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
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.