Can music change society?

How does music work in society?

In the text “Engaged Art” the thesis was represented and justified that the prevailing view of the complete autonomy of art in the 20th century and the associated principle “l'art pour l'art” needs to be corrected in today's situation. In my opinion, a lively dialogue between art and society is essential for both sides. The artist's task in this dialogue is also to get involved in the further development of a humane image of people and society.

Naturally, the question arises how this can be done and how such an engagement can be realized in music in particular. After all, there are a number of examples, especially in the field of pop music, in which the political engagement of artists seems rather superficial and embarrassing. In Thomas Mann's famous novel “The Magic Mountain”, the enlightener Settembrini even describes music as “politically suspect” and denies it the positive social function that he ascribes to literature. So I thought about the way music works, starting with the properties that are part of the essence of every form of music. Social engagement in the narrower sense is only at the end of my consideration. This results in the following structure:

I. Sound and self-awareness
II. Creativity and self-expression
III. Music as a lived relationship
IV. Social visions in music


I. Sound and self-awareness

The post-industrial world in which we live is characterized by a strong differentiation of areas of life, which leads to a fragmentation of people's world and self-experience. In different situations, very different role expectations are placed on the individual, which are often enforced with great pressure. The areas of work, leisure, education, consumption, and family should be mentioned. So people should be efficient, strong-willed, fight and success-oriented at their workplace. In the leisure sector, many are under pressure to have fun and trending experiences. The constant need for further training requires the ability to learn, modesty and awareness of one's own weaknesses. Consumption, which is essential for the functioning of our economic system, requires an instinctual orientation that is as uninhibited as possible. The entire otherwise excluded area of ​​emotional experience and reliable relationships should take place in the family, which often leads to excessive demands and the breakdown of the family.

In this situation, listening to and making music is an alternative to the fragmentation of the individual outlined above. Sounds are inherently uniform. They address the mind and body equally and their experience is rooted in early childhood experiences. The perception of sounds precedes all linguistic thinking and connects emotional and rational elements in people. Anyone who listens to music, and above all who makes music, has the opportunity to experience themselves as a whole being and as a unit. This experience first of all enables the inner integration of the diverging lifeworlds. It also encourages people to look for ways of shaping their lives that connect the different areas of life more closely.

Anyone who advocates music, especially the active making of music, promotes people's resilience to the fragmentation of the individual in our society.


II. Creativity and self-expression

Of course there are very different types of music. The properties of sounds described above mean that they are used specifically as calming and manipulative means, for example for continuous sprinkling in public spaces or in advertising. This type of music does not serve to make people aware of themselves, but rather to keep them from perceiving reality.

A further requirement is placed on music that is committed in a positive sense: it must be an authentic statement by the artist that corresponds to his person and his life. The musician develops his identity in the creative examination of the sounds, rhythms, moods and musical styles of his environment. In the case of an important artist, this self-development can consist in the development of a new style of music of his own. But it also takes place when an amateur musician is actively engaged in music that speaks to him personally.
This form of creative use of music is an act of human freedom. The artist realizes it by taking his form of perception and expression seriously.

He cannot be deformed as a person and pressed into purpose-oriented roles, but insists on his own personality. First of all, it is not important what comes out of this creative process. So it applies equally to jazz, contemporary concert music and authentic forms of popular music. The artists here assume a role model and pioneering function that radiates into other areas of society.

Those who strive to develop an independent artistic identity encourage others to develop their personalities as well and not to submit to the various pressure mechanisms of society.


III. Music as a lived relationship

So far it has mainly been about the effects that sounds and the creative process have on the individual. But music always takes place in a community. It can only be learned through listening experiences and listening traditions; it takes place in the relationships between the musicians in an ensemble; and it takes place in the relationship between the musician and the listener.

This community relationship of music is in stark contrast to some of the values ​​that dominate our society. Successful music-making requires that you listen to each other intensively and that the individual can withdraw if the situation demands it. Unlimited individualism, ruthlessness and self-fixation are qualities that are immediately exposed in music as obstructive and destructive.

The community character in music, however, unfolds in very different ways in the various musical styles. So it is important to look at the styles of music separately and to look at the different relationship patterns in them. This shows one of the essential achievements that jazz has brought with it.

A classical orchestra has an organizational structure that can in some ways be described as totalitarian. The conductor is the absolute ruler to whom the musicians have to submit to even the smallest musical nuances. The creative act is only available to the composer, all other participants only have executive tasks. In classical chamber music, the interpretation of a work can be worked out jointly by the musicians, but here, too, the composition must not be changed. The rituals of the concert business are designed so that there is as little contact between the musicians and the audience as possible. Classical music assumes that the focus is solely on the “work” and that the audience is more likely to be present by chance. As a result, avant-garde concert music has also become used to making music practically without an audience.

In jazz, the most important ensemble form is not the orchestra (here: big band), but the combo. In the jazz combo, the abilities of all musicians can be developed in a flexible way. The design of the pieces is usually discussed together, even if the band has a leader. Compositions are understood as a suggestion and adapted to the requirements of the situation, or even completely reinterpreted and arranged, which is expressly welcomed by jazz composers. Every musician can take part in the creative process through improvisations, which usually make up the largest part of the music.

Even a big band is not totalitarian, but rather organized hierarchically. A good leader has an overview and gives the big lines, but many details regulate the individual groups in the band (e.g. rhythm group or trumpet movement) among themselves. Due to the large number of musicians, it is practically impossible to change compositions at short notice or to give every musician the freedom to improvise, but at least the soloists participate equally in the creative process.

The close relationship between musicians and listeners in jazz is expressed in different ways: in spontaneous applause and calls from the audience; in the announcements, which are often spontaneous and funny; in the program selection that is tailored to the concert situation and often takes into account the wishes of the listener. (see also: Jazz musicians and their audience)

In popular music, too, there are intensive group structures that correspond to those of a jazz band, if it is not solely geared towards market success as a purely industrial product. Since the music is structured more simply, it is often more a question of the personal bond between the musicians than in jazz. As a result, the group identity is more important than the individuality of the individual musicians. The simple musical structures also open the music to people who are not as carefully trained as is usually the case in jazz and classical music. The "buy yourself a guitar, learn three chords and start a band" approach has a decidedly democratic impetus, even if the actual musical results are mostly poor.

A problem area in all of popular music is the relationship between musicians and audiences. "It's just a show, but people think it's reality." Mick Jagger once said. This, of course, is the seed of a self-deception that always only pretends to be authentic. It's not for nothing that one of the records by the legendary punk band “The Sex Pistols” is called “The Great Rock'n Roll Swindle”. The irony of the title is that the band, with their carefully cultivated rebel image and centrally designed garbage aesthetic of punk itself, was part of this fraud. Because of this show character, popular music is able to take on industrial forms and build huge markets by building up pretended realities. Nevertheless, authentic and artistically sophisticated forms of popular music still exist today. (In terms of authenticity, the youth center around the corner is probably clearly ahead!)

Those who make music enter into intensive relationships with their fellow musicians and in this way contradict the increasing isolation in our society. By choosing their musical style, musicians always create certain relationship patterns that take on role models. Anyone who makes jazz music conveys a form of relationship that balances individuality and group responsibility in a flexible way. Jazz musicians practice (on stage!) A form of community that provides positive impulses for shaping society.


IV. Social visions in music

The previous section on relationship structures has already made it clear that with the choice of a certain style of music and a certain form of expression, in a certain way a decision is also made for a form of coexistence and an image of society. The careful balancing of the relationship between group and individual freedom in a jazz band contrasts with the collective anarchism of a punk band, the structural conservatism of a symphony orchestra or the technical fixation of a techno DJ.

Music already implies a social vision by its very presence. In order to make further statements, however, the artist must leave the field of pure music and include linguistic forms of expression. There are several possibilities for that:

1. Music in itself always has a linguistic character. Music styles convey messages that have formed in the listeners' consciousness through their historical development: Jazz is always also the music through which the oppressed blacks of America have found their identity. The glamor and power of the courtly elites of past centuries resonate in classical music. Rock music always conveys an idea of ​​rebellion and anti-bourgeois subculture. The musician also makes a political statement in this way by choosing his musical style. This element can also be used in a targeted manner, for example on the record “Ballad of the Fallen” by jazz bassist Charlie Haden, where the South American pieces of music express the band's solidarity with the people of El Salvador.

2. The inclusion of texts that directly comment on certain topics is part of every form of music from the start, whether it is Celtic bards, African griaults, medieval church chants, operas and oratorios or pop songs . A very important example from the jazz area is the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, which deals with the lynching of blacks in the southern United States in a way that was shocking at the time and still touching today. Since jazz music is predominantly instrumental, the track titles often take on the function of a text, for example with Charles Mingus, with titles such as “Prayer for passive Resistance”, “Oh Lord, don't let them drop that atomic bomb on me” or “Goodbye” Pork Pie Hat ”contain very intense political and personal messages.

3. A musician can use the authority he has grown in the artistic field to take a stand in the political field. An example of this is Miles Davis, who, although he did not make any political statements in his music, has often spoken out quite vehemently about the situation of blacks in America.

A musician can get involved in society in very different ways through the use of musical styles, texts and track titles, and through public statements. This is one of the tasks of music right from the start.
As has been seen, there are many and different ways as a musician to influence social discourse. We should use it!


Matthias Petzold, December 2002



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