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  Music (Greek mousike, ‘what the Muses know’) is the art of organizing sounds, creating relationships and patterns to challenge and stimulate the mind. It is a performing art, and (unless the musician is performing for his or her own satisfaction) depends on interaction between performer and listener. The performer creates a sequence of sounds expressing emotion, intellectual ideas, or both, and the listener hears them, responding to their ‘meaning’ or assigning new meanings which are his or her own interpretation. A similar process happens with language, but there the sounds are fewer and less varied, and the specific meanings assigned to them by convention are more commonly agreed. Musical sounds are suggestive rather than particular, evocative rather than exact, and so offer an enormous range of intellectual and emotional possibility, challenge and satisfaction.

Anthropologists suggest that music\'s original purpose may have been magic: an attempt, using human sounds, to re-create the supposed speech of gods and spirits, and so to communicate with them. In ancient Greece, Pythagoras thought that heavenly bodies made sounds as they moved through space—the music of the spheres, which, for him, was an expression of the mathematical harmony and perfection of the universe. In a similar way, native people may have believed that the sounds heard on Earth (animal shrieks and howls, the random noises of infants, the rustling, groaning and gurgling of such inanimate objects as trees, rocks and water) were expressions of contentment or irritation by guardian spirits, and that music was a way to share them, to celebrate or restore the harmony of all created things. In particular, music was often used as part of such ‘performances’ as funerals, weddings and the enactment of battles and hunts, when the spirits had to be attracted to bring good luck.

Throughout human history, music has continued to play a similar role. However removed they may be in style, the chanting of a Christian archbishop, the humming of Buddhist monks, the cymbal-clashing and trumpet-blowing as Hindu god-statues are carried in procession, are no different in essence from the drumming and ululation of animist religion, and their purpose is the same: to establish communication between natural and supernatural worlds. Music serves a similar function in secular pomp and circumstance: fanfares to herald important personages, marches, drum-rolls for acrobats, all are signals that what is happening is an enhancement of everyday experience.

Nonetheless, all such ‘anthropological’ or social uses of music are secondary to what rapidly became its primary function: as a performance, intended to satisfy participants and listeners alike. There is more than a hint of show in the performance of a shaman, or in the religious music of a great temple or cathedral—and the show is intended for human ears just as much as, if not more than, for its supernatural audience. Singing and dancing at carnivals, sports matches, weddings and other occasions is primarily for fun. Dance, music-theatre and instrumental and vocal performances of all kinds may have originated in religious or social ritual, but they have now become primarily entertainment in forms far removed from such origins. Paradoxically, people often still talk of the effect of such performances as if they had superhuman power. Music is heady, we say; it stimulates and entrances; it takes us into other states of being.

As in the other arts, a sharp distinction quickly grew in music between ordinary practitioners and specialists. The trumpeters of King Solomon\'s Temple in Jerusalem, 3,000 years ago, insisted on being treated as a group apart. Their skills and the music they played were centuries-old hereditary secrets, and they refused to take part in any non-Temple musical activities. Similarly, the skills of Indian classical music, or of Asian temple music, were passed down from teacher to pupil, aloof from possible contamination by the popular traditions beyond the borders of their art. In Europe, medieval musicians formed official guilds and cliques, often conducting lawsuits and fighting battles to preserve their exclusivity. In the modern world, although teaching and knowledge are more widely available, a gulf still exists between the ordinary family or local performer and such huge (and hugely-rewarded) public celebrities as opera singers, pop stars or solo recitalists.

Thus, while the vast majority of the world\'s music is and always has been folk-based, functional and direct in both expression and appeal, there have also arisen some highly sophisticated, élitist and (it must be admitted) minority forms of music, regarded as among the highest artistic achievements of the human mind. They are not necessarily more sophisticated than popular music—indeed, ‘art’ music has to work hard to be as complex in effect, and as simple in construction, as the multiple-rhythm drumming of West Africa, Balinese gamelan or the harmonic and melodic nuances of Portuguese fado or Southern US blues. But, perhaps because of their origins as minority entertainments for the rich, some types of music have become cultural jewels, to the point where they are self-referential, self-perpetuating and (it would seem) almost beyond improvement. The traditions of Chinese court music, Indian classical music, Japanese theatre music and Western classical music have become like still-living fossils: on the one hand embalmed in time, on the other as organic and vibrant now as they ever were.

Western classical music is a unique case. All other music—there are no exceptions—is improvised. Its basic ideas may be passed on from performer to performer, in a more or less rigorous way, but each performer adds his or her own ideas in performance, responding directly to the mood of the moment and/or the listeners\' response. In pieces of Western classical music, by contrast, a score exists: a detailed notation of what the music\'s creator had in mind, a blueprint for performance. This began for practical purposes in the early Middle Ages (to ensure that Christian missionaries, everywhere in Europe, used the same musical material in the same services in the same way), and developed over centuries until notes, speed, dynamics and attack (the way the sounds are physically made) are meticulously prescribed, and the performer\'s job is to realize not so much spontanteous feelings as his or her idea of what the original composer had in mind. In the past, some composers left embellishment of the music to the performers (in the ‘divisions’ of Renaissance music, for example, or the ornaments and cadenzas added in 18th-century music). Some modern composers and performers are experimenting with a blend between notated and improvised music (sometimes enhanced and randomized by computer). But by and large we can be surer of the intentions of past creators of genius in Western classical music, from Palestrina to Mozart, from Handel to Tchaikovsky, than in any other form of the art until the invention of recording.

Recording has had an incalculable effect on our appreciation of music today. First, it has internationalized music in ways impossible on such a scale before. Musical styles and techniques counterpoint, jazz, gamelan, raga and the work of performers of genius are available everywhere, inspiring new performers in the same or widely differing traditions. Young musicians have access to an enormous archive of the past: not an aural museum but a storehouse of ideas. This has made 20th-century music catholic, tolerant and assimilative in a way scarcely known before. Specialists from one particular tradition or another sometimes deplore this, and recommend retreat into their own stylistic ghetto. But the availability of music of all kinds, the democratization of the art, has liberated it from its past in a unique way. The future of music, its stylistic direction, is unpredictable and creatively open-ended in a way not paralleled in any other art. KMcL

Further reading Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music; , Geoffrey Hindley (ed.), The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music (one of the best and most comprehensive accounts of all kinds of music ever compiled: in one volume).



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