Music and our minds

Brendan MacCarthaigh

I found that few of my B Ed students were interested in music. That unpleasant discovery forced me to think in intellectual terms of this particular art, though I would have preferred to simply present an attractive adult piece and let it speak for itself. I sat, I thunk, and came up with this. The great news was that discovering that the whole music thing is not solely some-like-it-some-don’t enthused many of them to take a longer look at their favourites – plus and minus! My discovery took this shape:

Why do composers write what they write, conductors interpret, performers present, audiences attend? And then, what makes the composer think the next note is the right one? That a different one wouldn’t do? Why are the audiences absolutely silent? They do listen and enjoy. If they didn’t know it was one of the famous composers, would they be as enthusiastic? At break time in one such show in Dublin I heard one lady gush to another that she’d really enjoyed the pizzicato in the second movement. I remember playing something like that for an Indian audience (I used to play the clarinet), and they applauded after the first movement. The applause suddenly dwindled and died. Sensing their embarrassment I explained that by convention, applause between movements in western classical performances is held till the end. Someone from the hall shouted, “You’re telling us that so we won’t be embarrassed, no?” Everybody laughed, and so I said, “See. It worked.” And the show went on. It’s easy with words. They tie together through intelligence, and to some degree, expectation. But musical notes?

I’ve had occasion to listen to and even play Chinese music. I’ve listened to and enjoyed classical Indian music. I can’t read it, it doesn’t come like that – but Chinese music did. As a miniature musician, I’ve played mod classical I could make no sense of. It was like when I was teaching English to Hispanic students in the Bronx, and a notice came to my classroom from the office for the students – in Spanish! I didn’t know a word of the language, but I’d often had fun imitating them in Spanish-sounding English! So I ‘read’ the notice in my best Spanish accent. They gave me a big round of applause and much laughter! Whether they understood it I still don’t know! I played a Hindemith sonata for an exam. Didn’t understand a single bar. Who wouldn’t like Mozart? In Manchester once my brother put on a string of Mozart concertos for me when he went out to work. By the end of the morning, I never wanted to hear Mozart again. And of course, I’ve busked every pop song I knew in Dublin, London, New York, Paris. I say all this just to show I’ve been “around the block.” The “block” comes down now to this. How does classical music work? Back up: what “work” does classical music do? Does what I hear from Mozart and his ilk have the same effect on me as classical Indian music which I like? Or Chinese or Irish? What effect is it supposed to have? Who decides that it does in fact have that effect? Right now I won’t go on to the soloist, the conductor, the individual players in an orchestra, the soloist in a sonata, the flautist and the tabla player in a raag presentation,… (Very recently I was spellbound by a recital from Zakir Hussain and Chaurasia – wow!) What’s preoccupying me is, how does music work?

During our training days to be musicians they taught us some mathematics, where we learned that the sound waves graphed from what we called chords, showed parallel lines, whereas discords showed lines getting in one another’s way. So that would be some sort of start in my quest. It was easy then to grasp that the very body was at ease with certain combinations of sounds, and like crossing your legs rests some muscles and uncrossing them rests others, chords and discords performed that function with the nerves. Extending that, notes in sequence, like words in a sentence, make sense with reference to one another, and so please or displease the auditory systems of the body. Musicians of course know that instinctively and pick it up through their association with music like they pick up knowledge of a language.

From there on, it’s both exploration and experimentation, and so a Mozart may be overused, which means much the same as enjoying, say, going for a walk, but then walking so far one is sorry one started the walk in the first place. Pop music responds to this natural orientation of the auditory senses by satisfying them in a three minute spell. Indeed, if the composer wants her/his composition chosen by some music company for publication she/he will soon learn of this restriction, and the duration of the piece will be vital in the issue of being accepted, relative to the composer’s hope to be financially remunerated for the piece.

When we are young we like comic picture magazines or ‘comics’, then our taste grows to longer stories and finally to books. It’s like that with music. From simple jingles we ‘graduate’ to longer pieces and then to what we conventionally call classical music in whatever form – solos, duets, sonatas, symphonies, songs, operas, chorales – and various combinations of these and other media. Side by side with all that of course are jazz, itself a musical art form of its own, and nowadays the still controversial inclusion of rap. Analytically it just means that like every other facet of human development there is a thirst to explore what is available, and then to develop it further in as many ways as the creative person can do it. Instruments, sound-systems, innovations from foreign sources (like raags with western as well as Indian instruments and structures is just one such) make an entry, and win their spurs on the sales market partly by common sales techniques of course, but also by their appeal to the musical experience of the listeners.

My short experience of Hindemith was an important broadening of my appreciation of this musical development urge. He clearly wanted to escape the accepted structures of conventional music. Key signatures, time signatures, sequences, chords, scales and all the usual paraphernalia of traditional music were differently dressed. I remarked earlier that I didn’t understand a note of it, by which – now I can explain – I mean that none of it fitted smoothly into what my ear and my auditory nervous systems, together with my sense of rhythm and sequence, had got used to over the years, and it became like my reading the Spanish note in my Bronx class. In fairness to myself, may I add that I had decided to pursue this further – Hindemith, a German, became a pretty popular composer on ‘the circuit’ – but other factors intervened, including damage to my fingers so that I could – and can – no longer play.

While training teachers in ordinary classroom techniques in New York I invited my trainees to say something about the possibilities of music as an aid in their to-be profession. At one point in the crossfire that erupted, one student suggested the use of rap. Dismissively I commented, “We’re discussing music.” This was 30 years ago, and the man who made this contribution was not fair-skinned. He was angry and made this clear. I promptly apologized, explained that I was something of a traditional musician, and some sort of mutuality was restored. Whether rap, which at the moment seems still to be more a politico-social medium than a specifically musical type, will with time classify as music on its own is a moot point. If it gets our students into the world of music, why then, rap: welcome aboard!

The author has been an educationist in India for more than half a century, and has lectured, made documentaries, and written widely and frequently on the subject. He can be reached at

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