A Useless Kind of Pleasure?

By Kuzmich, Natalie | The Canadian Music Educator, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

A Useless Kind of Pleasure?


Kuzmich, Natalie, The Canadian Music Educator


"Music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots ... of our mental faculties. It is a useless kind of pleasure. Compared to the other arts, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged." (Pinker, 1997, p. 534)

But many do find it useful. It accompanies almost everything people do. It "reinforces habit, paces work, exalts religion, and suffuses tradition"(McNeil, 3); however, music's continuous presence in shopping malls, elevators, restaurants, and the like, can be annoying. Fiske (2008) believes that the ubiquity of music camouflages the cognitive requirements of musical listening and understanding. He defies Pinker's "auditory cheesecake" by demonstrating that "musical thinking is on the same level (of complexity) as .. solving problems in mathematics, writing poetry, or playing a game of chess"(12).

Neurologists, too, give specialized treatment to music cognition. A review in the journal "Current Advances in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Music "demonstrates "the important role music can play in informing broad theories of higher order cognitive processes such as music in humans" (Levitin & Tirovolas, 2009). In 2016, researchers, Nancy Kanwisher and Josh McDermott at MIT, "have identified neural pathways that react almost exclusively to the sound of music" (Angier, 2016, p. 2), thereby meriting "a specific circuitry that responds to music over speech"(ibid, p. 3). For Younker (2015), "Music engages in multiple neural systems" leading to the additional claim that "music is a rich sensory motor and emotional experience."*

Music is not always pleasureful. It can be associated with misery and/or violence.

In 1944, Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz, were forced to march to a polka from Schubert's Rosamunde, a morale destroying situation. Iraqi soldiers used heavy metal and gangsta rap to enhance their hostility against the enemy. Bound detainees in Guantanamo were assaulted by heavy metal rap, and children's tunes, such as the Barney theme "I love you/ You love me/ We're a happy family." Incidentally, Newsweek personnel felt they were being abused when subjected to five minutes of the "cloying" Barney theme as they waited for comments from the show's personnel (Ross, 2016, p. 66).

Hannibal appears to find music pleasurable. In the movie Silence of the Lambs he meditates to sounds of Bach's Goldberg Variations after assaulting two police officers who are guarding his cell.

Alex, the protagonist in the novella, A Clockwork Orange, loves to listen to the classics, in particular, the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. Alex seems to know what is happening in the music. His ecstatic response, however, tends to enhance his brutality. Indeed, the sounds of the last movement in the Ninth figure prominently during rape and murder scenes (Burgess, 46-47).*

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, appears to take into account classical musical form - one resembling ABA with each part containing seven chapters. The two As are mirror images of each other. During the first A, the protagonist, Alex, preys on unwitting and unwilling victims. The second A could be interpreted as an inversion of the first during which, his former victims willingly prey on him. Repeated phrases throughout the text, such as, "O my brothers" and "What's it going to be then eh" may be said to resemble musical motives. **

This is not the entirely the same as listening to a work in ABA form with motifs and manipulated ideas that do require a considerable amount of aural concentration.

Alex's classical music is linked to violence; Hannibal's, to meditation after the violence. Both are aware of happenings in the music and both respond in different ways. As do youthful loiterers, who, upon hearing classical selections, quickly leave the premises (Ross, 2016, p. 65); as do listeners, who, not understanding the happenings in the music, find sounds, meant to enhance musical intensity, painful. …

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