Thomas Sutcliffe: A little music goes a long way

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I attended a school concert this week, one of those parental Days of Obligation that I generally expect to file away under the heading of duty rather than pleasure. As it happened, this one was surprisingly painless. True, some of the performances were best regarded as tests of parental affection, an experience to be endured with grace and a politely non-committal expression, but most of them were delightful.

There was an unexpected dividend in that the concert coincided (almost) with No Music Day, Bill Drummond's – well, what precisely? – campaign, conceptual artwork, or mere provocation? Scheduled for 21 November because the following day is St Cecilia's Day, No Music Day appears to be uncertain about exactly what it is itself. Drummond's website describes it as "an aspiration, an idea, an impossible dream, a nightmare". "No Music Day has nothing to sell," he adds. "There is no mission statement."

The site's home page makes it pretty clear that abstention is the game, though. On No Music Day, it announces, "No hymns will be sung, no records will be played on the radio, iPods will be left at home, rock bands will not rock." There's something a little forlorn about the future tense, given that these injunctions were so widely ignored on Wednesday. But Drummond, the co-founder of the band The KLF, is making some headway three years into his five-year plan (the first No Music Day was in 2005). This year, Radio Scotland signed the pledge and committed itself to a day of abstention, saving money on what radio producers call needletime by discussing music and talking about it without actually playing any.

Drummond's idea, it should hardly need saying, is driven by a love of music, not a hatred for it. What he wants to restore – in a world where music is ubiquitous and unavoidable – is the keen appetite, a bit of aural yearning for something sweet and distinctive. And that's all but impossible to achieve in a world where music is omnipresent and instantly available.

If music made you fat we'd all be obese by now, so glutted with melody and rhythm that we could barely walk. And surfeit doesn't stop us from consuming more – it only deprives us of the almost-forgotten thrill of having a craving satisfied, of feeling a lack which is then, deliciously, supplied.

The other point is that the constant snacking on music – the iPod on shuffle, the radio punched from preset to preset – effectively dulls our perceptions about what we're hearing. The palate never gets a chance to clear so that distinctive flavours can be properly appreciated. And, although I didn't rigorously observe No Music Day myself (you try watching television without being force-fed gobbets of music), I found myself thinking about that school concert rather differently because of it.

And one thought that occurred is that it isn't just the ubiquity of music that's a problem, but the smoothly professional polish of most recorded music. Because that's a kind of deformation of our listening, too, the way that live performance – with its hazards and its fallings short – has become a comparative rarity.

The studio finish of much of what we hear invariably diminishes the sense that making music well is a tricky business. And yet for most of human history, excellence in performance would have been a rare luxury, available only to the well-heeled or the well-placed. Pretty much everyone else had to make do with the home-made and the rough-edged. In fact, thinking about this has got me through quite a lot of school concerts. "This is what nearly all music was like," I think, as someone in the string section negotiates a tricky arpeggio like a pig on ice, threatening to bring everyone else down with them.

The odd thing is that listening to a very familiar piece played less than perfectly is almost as good a way of refreshing its virtues as not listening to it at all. The contours of the piece as it plays in your head stand out in relief against what you're actually hearing and generate a teasing anticipation of hearing it again in the future. But, more than that, there's a unique kind of exhilaration in hearing amateur musicians slip from an honest struggle with the score into a moment where they're suddenly in concert with it. A tempo will seize everyone present or a shared note sit just right and the effect is like the sun coming out. This is more than mere relief, I think; it's a moment when you can hear an abstract ideal reaching out to touch a compromised human reality. As well as listening to no music occasionally, we should also listen to less than perfect music if we want to know what we're not missing.

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