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February 24, 2000

I got so caught up in work this afternoon that when the You've Got Mail soundtrack CD ended, I didn't take the time to get up and put in another one. I worked half the day in silence. Coincidentally or not, it was one of my more productive days. Just coincidence, that's what I'm thinking. Although . . .

The March Atlantic Monthly has an article by J. Bottum which purports that the rise of recorded music in the twentieth century has resulted in (and not simply coincided with) a devaluation of thought, reason and morality. This is because, he tells us, music conveys feelings, which he apparently wants us to believe are incompatible with rational bases for common cultural values. Because music is emotive rather than intellectual, its permeation of our lives as a kind of universal soundtrack has caused a shared intellectual purpose to be replaced by an overemphasis on feelings.

Bottum seems to resent this accessibility, complaining that we no longer have to take the trouble to play our own instruments, or even go to the concert hall, in order to hear the current musical genres. He does admit that music is still developing new forms and becoming increasingly sophisticated. But music ultimately has no intellectual purpose and therefore is not an art of ideas. No one, he says, can say what a musical work means, only how it makes one feel.

Well, yes.

Music is a universal idiom precisely because it doesn't require verbal language to communicate. It conveys meaning on a level above and below the structured thought of philosophers and the wail of the babe in arms. It's an inclusive artistic construct, and each of us is allowed to bring to it what we will. Within the family and within the community, the shared musical experience weaves the tapestry that holds us together.

In giving us a common bond, music also makes the world smaller. It provides us with a way of inviting the rest of humanity into our insular society. If you hear and appreciate the passion in Latin music, you have insight into the culture that produced it. And the variety within Latin music proves that there is diversity and complexity that transcends any attempt at stereotyping. It would take a lifetime to absorb and classify the different kinds of music that are native to Africa, but what an engaging start that would make toward understanding the various peoples in the world.

And let's not forget the heart-to-heart language that brings individuals together. Music can be a nonverbal expression of feelings, romantic and otherwise, but it can also facilitate the dissemination of ideas and create the kind of bond that unites people in common understanding. Woody Guthrie told the story of the hobo in the thirties, just as the rap artists of today have brought their listeners into a world they would otherwise not even acknowledge.

Bottum would disagree with me. He calls music a "secondary art" and says:

Music cannot build a culture, and in America today music is in the way—keeping us from the higher arts that could aim at a unified idea and a public metaphysics, a purpose and meaning for our all-encircling noise.
If we are a culture without ideas, I doubt that the presence of music in our lives is the reason. It is an important art, one that brings us together — nations, communities, races, families — so that we have something in common that gives us a starting point for relating to each other. The dialogue that music can open among us may be the only way that civilization will survive and flourish.

For what it's worth, while writing this I listened to Moanin', by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

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