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’Tis the season for merry music – but is there too much of it?


Is there too much music surrounding us? In particular, I’m thinking of the seasonal offerings of Wise Men and Angels and Santa’s sleigh bells which constantly cloud the winter air on our high streets. As a musician, I’m supposed to love music, aren’t I? Can there really be too much of such a good thing?

Certainly, I don’t want to denigrate all Christmas music – some is as wonderful as some is tooth-rottingly banal. I have a secret soft spot for Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”, especially when played by the organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter (pictured right). But the sheer prevalence of music at this time of year does raise an interesting issue: do we put on too much of it simply as background decoration, to fill a gap?

Vibrations have been hitting the air since that first mighty chord, the Big Bang. Music would have been random, at first, before being conjured up for pragmatic purposes – a war cry perhaps. Only gradually would rhythm and melody have lingered outside the words, as music became independent of its message. Even then, though, up until the age of Napoleon Bonaparte, musicians were most often seen as servants and, as such, they provided a commodity to their patrons. But as the 19th century progressed, composers began to take centre stage. What had been mere wallpaper became a painting, something unique, to be given your full attention.

The problem with present-day canned music is that it takes us back to that age of wallpaper. It has become bland noise to cover the embarrassment of silence like some vibrating fig leaf. As a constant nibbling from dishes of sweetmeats spoils the appetite for the main feast, so a ceaseless ring of synthetic music dulls the hearing for the real thing. It’s like air freshener pumped into a room rather than the wonderful specific smell of a burning log.

Music can entertain and elevate, but it shouldn’t anaesthetise. Franz Schubert’s greatest love song was not one of many addressed to another human but “An die Musik”, a love song for songs themselves. Music should always be special, always chosen, always a sharpening of the spirit. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing ... not speak.

Stephen Hough is an award-winning concert  pianist, composer and writer. His new recording of Brahms’s Piano Concertos is out now on Hyperion. His Touchpress iPad app ‘The Liszt Sonata’ is available from iTunes