I was speaking with a kind gentleman the other day. Reluctant though I was to disagree with him because of his generosity to me, I could not help but contradict his thesis. As I understand it, film music should not be interpreted apart from the context that made it possible. In addition, there is a pervasive use of incidental music in our lives that serves a potentially insidious purpose–which shapes us and moves us.

If I am misunderstanding the thesis, it may be because it borders on many similar ideas rampant in the area of literary criticism. I cannot read music, and have only a small knowledge of musical history. What I understand quite well is what I enjoy hearing. And beyond that, there is a clear and primordial relationship of music to everyday human life that is not difficult to comprehend.

Communication between human beings is an essential element of survival. An accurate scream across the tall grass of an ancient savanna was the difference between life and death. Communicating the hard won skills of hunting, gathering, cooking, and preserving required language. Passing the wisdom of experience on to the next generation was crucial. Music is certainly part of all that.

Back in the eighties, Ted Nugent became obsessed with the evil he saw inherent in Muzak. Nugent’s quixotic quest seemed wrong-headed to me even then, though admirable of purpose. Wasn’t this medium being debased and prostituted by the aural abuse of musical devices? Were not humans being manipulated and controlled by beat and rhythm, melody and harmony, dissonance and consonance?
I wrote an essay then pointing out that music was a language and that this was a matter of freedom of speech.

This is still my position.

I detest hip-hop and think that John Cage’s conception of music is a joke. Silence is never so golden as when the pretensions of academics are removed from the equation. But, I would not consider the idea that some greater power should silence stupidity, nor music, lest I myself be caught in the fold.

Certainly noise can be obnoxious. A social understanding of noise is in order. Garbage trucks at 3 am are beyond defending. My neighbors playing hip-hop at 3 am must be controlled, if only by the decibel.

And that is just it. It’s a social matter. The more homogeneous the culture, the less dissonance is created by the exercise of ‘normal’ behavior. The great challenge of modern American culture is that we do not live in Icelandic isolation. My neighbor may be from Mexico, Brazil, India or even Canada. One must be forgiving of cultural difference if society is going to function. I may need the fellow to administer the ether when I am on the operating table, teach my children, fix my car, or cook my meal at the restaurant. I don’t want him as my enemy. He may not care for the books I sell or the words I write, but if he is my friend, he may keep his radio turned down a notch after midnight. And I won’t impose my Sibelius on him.

I don’t use racial epithets or tell racial jokes, not because they are against the law, but because they may offend my neighbor. It’s a good reason. I benefit by his talents. It’s part of contributing to a society that benefits me. But if my neighbor wants to tell me what I can write, or the books I can sell, I have a complaint.

Whether or not my neighbor has intellectually understood the delicate balance between liberty and responsibility, I have to defend my right to say what I think. If I don’t, I’ll lose it. If a politician can tell me what music I can play, I have already lost it.

All of this is related. A particular piece of film music may be created for that medium out of various needs. The immediate association may only be a small part of its creation. Certainly it might have its origins in the classical traditions, or in the street music of Sao Paulo. Certainly film music must use devices invented well before, otherwise it would not speak to the listener. I cannot write in a private language and expect readers. Random sound would be noise (despite Cage’s foolishness). Already, film music must have its roots outside of its immediate use or else the reference is lost.

Then there is the intellectual project of the film itself. This might be fairly simple. Say, an action suspense thriller. Now the music is associated in the mind to the response of the audience to that depiction. And then there is the aftermath. The film may be left behind, because the music holds an urgency that quickly conjures certain moods on its own. I was never a soldier but taps and reveille have a meaning to me. And still, it is not unjustified for a film director to chose a specific score knowing that the audience response to that music will remind them of his film long after.

We do not live in a classical age, but classical music conjures an appreciation of my world that I cannot do without. Mozart wore a powdered wig and I wear an Irish cap, but his music gives me a pleasure he could have predicted. And in fact, his letters show that he did just that.

Musak may in fact be manipulative, but if it is obnoxious to most people rather than comforting–if standing patiently within the small space of a closed elevator is not unnerving enough–then it’s added cost will not be born. Perhaps Ted Nugent would prefer a prayer, or a political diatribe to take the occupant’s mind off of the claustrophobic reality of the moment.

The great hobgoblins of the Twentieth Century–Stalin and Hitler–both used music to control the ‘masses.’ Some of that music is still played. I don’t think the listener is envisioning gulags when they play Shostakovich. But a few notes from the film Jaws brings an immediate response. Is that wrong? Perhaps to some, but I think they miss the point. The few notes from Jaws is now as ominous as “It was a dark and stormy night.” The language in both cases has grown by the addition. And still, “White Christmas” will survive the abuse of elevator speakers because, after all, it’s a damn good song.