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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Scientific music

A really great piece of music, one that strikes us immediately as having exceptional qualities, is likely to be music that does not require the listener to have remarkable powers of scientific deduction or phenomenal technical insight or any special mathematical gift. Maybe it requires its listeners to think a little, to concentrate upon identifying its principal thematic components and to identify and appreciate the processes of change they undergo. But far from feeling at a disadvantage for not 'understanding' the music, it is more possible that we could be persuaded by some abstract communication that we, as listeners, can relax and allow emotional communication to work its magic.

To be a success as a serious work of art it should not be necessary to make heavy demands on the intellect. Having to bring the powers of reasoning and thinking into play in order to find a path through confused obscurity must surely be an indication that the artist's capacity for transmission is critically at fault. The listener should have an immediate sensation of being spoken to by one who is articulate and lucid. If, as Stravinsky once carelessly suggested, music expresses nothing ('the tonal masses are to be regarded objectively by the ear'), then there is little purpose in listening to it. Music does not enter our consciousness through the mind, but through sensation. Sounds that stimulate tears or sleep or frenzy are not simply an intellectual transmission. If it is necessary to apply a scientific rigour to the appreciation of a musical performance, then it could be suggested that its invention made too great a demand upon its inventor than is appropriate for this mode of artistic designing. Worse still, the inventor did not apparently understand the purpose of music, nor had any sensitivity to its powers at all.

We are all aware that music can be degraded to sentimental pulp by little people who have far more opportunity to market their nonsense than talent to make it. But transporting the art from its emotional environment into the sphere of pure intellectual logic is just as appalling. Music that requires its listeners only to be thinkers is insulting science and mathematics, which do that job far better, and is an admission by its inventors that they are incapable.

Copyright © 30 December 2004 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK





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