PLAGUETIME 20: MUSIC HELPS YOU TUNE IN TO THE RHYTHM OF EXISTENCE


Music is a pump for inflating the soul: hypertrophic souls turned into huge balloons rise to the ceiling of the concert hall and jostle each other in unbelievable congestion… (Milan Kundera: Immortality)

In Plaguetime I greatly miss playing the recorders with CoMA Firewire in Colchester; I have composed some music in the mean time and one movement has been played by my granddaughter Rosie & her little group; I wrote a 30 bar recorder sequence to which my friend ‘Alan the Oboe’ added a charming line and I now have a recording of the first run-through of a five movement piece for clarinet quintet called Clarabel organised by Clare who lives in Bristol and whom I met in Benslow in December 2019.

Since March 15th 2020 I’ve had plenty of time to think some more about what music means to me.

Answering a request from somebody who turned out to be a young female professional musician – yet another ship that passed by in the night – I did some research on the ‘Uses & Benefits of Music’ for her. What did I find? Making a lot of sense to me, there’s a mountain of research, particularly since the ‘Decade of the Brain’ (the 90’s) when many things were attached to ‘neuroscience’. But now – never mind the research which my correspondent was supposed to be interested in – this is how it has worked for me.

People who do research suggest, for starters, that when you begin life with a simple delight in the sounds of music it develops the left side of the brain, wiring its circuits to the processing of language – one thing following another in a sequence. Mentally recording the general patterning of complex information helps the right side of the brain to make mental pictures. The appreciation of musical dynamic and colour transfers easily to all creative ventures, including solving problems and making artworks, being poetical and contributes to the art of making things memorable.

At the age of 4 or 5 I used to play two or three 78’s on an ancient windup on our front room floor over and over again. There was The Laughing Policeman and Albert & the Lion and a very curious one called Puccini Potpourri – I had no idea what this meant but I found it captivating. In the house, not so readily available to me to start with, were a few 12″ 78’s: the overture to Poet & Peasant, One Fine Day & Your Tiny Hand is Frozen amongst them – I’d play all these as often as I could on the ancient huge radiogram. There was also some Liszt adapted for eight pianos! All this music must have penetrated my Being. Lying around also were some blue hard-bound books of piano transcriptions which I used to peer at without having the least idea what to do with them, mere interesting patterns and curious titles, until I suddenly realised when I was about 9 or 10, I think, that I could follow the transcription of Schubert’s Unfinished whenever it was played on the Wireless. That was the sum total of my thrust towards composing music which I began to do just by imitating what I saw happening on those pages on an old piano my parents wheeled up our suburban street to encourage me – no doubt it was my father who took the initiative. I had no idea what effect all this would have on me.

The research says that students who study the arts seriously get a glimpse of other cultures and develop compassion, empathy and respect for other races at an early age and are more successful on standardised tests, achieving higher grades at school. I suppose my musical intelligence, at least in part, enabled me to pass the 11-plus sufficiently highly at the second attempt to get me a place at Kingston Grammar School, a Headmasters’ Conference school, minor Public. Old buildings, dim & dingy – exactly how I still think the context of learning should be – war-battered teachers with great intellect & little idea of how lessons should be organised.

What does this say about me? That I go for a pattern or Gestalt; the overall pattern is what grabs me rather that discrete detail to start with: a dim & dingy atmosphere, old buildings, old disheveled teachers; apart from the teachers & prefects who, imagining it to be about order, shouted at you, there was a lack of a sense of order – so I learned that imposing my own order is about learning, just as Gestalt qualities in music can be interpreted as patterns that operate in space and through time, holistically. Mental representations created from sensations, they go beyond the separate elements found within them to concoct order of a sort. Thus what I got from my secondary education was in general gathered in a Gestalt manner. And listening to music for me operates similarly; I’m alienated by pop simplicity but absorbed in finding patterns in what used to be called the ‘avant garde’.

It’s pretty obvious that studying the mechanics of music requires concentration on how things are put together in relation to the sound everything makes. It develops an interest in entrances and exits, beginnings & endings and the naming of the essentially unnameable. The research says that the delivery of musical sound entails keen commitment, teamwork skills & discipline, hand/eye co-ordination, sound communication and cooperation – all of which become an important part of one’s self-image. So it goes. Experiencing a mild degree of necessary anxiety and learning to cope with it comes from regularly engaging in musical performance; success at mastering it encourages risk-taking. All this makes sense to me in the light of my own experience. Playing a tricky little number (Sonatina June 1977) in front of 200 people sorted out my general anxiety especially when I got to the bit where the recorder part goes suddenly into C sharp major. Having done so much improvisation in recent years I don’t think I could get my fingers round it now – or maybe it’s just lack of practice – not that I’ve ever really practised!After many moons (about 480), in spite of the fact that I don’t drive a car, I taught ‘Problem Solving’ to Vauxhall car-maker team-leaders in Luton! Amongst other things, I used to teach them to apply what I called ‘5WH’ to any problem: What? Where? When? Why? Who? & How? I added a ‘When?’ to this diagram in order to cover the temporal aspect of life’s environment. I used to point out that whenever we choose to ask 5WH we at least put ourselves in a position to address everything there is to cover in human existence.

I later discovered that the hierarchical diagram was NLP wizard Robert Dilts’ version of Gregory Bateson’s so-called ‘Logical Levels’. I’ve never been able to think of them either as ‘logical’ or as being arranged in hierarchical levels; I began to teach the model as the easily memorable ABCDE: I Am, Belief, Capability, Doings, Environment.

This is my model which I used to put on the floor and literally get people to walk round (each circle in turn) in order to activate their brain. A sample blurb of mine might have been, “Have in mind a place where you feel at home (the when & where of your Environment) and walk round the model in the outside circuit and see/hear/feel what it’s like to be there; step into the next circle and, walking round, think of something you Do (see/hear/feel it) there; in the next circle have some thoughts about other things you might be Capable of doing there; the next circuit is for you to consider what all the preceding says about your Beliefs and, when you get to the centre, pause to wonder what all that says about your identity – about who you Are… Then you might think about what else there might be on an even higher level…” So everything revolves around the self within an Environment.

This can be adapted for all kinds of different purposes including music, like this:-

E The background context: music in relation to sociology, anthropology, philosophy, culture, place, time, theoretical constructs, other ‘creative’ fields (drama, art, ritual, poetry etc)

D The things that practitioners (composers, players, artists etc) do in relation to these various contexts

C What we could all do differently to extend, refine, change, embellish (etc) what we already do in relation to the context and the existing musical practice of ourselves and others

B What all this says about our belief-system, the musical values we hold dear

A Everything in the foregoing that builds over time to a relatively stable musical identity – a notion of who we are which might well lead to some higher kind of broadly spiritual being, simply a general feeling that there is something unspecified much bigger than you

My addition to all this comes from Gurdjieff (who himself made a profound contribution to the role of music in human life): the ‘way out’ is to bring ‘identity’ through the channel, as depicted in my diagram, into the living reality – to define how a stronger sense of identity might impact on the environment we find ourselves in at this moment in history. The implication might well be that we (enlightened ones!) transcend the environment but not necessarily so’s anybody would notice.

A criminal aspect of education & Austerity in 2020 is the side-lining of music in schools. At Junior School in the 1940’s I played in a percussion band, held a recorder to my lips, listened every week to Music for Schools, first saw Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, and was taken to Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha at the Albert Hall amongst other things. Mr Lewis two doors down from us was a member of the Royal Choral Society and in the early 50’s I often had a free ticket to the Albert Hall on a Saturday afternoon: Belshazzar’s Feast, Rubbra’s Canterbury Mass, Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi and so on… It was a comparatively rich experience which set me up for an enthusiasm for English music in particular: Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Holst, Elgar, Bax,Walton, Rubbra, Havergal Brian, Simpson, and more lately my dear friend Michael Finnissy. And then there was Mahler & Bruckner & Schnitkke, for whom my ear and listening skill had long been prepared, and so on… Whenever I heard a piece of new music on the Wireless I thought to myself, “I could have done that…” And I did…

Perhaps the highlight of my composing career in 1995 was a performance in Romania by members of Constanţa Opera of two song cycles setting haiku by David Cobb and James Kirkup for piano, cello, flute & a splendid Russian soprano who could speak neither English nor Romanian who therefore vocalised the words.

In Colleges & schools where I learned and taught a few things in the 70’s & 80’s, I got friends to play a great deal of small-scale music I composed specially for them. I was very pleased with three songs I composed for Peter Jenkins (Head of Music) to sing when I was teaching in a College of Education for four years from 1971 – they were settings of three poems from Sparkenbroke by Charles Morgan for whom he and I discovered a common passion. Nearly fifty years ago – seems like yesterday! It was matching his spontaneous inventive piano playing with my recorder in one long lunchtime session that I first developed a keen pleasure in improvisation. The research shows that improvisation activates brain areas associated with language and sensorimotor skills and brings to life areas that deal with dreaming and meditation. Having improvised regularly for many years with Firewire groups consisting of a great variety of instruments, I have lost enthusiasm for playing notes on a stave but increased my capacity both for listening intently and going with a flow that I was part of, a total body experience. Miles Davis said, “Play what you hear, not what you know…”

One can learn to play material that’s carefully depicted – dynamics, loud & soft, speed variation, animation and so on – with verve which is a great accomplishment but improvisation, it seems, activates the sensorimotor and language areas of the brain to a greater extent because, as during altered states of mind characteristic of dreaming, meditation, and hypnosis, the normal executive functioning of the brain is turned off so that other parts have to take over in order to maintain the sustained focus & direction which is what Mihaly Csíkszentmiháyli’s theoretical construct of a flow state, commonly referred to as being ‘in the zone’ is about. There is, apparently, increased activity in the amygdala, a structure in the limbic system partly implicated in the processing of behavioural uncertainty.

When composing I now endeavour to make things sound as improvisatory as possible and cash in on random conjunctions of notes & phrases, taking advantage of the cut & paste facility in the computer program Finale. Creativity simply combines ideas & past experiences in novel and significant ways via the interaction of ordinary cognitive capacities which can be taught. How can they be taught?

One researcher hypothesises that creative behaviour is ultimately the result of a combination of the following four psychological processes which can be artificially separated thus:-

• Deliberate cognitive: This process involves inventiveness that comes from sustained work in a discipline. Only when you experience the usefulness of dedicated energy can you begin to appreciate the inventiveness that is a consequence given other factors.
• Deliberate emotional: refers to the experience of ‘aha!’ moments of positive emotion or significant activity in the amygdala, part of the limbic system known for its role in emotional learning. Once you’ve had one ‘aha!’ moment you’re on the lookout for others!
• Spontaneous cognitive: the ‘eureka’ moment, operating outside conscious awareness. Searching in vain for novel solutions forces you into a mental gridlock which just dissolves when you ‘let go’. Sleeping on it often works!
• Spontaneous emotional: an epiphany (akin to a ‘haiku moment’) occurring spontaneously with considerable intensity. Perhaps this happens in the Zen state of No-mind, empty and therefore capable of anything. This is a matter of personal experience, the results of which have to be accumulated to make sense.

It’s pretty obvious that these categories are invented. I have no doubt that the behaviour that they attempt to describe in their arid way is rightly understood as a cognitive uninterrupted systemic process.While teaching briefly (’69-’71) in a Luton Comprehensive school, I felt privileged to hear Michael Marsh-Edwards deliver a whole school assembly which he opened craftily by saying, “I expect you’d all like to know how to compose music!” Sitting at the piano, he said to the bemused crowd of kids: “You play a note – any old note – it dictates the next one and the next one and so on and then you might like to, pause for a chord or two before going higher or lower, then some twiddly bits…” That’s how I compose – one thing following another organically, making connections, manipulating conjunctions. And that’s also how I take all learning and process to be: you open a secondhand book picked up by chance in Charing Cross Road (once sacred thoroughfare) and you find yourself going from Plato to Sartre in next to no time; you notice a girl you fancy on the bus to school reading a book by Richard Jefferies and she could have had not an inkling of an idea how that moment is going to change the whole of your life; you put your feet on the pedals, take a deep breath and the next thing you know is that you’ve done 1000 miles in a fortnight, John o’Groats to Land’s End. It’s all the same pattern.


I learned in the mid-nineties that in all circumstances I operate with the virtual question at the front of my brain: ‘How can I connect this with that?’ Having such a virtual question active in my Being is certainly useful when I’m improvising. In ordinary challenging circumstances when I fail to make a connection I feel stuck.

It’s suggested that listening to and playing music gets the whole body into a state of emotional arousal; we can be stirred to our biological roots. Studies show that music triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter popularly considered to be responsible for the ‘feel-good’ factor, boosting mood, motivation, and attention, and helping to regulate movement, learning, and emotional responsiveness. Thus it helps build up the anticipation of a particularly memorable moment in whatever we are listening to or gets us to just know from a current cadence that the composer of a piece we’ve never heard before is working up to some climax; it’s the same part of the brain that gets hold of stimulus-response associations connected with the reinforcing qualities of rewarding stimuli such as food; it responds to what could be called a ‘primal reward cue’, bell-sound, that makes us drool, hoping for a sense of simple resolution. I always ask, “How can I connect this with that?”

A ‘modern’ composer may increase musical involvement by disrupting the listener’s conventional, automatically learned Gestalt processing by abruptly changing direction, playing with apparent contradictions, quoting from earlier composers, before eventually perhaps fulfilling expectations. Schnittke disrupts disruption! When we have the guts, with high Frenkel-Brunswick ‘toleration of ambiguity’, the unpredictable, the disorderly, helps to maintain excitement because we are driven to make order, desiring resolution of some kind even if it’s making the resolve for disorder & difference.

I just listened to Robert Simpson’s 9th String Quartet – a tantalising set of variations that keeps the excitement going with its constantly unfolding events, while we hope to resolve them into clarity and certainty. There are 33 variations and a final fugue-ish kind of piece. The intriguing thing is to find bits of the Haydn starting point cropping up in various forms throughout; the brain is in a constant state of anticipation – how will the next bit go, what kind of contrast in terms of speed or attack, higher or lower?

Anyway, this is my own solitary Musical Intelligence.

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