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What’s that noise?

27 March 2015

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THE spiritual paradox that music has presented to theologians is centuries old. Music raises one's soul heavenward, yet lures us away from the Word. So what can it be like to live in a convent of singing nuns and suffer from amusia: a condition that renders music unintelligible, and sometimes actively disagreeable? Worship and penance rolled up in the same act of devotion; every hallelujah a howl of pain.

We learned of this unusual case in Giving Up Music for Lent (Radio 4, Monday of last week), although the presenter, Trevor Cox, a Professor of Acoustic Engineering, did not unpack the dark humour of this story with the relish that one might have expected. Indeed, his project - to deny himself music for 40 days - avoided the religious dimension, and, instead, provided an excuse to explore the multifarious ways in which music operates in the everyday, and how difficult it is to avoid it.

If one takes John Cage's definition of music as "sounds heard", then it is inescapable: any noise which, when we hear it, we construct into patterns becomes a form of music. But even excluding the mundane rhythms of bangs and hisses that make up our omnipresent soundscape, it is hard to find a public space that does not treat us to sequences of structured pitches, whether it be the ping that indicates the arrival of a lift, or the sonic wallpaper in the lift.

This was a chance to rehearse again the insights brought to us by psychologists working in the field of retail behaviours: French music will encourage buyers to choose French wine over that of a different country, and classical music will suggest to customers that they should spend more. We all think that we are unaffected by such strategies, but the fact is that there is no such thing as truly "background" music; all of it is finding a way into our subconscious, otherwise the supermarkets would not be spending so much time and money researching the subject.

I'm sure that a good deal of time and money was also spent researching the question in Sarfraz Manzoor's documentary In Search of Moderate Muslims (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week): is it right to talk about "moderate" Muslims; and, if so, where are they to be found?

Manzoor was sufficiently self-aware to recognise that, as a liberal metropolitan media type, he was not the ideal person to be conducting this investigation. Young Muslims can be wary of media engagement, because of the way in which religious affiliation is presented: at one end, the Westernised party animal, and, at the other, the bomb-strapped fanatic.

It is possible, one of the witnesses interviewed said, to be both conservative and moderate. In this respect, Manzoor's litmus-test question, about tolerance for homosexuality, was not a helpful one. Many whom he might like to call "moderates" would balk at same-sex marriage, just as in the wider population of this country.

The difference for young Muslims now, as one woman put it, is that everybody is talking about Islam; and, as a Muslim, that makes you think more carefully about what it means. The self-identity has been as much stimulated from without as nurtured from within.

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