If music be the food of love – don’t play it all the time


Duke Orsino opens Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night describing music as the food of love and demanding that it “play on”. Music’s well documented, in both fiction and real life, as contributing to romance, not to say seduction. I have scant experience as a Lothario, but concede that judiciously planned music adds to a romantic atmosphere.

Mrs Trafford and I don’t go out for romantic dinners. We can’t stomach the nauseating pinkness of Valentine’s Day: and, just as we might tell the intrusive seller of roses where to stick his thorny bloom, we dislike being poked in the eye by an up-close Spanish-guitarist or Gypsy violinist.

Worse, we find a restaurant’s atmosphere ruined rather than enhanced by piped Muzak, the term given to ceaseless aural wallpaper. Too often we can’t hear ourselves think: moreover, when I take my old Dad (97) out for lunch, it’s just an additional distraction for his hearing-aids to pick up.

Requests to turn the music down (or off) are greeted with incomprehension. Indeed, in one Newcastle restaurant we were assured it couldn’t be done: the music was controlled from Leeds.

Thus we were amused to read, in The Times, that the Berlin underground is experimenting with styles of music in order to scare off “drug-pushers, addicts and the homeless”. They tried classical music, but some of the target group liked it: so now they’re going for atonal music.

Atonal music is what you might think of as modern, though it’s been around for a century. The argument is that, for five centuries, composers from Bach to Ed Sheeran via Beethoven and Elgar have all been employing essentially the same musical vocabulary. By contrast, composers seeking a new language (from around 1920 onwards) consciously avoid that structure of melodies and chords that we’re so accustomed to.

Arnold Schoenberg, arguably the father of atonality, devised a system called serialism, an attempt to base music on mathematical relationships between sounds without falling back on that traditional diatonic system.

To say this music sounds crunchy by comparison is an understatement. Poor Schoenberg: he always hoped to hear someone walking down the street whistling one of his tunes. Sadly, only a musician with an exceptional ear and a prodigious memory could achieve that feat, and a trigger-happy GI shot the composer in 1945 before it was ever accomplished.

The point is, though, that he was trying to create something entirely new. If you listen to Classic FM (which I do a lot), you’re rarely challenged by anything new. The station’s selling-point, its very raison d’être, is to provide a cosy musical backdrop to life, enveloping you in the musical equivalent of a warm bath.

BBC Radio 3, on the other hand, adds to the mix of crowd-pleasers and old favourites a huge amount of ground-breaking and challenging, new music:  take a look at this year’s Proms programmes.

A confession: I too lean naturally towards the comfortably familiar. Indeed, my recent period running a Specialist Music School reminded me how narrow-minded I am. Hearing the work of young composers from the age of 11, encouraged to embrace whatever style or musical language works for them (from the recognisable conventions of film-scores to the outrageously avant-garde, a splendidly eclectic educational approach), acted as a reproach to me. I should be more receptive and open to strange, even difficult material.

So will playing discordant, uncomfortable stuff instead of Muzak in Berlin’s underground stations make a difference? Will it make the space inimical to the “undesirables” – without alienating passengers? It’s hard to see how: but I admire Berlin’s enterprise in trying.

Nonetheless, I find it odd to be questioning which style of music to adopt without deciding whether there should be wallpaper music at all. Muzak has been with us for half a century at least: but I’m not convinced it’s enriched our lives.

Theatrical patriarch Sir John Gielgud was prevailed on, late in life, to direct an opera at Covent Garden. As the dress rehearsal broke down in chaos, he betrayed his bias by wailing, “Oh stop, stop! And do stop that dreadful music!”

If music is truly the food of love, shouldn’t we value it a little more and take it for granted less? With quality, less is often more: if we play music less, we might just appreciate it more.


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