[…] and we say that music should not be applied to one purpose only, but many; both for instruction and purifying the soul […] and, in third place, as an agreeable manner of spending time, a relaxation from the uneasiness of the mind.
It’s the 4th century B.C. and Aristotle, in his last Politics Book, reflects on the musical object with the same sensibility that many of us feel during its fruition. Triggering emotions deep in the human interior, music vaunts an educational matrix in that it can control the strongest – and even the most dangerous – drives of the soul. It is in fact presumed that these unload themselves during – and limitedly to – the auditory experience, therefore not manifesting themselves in other contexts. It is the concept of κἁθαρσις, the catharsis of Pythagorean nature, a purification in the most etymological sense of the term; a liberation of the materiality of the body, where the mind is immersed in an indefinite space. Exactly the type of feeling that one could encounter, today, during a concert or in a simple (and solitary) hearing with headphones.
What’s curious to extract, again from the Aristotelian philosophical thought, is the consideration – never historically contemplated beforehand, and exquisitely contemporary – of a division between the strictly pedagogical utility of music and that of a product simply capable of amusing, entertaining and conciliating rest. Music however, by nature, can never completely lose its edifying power: the human character, the ethos, tempers and adapts itself by imitation to its surroundings.
If the “ethical” root is therefore the same as the temperament of the individual, we can maintain that music can always become an alternative mean of communication of an ideology or of social belonging. Contemporary history teems with episodes in which music has made itself the voice of those oppressed. It’s easy to recall a musical milestone, The Wall by Pink Floyd: Roger Waters recently announced his intention of performing the album live on the US-Mexico border, right where the neo-president Donald Trump announced his intention of erecting a very real anti-immigration wall. The wall that in the musical origins of the album referred itself to mere mental blocks now materializes itself in the most immediate reality.
It would be possible to articulate thoughts and entire essays on the subject: the connections are infinite. History overflows with discriminatory situations in which music always acted as a key element of emancipation: it is sufficient to think of Herbie Hancock (African American among the most famous interpreters of one of the black genres par excellence, jazz) who, in 2014, obtained a teaching post for a series of Harvard lectures titled “The ethics of Jazz”. Not to mention more crude musical movements such as punk, where melody completely stripts itself of its component of pleasure in order to express a strong ideological battle against precise dynamics of the capitalist society, in favour of the rights of those who are forcedly emarginated and exploited by it.
Music, with its communicative – and somehow salvific – power, concentrates and unifies in its intangible combination of notes. What’s sure, what history teaches, is that any human drive – from the most romantic to the most brutal, from the most naive to the most politicized – can speak up, screaming or singing, through music.