A recent discussion in my English class raised an interesting debate about the ethics of songs. Specifically, when it comes to songs, who is responsible for how melodies affect the body and mind—the artist, or the listener?
The origins of our discussion stemmed from an analysis of medieval texts on music and its effects on the body and soul. The medieval understanding of the body relied on a balance of the four classical humors and the assumption that the soul is an inseparable part of the body that lives in the heart. Music, sound, and voice were already understood to be vibrations in the air. Sound was thought to originate from a rhythmic striking of the soul upon the windpipe, thus producing vibrations in the air. It was believed that through music, a musician could translate the vibrations of her own soul to those of the listener. As the vibrations for the musician’s soul touched that of the listener, the listener’s soul would synchronize to the harmony produced by the musician’s soul.
Now, obviously we’ve come a long ways from a medieval understanding of the human body and soul. But if we take a look at how modern understanding of song, I don’t think we’ll find a clear difference. Perhaps we’ve abstracted the almost mechanical representation of emotional transformation predominant in medieval times, but we still hold to the basic tenet that a musician produces her work through an expression of her emotions. For a listener to give audience to a musician’s song requires the listener to relinquish his own reality to experience that of the musician’s. In this way, the musician extends control over the listener and dictates the emotions that the listener experiences.
I can think of multiple examples of how this is still true today. You would never try to put an agitate baby to bed by playing military marches or rock and roll. The obvious choice is a soft lullaby because we know the melodies in lullabies conducive to a calm emotional state. But even beyond that, music can affect our body as well. You will never hear a nightclub playing lullabies because they know that the best songs to get their patrons dancing are pop and electronic songs with an easily discernable beat. Even in our day and age, we cannot escape the medieval observation that music influences our mind and body.
Keeping these ideas in mind, how do we determine where the responsibility of music lies? With the power to influence countless listeners and a measure of control over song creation, should the responsibility fall to the musician? There has always been a debate about the violent and suggestive lyrics of modern hip-hop. How do we reconcile what we know about the power of music with the production of controversial songs? Perhaps the responsibility of music should fall to the listener; the musician is merely expressing her thoughts and emotions in song, shouldn’t the burden of interpretation fall to the listener in a way analogous to how a viewer would scrutinize over a piece of art in a museum gallery?