“My New Philosophy” – The Connection Between Music and the Mind
I recently attended an evening of philosophy and music, led by Professor Bill Brewer of King’s College London, which explored the relationship between music and the mind. The relationship between the two may seem to be self explanatory, but the aim of the discussion was to explore and ask the question why some music is more ‘successful’ than others, and to try and describe what it is about compositions that appeals to different people.
As a professional theatre critic it is my job to comment and respond to what is essentially a subjective art, with text that conveys my thoughts and personal response in a way that will help others decide if a production is worth them going to see. Criticism is by its very nature a difficult discipline, and one which is sadly becoming less and less common in paid communications. Here in London every week we hear of an arts critic losing their job, as editors are forced to withdraw budgets to keep up with the changing market and the whole discipline faces extinction.
Whilst most people understand that criticism is a personal response, and not one that is ever supposed to give a general opinion, if can often create backlash and tensions, and as I discussed in a previous piece, open up various road for manipulation. When writing a review, I have always found music the most difficult art to assess and describe my personal response. Think about your favourite theatre critic – in responding to a new musical, how much time is given to discussion of the score in relation to other aspects such as performance, book and direction – areas which are much easier to pick apart and analyze? The answer is very little, which when considering a new musical seems somewhat perverse.
I can’t help feel that the reason for this is because most people find it very hard to effectively describe why a piece of music either hits the right notes or doesn’t – something that certainly came up in the philosophical discussion.
Professor Brewer presented two different ways of listening to a piece of music (which I will try and summarize in simplistic terms) and the arguments presented by two opposing schools of thoughts – the ‘realists’ and the ‘anti-realists’. Whilst the former would attempt to argue the merits of a piece of music using its core principles, such as the construction and the actual mechanics of how it works, the opposing side would argue that a listener’s empirical thought such as its context plays a more serious part in us ultimately deciding a piece’s merits. Throughout the talk the audience were played a number of different pieces of music, often with deliberately little context in order for us to come to some form of evaluation that relied on our basic human response. Obviously in the discussion that followed there was much debate and a full range of criticism offered of each piece, with some having an intense emotional reaction, and others remaining completely unmoved.
Try the experiment yourself. Consider your favourite show tune. Try and write down why it is your favourite. I guarantee many of the reasons will relate to context – who is performing it for example, the reason you like it, a particular memory associated with it and so forth. How many of your responses relate to factors such as the structure of the song, the time signature, or the melody. With music, and musical theatre in particular, we as listeners project so much ‘extra’ material onto a score, it can become extremely difficult to assess and criticize solely on its musical merit.
Inspired by the debate, I decided to consider this thought in relation to the past Broadway season. Having not physically seen many of the shows, my opinions have been allowed to be formed of the scores purely by listening to the cast albums, and so in some ways my response is detached from visual context. I tested myself to write down what it is about each of the scores that I find ‘works’ in order to crudely decide, for my own benefit, which score I thought was ‘best.’
I quickly realized this method was ultimately flawed, as despite not having a visual representation of most scores, I was still bringing too much baggage to my decisions – my previous knowledge of the work of Tom Kitt, my love of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade and my childhood response to Alan Menken’s Aladdin were all factors that would subconsciously shape my response however hard I tried to act as a ‘tabula rasa.’
Let’s start with the score I found the most disappointing. Again, I’ve used the word ‘disappointing,’ which already suggests that I’m judging it based on external factors, rather than giving it a fair chance. Knowing the authors Flaherty and Ahrens have provided what I personally find to be some of my favourite scores (Ragtime, Anastasia, Once On This Island), I have already formed an opinion in my mind of where the bar should be set for Rocky the Musical and if it doesn’t hit that mark, it will, in my mind, be below par.
Firstly I listened to the score in German. In many ways this provided an excellent way of just listening to the score in isolation, as unless there is a scene where Rocky asks for a dozen sausages or where the nearest youth hostel is, I could be quite confident I wouldn’t have a clue what anyone was singing about, leaving just the melodies to be picked apart. The integration of the famous theme in unavoidable, and once your mind picks up on those familiar chords, it finds it very hard to let them go, and you find yourself wishing for more recognition throughout the otherwise bland musical tapestry that fails to land on a first listen.
The only melody that registered with me in anyway was that of the song ‘Raining,’ which is picked up early in the score and stays with you throughout most of the show, thanks to the strong, formal structure and soaring refrain. Flaherty’s modulations and mix of harmony creates the most solid, heartfelt moment of the score, which even in German goes a long way in expressing the shifts of mood, thought and indecision.
Menken’s score for Aladdin is perhaps the most varied of the bunch, with real highs and lows throughout. With a score such as this it is inevitable that the songs people know before coming into the show will land much better than those that have been used to pad out the story into a two act musical. Whilst his earlier efforts on shows such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast more effectively integrated new and old material, in Aladdin the overall sound feels formulaic and grossly uneven. The arrangements of the old songs have been overproduced, and stretched to their very limits, which in my opinion ruins their initial impact. Of all Disney musicals, this feels this most overproduced, rushed and tacky, graduating little above what you’d expect in a theme park attraction. Of the new songs, Menken uses the traditional musical theatre structure to plug the gaps, with the result being a tango pastiche to suit the villains, a misplaced love duet, and some attempt at recreating an action sequence with a dull, uninspired melody that fails to create any sense of ‘High Adventure.’
Despite reading the synopsis for If/Then I was still none the wiser as to what on earth was going on, so found this the most refreshing score to listen to, and the one against which I found myself bringing in the least amount of expectation or external factors. Performers aside, I had little opinion on the subject matter or show, so found this the most effective data to base my research on. On the whole I found it the most surprising, original and ‘ear-worming’ – it gets better and more effective with every listen. The mix of tones and styles creates a soundscape that can continue to be explored – from the emotional heights of ‘Always Starting Over’ and ‘You Learn to Live Without’ to the different pace offered in ‘Ain’t No Man Manhattan,’ giving the listener a variety of different reasons to connect with the music – which keeps it feeling fresh and interesting.
As I’ve said before, my favourite new score of the season (and probably of many years) was Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County not only because of its perfect realization by a stunning cast but because of how it manages to perfectly evoke both the setting and situation. From the opening rises of the cello refrain, to the crushing final number, the score literally unfolds as two disparate themes combine alongside the central characters to perfectly reflect the mood and emotions being played out. My emotional response to this score was unlike anything else I listened to, which is the main reason I would personally rank it above the others. When people at the discussion were asked ‘why’ they preferred one piece of music to another, the answer time and time again fell on the listener’s emotional response, and how it just ‘clicked’ inside them and allowed them to be swept away.
But is music always about an emotional response? More often than not its primary purpose is to entertain, and many scores this season provided just the vehicle to do so. In A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder the score is somewhat subservient to the performances, book and action, which has a primary aim to entertain an audience through visual humor – and unlike Bridges doesn’t rely on the audience emotionally connecting in quite the same way.
So therein begs the question. When we are faced with a new musical, often by a composer we have experience on either positively or negatively, are we ever in a position to be completely unbiased, and does this even matter? Does a theatre critic or Award panelist truly allow themselves to consider a work solely on its own singular merit, in that moment, or do other factors often outweigh this? I would happily argue, as I think would most, that our opinions are of course altered by these external factors, and it’s almost impossible to judge things otherwise.
I began this piece by saying how hard it is to articulate exactly ‘why’ music works, and thanks to Professor Brewer’s vibrant discussion, was encouraged if not a little frustrated to learn it’s a common problem we all share.
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