This post is an addendum to the previous one on the influence of movies on our consciousness. It discusses the phenomenon of “popular music”, by which we mean those shrill, raunchy, meretricious musical hits which gain instant appeal among the masses but fade away into obscurity soon after.
All men are restless to some degree and this restlessness is reflected in their taste in music. When this restlessness finally ceases, one begins to hear the Anahata (un-struck) sound which reverberates ceaselessly through the higher regions of the cosmos. Those who have heard the Anahata sound lose all taste for man-made music. But such instances are few and far in between. The human personality by and large remains a mixture of Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas and this mixture is reflected in the musical trends which gain favour amongst the masses.
Those who are tamasic by nature are drawn to loud, thumping music with heavy beats. The Mother, while commenting on the noise being generated by some festival outside the Ashram in Pondicherry, said the reason people make so much noise was because they “like to deaden themselves. In silence they have to face their own difficulties, they are in front of themselves, and usually they don’t like that. In the noise they forget everything, they become stupefied.”.
The phenomenon of popular music was first recognized by Plato. In this passage, we find him lamenting on the decline in musical taste:
In the first place, let us speak of the laws about music-that is to say, such music as then existed-in order that we may trace the growth of the excess of freedom from the beginning. Now music was early divided among us into certain kinds and manners. One sort consisted of prayers to the Gods, which were called hymns; and there was another and opposite sort called lamentations, and another termed paeans, and another, celebrating the birth of Dionysus, called, I believe, “dithyrambs.” And they used the actual word “laws” or nomoi, for another kind of song; and to this they added the term “citharoedic.” All these and others were duly distinguished, nor were the performers allowed to confuse one style of music with another. And the authority which determined and gave judgment, and punished the disobedient, was not expressed in a hiss, nor in the most unmusical shouts of the multitude, as in our days, nor in applause and clapping of hands. But the directors of public instruction insisted that the spectators should listen in silence to the end; and boys and their tutors, and the multitude in general, were kept quiet by a hint from a stick. Such was the good order which the multitude were willing to observe; they would never have dared to give judgment by noisy cries.
And then, as time went on, the poets themselves introduced the reign of vulgar and lawless innovation. They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what is just and lawful in music; raging like Bacchanals and possessed with inordinate delights-mingling lamentations with hymns, and paeans with dithyrambs; imitating the sounds of the flute on the lyre, and making one general confusion; ignorantly affirming that music has no truth, and, whether good or bad, can only be judged of rightly by the pleasure of the hearer. And by composing such licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they can judge for themselves about melody and song. And in this way the theatres from being mute have become vocal, as though they had understanding of good and bad in music and poetry; and instead of an aristocracy, an evil sort of theatrocracy has grown up. For if the democracy which judged had only consisted of educated persons, no fatal harm would have been done; but in music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness; freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty? .
The German musicologist and critical theorist Theodor Adorno(1903-1969) analyzed the reason why the masses are drawn to such meretricious music. In his essay “On popular music”, he wrote:
The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either.
…the way in which they must work on the assembly line, in the factory, or at office machines denies people any novelty. They seek novelty, but the strain and boredom associated with actual work leads to avoidance of effort in that leisure time which offers the only chance for really new experience. As a substitute, they crave a stimulant. Popular music comes to offer it. Its stimulations are met with the inability to vest effort in the ever-identical. This means boredom again. It is a circle which makes escape impossible .
Adorno and his colleague Max Horkheimer coined the term “culture industry” to denote the entertainment industry which mass-produces standardized cultural goods – movies, songs, magazines – that lull the masses into passivity and sink them into depravity. Adorno’s essay “On popular music” can be read online.
We shall end with some remarks by the Mother who reflected on the increasing vulgarity during a discussion with students at the Ashram school. Children are easily impressionable and naturally start humming music which is shrill and exciting. Someone asked the Mother for her advice on this trend. This dialogue was recorded in 1955.
Child: There is something else we would like to ask. There are many discussions on this subject: should we take any interest in those songs which have no meaning, usually cinema songs?
Mother: Take interest? How do you mean?
Child: There are many who listen to these songs and sing them also.
Mother: Yes, but I don’t understand “taking interest”. One may like these things because one has no taste, but I don’t see what is meant by “taking interest”. One takes interest in a study, one takes interest in a work, one takes interest in the progress to be made, but… One may indulge in an activity of idleness, but that doesn’t mean that one can take any interest in it.
Child: If one has to sing these songs?
Mother: Has to? Why? To earn your living? (Laughter)
Child: Isn’t it an obstacle to our progress?
Mother: But everything that brings down the consciousness is an obstacle in one’s progress. If you have a desire it creates an obstacle in your progress; if you have a bad thought or bad will, it creates an obstacle in your progress; if you welcome some kind of falsehood, it creates an obstacle in your progress; and if you cultivate vulgarity in yourself, it creates an obstacle in your progress; everything which is not in keeping with the Truth creates an obstacle to progress; and there are hundreds of these things every day.
For example, every movement of impatience, every movement of anger, every movement of violence, every tendency to dissimulation, every deformation of the truth, whether big or small, every bad will, every partial judgment, every preference, every encouragement to bad taste and to… yes, to vulgarity, all this is constantly in the way. All this, every one of these movements, big or small, passing or lasting, all are like so many stones to build the wall to prevent yourself from progressing. It is not one thing only, there are hundreds of them, thousands. It is enough to have a preference in oneself, it is enough to be impatient, enough to have a little desire to conceal something, enough to feel a disgust, a distaste for effort, it is enough… anything at all is enough, which has something to do with desires, repulsions, all that, for it to impede your progress. And then, from the point of view of the intellectual being, the artistic being, the side of inner and outer culture, every lack of taste, whatever it may be, is a terrible obstacle.
This world, I must say, is a world of extremes from the point of view of taste, artistic and literary culture; on one side, it makes a great effort to discover something that’s very high, very pure, very noble, and on the other, at the other end, it sinks into a vulgarity which certainly is infinitely greater than the vulgarity of the past two or three centuries. What is curious is that, going back two or three centuries, people who were uncultured were gross, but their grossness resembled that of animals, and there was not much perversion in it; there was a little, because as soon as the mind is there, perversion comes in, but there was not a great deal of perversion. But now, what does not rise to the mountain-peak, what remains on ground-level, is it absolutely perverted in its grossness, that is, it is not only ignorant and stupid, it is ugly, dirty and repugnant, it is deformed, it is wicked, it is very low. And it is indeed the wrong use of the mind which has produced this. Without the mind this perversion did not exist, but it’s the wrong use of the mind which produces this perversion. Well, it has become what is ugly from every point of view, now, what is vulgar and ugly.
There are things, things considered very pretty nowadays… I have seen photographs or reproductions which are considered very fine but they are frightfully vulgar in their perversion, and yet people go into ecstasies over them and find them pretty! It’s because there is something deformed, not only without culture, not only undeveloped, but deformed, something that’s much worse, because it is much more difficult to restore something perverted and deformed than to enlighten something ignorant and uneducated. Well, I think some things have been great instruments of perversion, and among these one may put the cinema. It could have been, and I hope it will become, an instrument of education and development; but for the moment it has been an instrument of perversion, and of a truly hideous perversion: perversion of taste, perversion of consciousness, and everything with a terrible moral and physical ugliness. Yet it is something which can be used for education, progress, culture and artistic development; and from this point of view it could be a means of spreading beauty and culture much more widely and making them much more accessible to all, than the former methods could do. But it is always like this for what can be better, if it is not better, it becomes worse. And as I said at the beginning, we are in a period of excesses Excess in every way. Each thing tries excessively to perfect itself and falls into excesses of perversion which, relatively, are as great if not greater. And if one looks attentively at oneself, one becomes aware that naturally, as one lives in the world as it is at present, one shares in its vulgarity, and that unless one observes oneself closely and constantly puts the light of one’s highest consciousness upon oneself, one risks making mistakes in taste, from the spiritual point of view, rather frequently .
A Mechanical Singing bird made around 1890 in Paris
Here’s a bonus for reading thus far 🙂
It’s believed that the contraption seen below was built 120 years ago in Paris by Blaise Bontems, a well-known maker of bird automata and was recently refurbished by Michael Start over at The House of Automata. (From the Colossal blog)
- Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 7, p 25.
- Plato. Laws III 700-701 (online). I am indebted to Grout and Claude, History of western music, 5th ed, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996, p 6 for this reference.
- Theodore Adorno. On popular music. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, IX, 17-48. (online)
- Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 7, p 297.
- Identifying the celestial quality in music
- Art as an aid in Yoga
- Why are artists irregular in their conduct?
- The occult forces behind artistic movements
- The equipoise required for Yoga
- Mental awareness in comatose patients and sleeping newborn infants
- On spirit possession and mental imbalances
- Linguistic abilities of babies
- The Paradox of Life
- Messages are also exchanged on the subtle planes
- How does the Mind change with Yoga?
- Embodied cognition in Yoga psychology
- Why does depression last longer than pleasure?
- Somnambulists who do creative work in their sleep
- Why spiritual experiences do not repeat?
- On Atheism and Agnosticism
- My words will remain imprinted on your soul
- Difference between genius and mysticism
- The laissez-faire approach of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
- The History of Yoga