Thomas Sutcliffe: A little music goes a long way

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
‘I’m on a bit of a mission’: Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow Health Secretary, wants to create an ever-larger NHS  

Thanks to Emily Thornberry's tweet, Andy Burnham will be the next Labour party leader

Matthew Norman
Glossy posse: Editor Kate Reardon (centre) and team  

We Brits are more class obsessed than ever – which plays right into Ukip's hands

Terence Blacker
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin