Gramophone guest blog

The power of music

Tasmin LittleWed 22nd October 2014

Tasmin Little introduces her new regular Gramophone blog by asking the question: why do we listen to music?

This summer, after a whirlwind stint of concerts abroad followed by some holiday time, I returned to London and immersed myself in a feast of music.

I revelled in the versatility and dynamism of the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle’s brilliant Prom at the Royal Albert Hall; I admired the energy and joy of the Kinshasa Symphony at Southbank Centre; I laughed myself off my seat watching Igudesman and Joo in an hilariously entertaining partnership with the riverdancing London Philharmonic; and finally I gazed in awe whilst Kate Bush performed a tour de force lasting more than two and a half hours, at the end of which I cheered, stamped my feet and clapped my appreciation alongside the rest of the elated audience in our collective standing ovation.

These musical experiences were the perfect way to end my summer and begin the autumn season, leaving me feeling inspired and energized in preparation for my upcoming performances.

They also left me once more asking the question: why do we listen to music? What do we each get out of a concert experience? Is music really necessary? If so, why is it frequently underfunded and often deemed irrelevant by politicians on all sides of the political spectrum?

It’s a question that seems increasingly relevant, as I read with ever-growing disquiet about cuts to music education and arts budgets, and hear about orchestras, music societies and venues which face potential extinction due to lack of funding…

Over my next few blogs, I’d like to explore this idea in more depth, and I’d also be interested to hear the views of anyone reading these words. Perhaps between us, we can come up with some answers that may help us all to understand why many of us wish – and need – to preserve an art form that is in danger of being perceived as out of date in the present time and unimportant to our future. And maybe in the process we can find ways to keep classical music relevant to our society now, as well as keeping pace with the future.

To get started, I have some outlines of thoughts to be embellished upon, depending on what may emerge as important issues to readers of this blog.

Obviously, many of us choose to listen to music for sheer pleasure and because it serves an emotional need. I’ll focus on that idea more next time.

But putting aside our personal reasons for going to a concert, having an iPod playlist or CD collection, music is used the world over as a force for good – for example, El Sistema and the Landfill Harmonic orchestra have transformed the lives of so many people. It is incredibly moving to watch the people involved talking about the power of playing music as a way of finding meaning and purpose, and even an escape from their former lives.

Music is also used as a means of raising vast amounts of money for charity, often producing milestone cultural experiences as well as connecting people from all over the world in the process. One of the most famous of these events, Live Aid (1985), united people from around the globe who all had a common purpose and desire to help others in dire need. A staggering estimated global audience of 1.9 billion watched the live broadcast and £150 million was raised.

On a smaller scale, music is often used as a way of uniting people within their immediate community, through local concerts, events and schools performances.

There is now more evidence to suggest that music is a huge force for healing and I have had some extraordinary experiences of my own, which I would also like to share in a later blog. Recent research seems to suggest that music can benefit people with Alzheimers; other health research suggests that people who learn instruments at an early age are less likely to suffer from deafness as adults. Continuing the theme of the benefits of early musical training, a recent Harvard paper suggested that those children who learn instruments achieve consistently higher grades in all areas of the curriculum and that there is a strong link between early musical training and advanced cognitive skills.

Finally (and my favourite bit), we now know that music is the only activity that uses our entire brain.

To sum up for the moment, when I asked my 14-year-old daughter why she liked to listen to music, she simply stated 'Music is communication without words.'

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

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