online: 17 october 2003

16 october 2003 the purpose of music

11:19 Enjoying the warmth and light of the autumn sun which reaches to the bed to which I've retreated for a moment... I opened this page on the hand held, someone phoned to ask 'what is the role of contemporary music in the society?' There is to be a collection of answers. I pause to think, I recall John Cage's answer: 'to open the mind to divine influences' (which he quotes from a medieval thinker - probably Meister Eckhart).

My own answer is that I do not like much contemporary music - I prefer uncomposed sound, free of musical intention. And I do not like specialised roles or the society as it is.

I suppose the role of most contemporary music is to attract, or to distract, attention - and to me that is to diminish life as it is... The wording of the question puts me off - it seems to imply that society, and its roles, are all there is - an assumption I oppose.

So I rephrase the question as 'what is the purpose of music?' and try for a better answer:

'to reveal or to compose sounds that take us out of ourselves'

...but sounds don't have intentions...

My last attempt:

the role or purpose of music, in or beyond the society, is beyond definition in words.

The earth has moved, and the sun is no longer illuminating the screen on which I am writing - so I switch on an electric lamp. Like the sun, it is silent.

Then I listen, for 5 minutes, to the sounds of the world:

the slight sounds of feathers crinkling in the quilt as I moved to reach a timer

the sounds of traffic, muffled by window glass

the sense of relief when traffic sound stopped for a few seconds

then I forgot to listen and looked at dust moving in sunlight

the ringing sound of a clockwork timer at the end of five minutes.

Was that a piece of music? What was its role in the society? Who composed it, who played it? What was its purpose?,

What I liked about it was that the sounds were in a way composed 'by everyone' and 'by everything' - beyond any one person's intention, or that of any organisation.

Later: I'm sorry if this is not the kind of answer that was expected. It's an account of what happens when a question is not related to the mind and circumstance of the person answering.

A way to avoid this difficulty is described in section 3.5 Questionnaires, in Design Methods. Briefly: it is to begin with discussions with typical answerers, then to pre-test the questions, and then to alter them according to the test result - before sending out a final version.

Aligning a questionnaire (or any product) to the people it is designed for takes more time and effort than one might expect. But that is the way, I believe, to turn this top-down world into a place in which people can be truly at home. To take care. To discover what happens at the receiving end and to act accordingly. The questioner, the designer, has to learn and to change!

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