Like me, you may have wondered where in the world the laboratory actually lies. You know the one I’m talking about – the underground lair in which squirrels, giraffes, sharks, unborn foetuses and pencil sharpeners are linked up to sensors and serenaded with Beethoven and Mozart. There has to be one. Otherwise, how on earth would news institutions from the BBC to The Daily Telegraph be able to proclaim with unfailing regularity that ‘Dachshunds prefer Pooch-ini while Labradors are more into Wolf-gang Amadeus!’?
My first thought when reading one of these news items is usually a bemused ‘who cares’. The next is a delirious, speculative attempt to link certain creatures up with certain composers (I know a goofy Golden Retriever who really should dip his paw into the Martinů symphonies…). Eventually, the smile recedes and I’m left with the inevitable, depressing truth: in the eyes of so many of our peers, classical music now has zero value beyond its effect on animals, pre-cognitive children and even test tubes full of fungus.
That’s the good news. When I lived in London, Mozart’s last symphonies were a favourite at my local tube station where they were piped through the public address system in order to dissuade certain people from sticking around for longer than was absolutely necessary. So there’s a new role for three of the most astonishing works to have flowed from the most dazzling musical genius the world has produced: the creation of an environment in which people feel uncomfortable (though to be fair, as an industry we were excelling at that objective long before Transport for London got involved).
Stakeholders of every hue are complicit. Music and arts journalists happily chirrup the results of these mind-bogglingly pointless surveys as if to finally prove that composing music has some worth. As classical music journalists we cling to them, as if to prove that the music we love and appraise still has some tiny iota of value in the modern world. In that respect, we’re no better than the tabloid hacks who stockpile such inane rubbish in preparation for slow news days and as a blatant excuses to trot-out animal-based puns they’ve been dreaming up on the toilet for months (mea culpa).
And hey presto, the general populace follows suit. “Yes! Mozart can make my unborn baby more intelligent.” The next step will be to find a way of beaming said Mozart straight into the unborn baby’s slowly-forming brain, thereby not having to endure the indignity of actually listening to the music in the first place. In future centuries, will Mozart’s music be recognised purely for its medicinal value and available without the added strings of actual noise? I can see orchestras and ensembles jumping blindly onto the bandwagon, forced into acting as apologists-in-chief for art that was once considered unique in its ability to combine joy and accessibility with astonishing complexity.
The thin end of this particular wedge is that which insists we consider the peripheral value of music – therapeutic, social, economic, effect on cute furry animals and bored young people with nowhere to go – more than the properties of the music itself. Of course, such values can be useful in an age when access to music has been removed, both intellectually and physically, from large swathes of society. But they will prove our undoing unless we are willing to argue the case for music on its own terms.
A good start would be to highlight the effect classical music can have on human beings who are prepared to actually listen to it, whether or not they have any previous experience of doing so. An even better one would be to turn the process on its head entirely and look at the effect human beings have had on classical music: how they have manipulated twelve notes for centuries in an attempt to explore states of mind that cannot be conveyed with words, and delivered some noises that enchant, enliven, astonish and tease the ears in the process. You don’t need a laboratory for that. You can get it at your local concert hall from some real life musicians.