enjoyable (whether you dance to it or savor the details of structure).