The function of music

I want to start at the beginning and write a little about the function of music.

In a culture where everything is measured, assessed and standardised, there is little reflection on what making music means and how we can use it to promote well-being, improve our family and social relationships, and of course, to express ourselves.

The word music is derived from the Greek ‘mousa’, which refers to the nine Greek goddesses (or nine Muses) who inspired creation and embodied all art. Another interesting fact is that many other cultures don’t have a general word for music. It is such an integral part of their existence and way of life that it simply doesn’t exist as a separate subject or activity. The word as we know it was defined by Edgard Varèse as ‘organised sound’. The idea being that any sound deliberately organised by human creation, is music. He also stated that natural sounds (such as waterfalls, or birds singing) can be musical, but are not actually music.

If any organised sound is music, then how do we define good music? If sound is created as a result of a highly skilled person playing an instrument to a respectably high standard, then surely it is good music? I don’t think so. The Greeks had the right idea. They believed music to be divine, and a result of direct intervention of the Gods. This meant that music had a high purpose, and it was believed that music brought people closer to the divine. If we take out the spiritual element but hang on to the same idea, then good music will bring people closer to each other, or closer to God if they so desire. The performer or the creator of the music is the messenger, so he or she needs to have this intention for it to pass on to any listener. As a composer or a performer, if a musician’s intention is to do this, then it is good music whatever the level or standard of the musician.

Nadine teaches piano at the Royal Academy of Music Junior School and is Director of Classical Babies, Teddington.