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Music: Music as Prozac

Music | Classical music as New Age psychobabble

Issue: "The gay getaway," May 2, 1998

Perhaps Mozart would be flattered with a recent release, Tune Your Brain from Polygram records, which features the finale of his G major piano concerto as stimulus to focused action. Or Richard Wagner, whose "Ride of the Valkyries" generates "electrical activity in your brain while martial rhythms in the lower ranges resonate in your body ... increasing blood and oxygen flow." Probably not an earnest attempt at eliminating human neurosis, this attempt at a "total" musical experience turns classical music into musical Prozac. Tune Your Brain has predecessors. Record companies in the 1980s began repackaging legitimate classical pieces with topics like Opera for Dummies (with the idea that opera is just as easy to master as Windows 95), Classical Stressbusters, Sensual Classics, Mozart for Commuters, Bach for Breakfast, etc. The trend in classical marketing emphasizes music and something else, rather than music on its own. There are reasons for this direction. For most of the 20th century, modernists contemplated classical art, literature, and music out of respect for its structured creativity. Just being good music was enough. But the postmodern mind contemplates great art as something of value only if it is perceived to do something. In music, that amounts to "using" it for its alleged healing and restorative powers. While this is not altogether a loss to the serious musician (more record sales), it demeans the performer and composer. It also approaches the use of music as Huxley's soma-a tranquilizer to placate the masses. Ken Myers, in All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, says the "aesthetics of popular culture define fittingness solely in terms of the self's desires and the market." Tune Your Brain may be a clever new way to encourage listening to classical music, but its cynicism lies in the fact that it is released as an audio companion to a self-improvement book by Elizabeth Miles (The Berkley Publishing Group), an ethnomusicologist who knows how music influences culture. Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind regarded the power of music as a "medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror." But the postmodern West, devoid of rational contemplation, has become a commune of self-realization and crystal gazing. Just look at the Tune Your Brain jacket notes, which hail music as the auditory elixir that relaxes, focuses, uplifts, creates, cleanses, heals, and energizes the self. Is there any doubt this comes dangerously close to prescriptive mind control? Or, more overtly, to New Age meditation techniques? Tune Your Brain taunts a culture dominated by trivia and titillation. It dares us to take music as seriously as the ancients, but ascribes to music benefits only recently considered. Perhaps it will create more jobs for penniless violinists in New York. More likely, it will fatten the coffers of parent companies of classical record firms that consult marketing experts to help shape the direction of the music world. For some, this is a positive development. For others, it signals the replacement of listening to music for mere enjoyment, reducing musical experiences to mere psychobabble.

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