On "Malevolent" Music

Music communicates an emotional experience through sound.

Sometimes that experience is happy or triumphant. Sometimes it is sad, dreadful, or angry.

Just like great fiction, music has happy and sad moments.

I'm not going to define "music" here, but for now, I wish to include a broad range of works of organized sound, from songs to movie music to symphonies to pure percussion works. I'm talking about sound organized (composed) by people for human consumption.

Such work serves lots of purposes, but the overarching purpose is to communicate an emotional experience to the listener.

One can question why the particular experience is being communicated, i.e. why the composer/producer considers the experience important enough to communicate in a given context, but I hold that the greatness of music as such lies in how effectively an experience is transmitted through the sound.

Quality music is integrated for the sake of the emotional purpose at hand. Anything that distracts the listener from the emotional purpose detracts from the music. Bad notes, poor musicianship, and jarring stylistic changes all detract from the music. It's like taking a picture with a bad camera or writing a story with bad grammar or penmanship.

But if a piece of music generates in you a sympathy for the emotional purpose of the music, it has done its job and should be celebrated as good music, even if the mood communicated isn't one you'd generally desire to be in.

Good music makes you want to listen more, even if the emotion is an uneasy or sad one. We listen to sad music for the same reason we watch movies that make us cry. Sometimes we want that experience.

With that in mind, let's discuss a work of music: Gustav Holst's "Mars: The Bringer of War" from his suite "The Planets". 

This work must be heard to be understood. Its fundamental rhythm would not be out of place in a military march, except for one thing: there are five beats to each measure rather than the traditional four. If you try to march to it, you'll find yourself instead halfway between a march and a waltz. It's the antithesis of grace.

The melody and harmony of the piece are very dissonant, featuring many tritone intervals and lots of chromatic melodic movement. These all serve to communicate unease, unbalance, dread, and manic aggressiveness. This is scary music.

Nonetheless, it's profoundly melodic and perfectly integrated to its purpose: to show what being at war feels like.

Holst's "Mars" is an exalted and eloquent sonic portrait of war. It is some of the greatest music ever composed.

Had Holst only composed music that sounded like "Mars", we'd suspect he had some kind of sad fascination or fixation. But he didn't. The rest of "The Planets" communicates an amazing range of moods, from jollity to solemnity to awe, and many others.

It's as if Holst simply wanted to demonstrate how well-rounded he was, emotionally. In the process, he created such a variety of great music that it remains entertaining and engaging for forty-nine minutes.

In the context of the entire suite "The Planets", is "Mars" properly to be considered "malevolent"?

"Malevolent" means "wishing to do evil to others."

Malevolent composers, if they exist, write music for the sake of hurting listeners. Imagine a composer who only wrote music that isn't entertaining at all; music that is painful to listen to and satisfies no human need except for those who desire to be punished. Such music would probably be celebrated only by those who go through life feeling guilty, and who feel relieved whenever they listen to the music in question. These people only enjoy the music because they don't enjoy it.

Do I like listening to "Mars"? Certainly. Would I like to listen to music like "Mars" nonstop, all day long? No.

But "Mars" lasts only just over seven minutes. Am I unhappy that Gustav Holst wrote "Mars"? Not in the least. I love "Mars", as well as the rest of "The Planets".

Does this mean I have some secret desire to be punished by the music I listen to? I don't think so. It just means I can appreciate music that effectively communicates something true about life. In this case, the truth is that war is devastating.

It would be different if what was being communicated in the music was that life is war.

But Holst didn't intend that, as is evidenced by the emotional variety throughout the rest of "The Planets" and his other work.

I think a similar thing can be said for Beethoven and the much-maligned first movement of his fifth symphony. Music is composed in a context, and you cannot judge a work as if every five minutes of music is to be treated independently from every other five minutes.


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