Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value

By Julian Johnson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2.
USES AND ABUSES

GOOD FOR WHAT?

Music does things for us and to us. We use it in different ways to mediate our experiences of the world and ourselves. Its capacity to shape those experiences and to define our self-awareness is the subject of myth and legend and a fact of everyday life. That such symbolic mediations can have a power and a reality greater than the everyday is an important characteristic of our symbol-dominated culture. My argument is based on the idea that we value music for what it does for us and that our musical choices reflect these values. Individually, we often make different musical choices in different social contexts, because we expect music to fulfill a range of functions for us in those contexts. Our judgment about the same piece of music can change completely depending on its context.

A piece of avant-garde music, for example, heard on the radio, might be dismissed as “rubbish” by the same person who finds it “good” (i.e., extremely effective) as the score to a horror film. By the same token, I might find the music to a film thrilling while I watch the film but rather dull presented as autonomous music in a concert hall. I expect music to fulfill quite different functions in the two contexts. We do this all the time. We have little difficulty in identifying music that is “good for” a funeral as opposed to a children's party, background music for a shopping center as opposed to music for a military parade, and so on. Furthermore, we recognize that a certain music is “good” at fulfilling certain functions even if we would not judge the music as “good in itself” if it were removed from that function. In other words, we can appreciate and even enjoy music in certain social contexts but might not use that music privately, in our own domestic space. This is important because it highlights that our musical judgments are much more astute and broad-minded once we are aware of social function. What we might think of as the functionless activity of private listening also constitutes a function of music, but one that we consider so “natural” and ubiquitous that we think its standard could be applied universally.

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