Music

Music and Pleasure

Music is something we do for pleasure, right?

I don’t mean to diminish music by posing this question.

To call music a tool of pleasure does not lessen music’s importance, because pleasure itself is important and good.

It’s true that the pursuit of pleasure can take a greedy, destructive form, but just as much, it can be a path to connection, even enlightenment. The experience of pleasure can put us in tune with ourselves and with one another. Among the varieties of pleasure, there is physical pleasure, there is spiritual pleasure, and music offers both.

If music can make us sad, it does this in a way that brings us pleasure. We are happy to be moved to cry, when it’s music that’s doing the moving. If music can make us disoriented or confused, it does this in a way that brings refreshment, expands our field of view, and so delivers the pleasure of growth.

Of course, music is a business. Music is pursued for money, fame, and influence. Music is an academic discipline. Music is a way to glorify God. Music can have a mission: it can tell a story, advertise a product, raise awareness for a cause, spark a revolution. 

Sheer pleasure is not the only reason to sing, or play an instrument, or write a note on staff paper. But if you look at the essence of music, if you consider why we’re addicted to music – it’s about pleasure. 

Take away people’s willingness to pay for music, and we’d still make it. Take away music’s academic prestige and we’d still want to learn about it. Take away the large concert venues, the rock stars, the virtuosos — take away music’s connection with fame, and we’d still sing in the shower. But if music didn’t bring us pleasure, then the other reasons for making it would lose their support. If it didn’t make us feel good, then music would no longer be a way for anyone to make money or get famous or achieve any other goal.

Why is it necessary to remind oneself that music is about pleasure?

Musicians might need such a reminder because our work is difficult, and that difficulty can be so intense as to consume us and makes us forget what we’re really after.

I am a musician. That means, in some sense, that I’ve dedicated my life to pleasure… to seeking out a certain form of pleasure, and sharing that pleasure with others.

But what did I learn in my first music lessons as a kid? That I’d have to practice before I could play what I wanted to play. 

The study of music is all about delayed gratification. In my own path as a musician:

  • I’ve wanted to sing a note but couldn’t reach it or hold it in tune, so I needed to practice more and/or give up on reaching that note for the time.
  • I’ve wanted to play a passage on guitar that I had spent dozens of hours preparing but I couldn’t pull it off, so I needed to practice more and/or try an easier piece.
  • I’ve wanted to sight-read a piece but constantly got stuck, so I needed to go slower and try an easier piece.
  • I’ve wanted to compose a piece of my own but didn’t know how to start so I had to muddle around for years looking for an entry point.
  • I’ve wanted to improvise a solo but couldn’t get my bearings or synchronize with a group so I had to go back to the woodshed.
  • I’ve wanted to make a recording to share but couldn’t press “record” without promptly making a dozen errors.
  • I’ve wanted to receive a response to music that I had labored for months to create but I heard only silence in response and didn’t know how to connect with those who might appreciate what I’d done.
  • I’ve wanted to delight someone with my music but found that it didn’t speak to them.

This is just a way of saying that the effort to experience pleasure and offer it to others through music can come upon obstacles that cause stress, distraction, insecurity, and doubt.

When music frustrates me, I’ve taken to reminding myself that music is about pleasure, and my capacity for pleasure is intact, no matter what pitfalls arise. I can laugh. I can love. I can delight in things. I already have everything that music can give me, or that I might seek to achieve through it.

In those moments when I am skeptical of my own abilities or path forward in music, I remind myself that we – all musicians – are seeking the same result, the spreading of pleasure. I can work towards that end no matter what, through efforts musical and non-musical alike.

I sometimes do a little experiment. I take the densest, driest music theory textbook I can find on my shelf, I flip through the pages and look at the squiggles – dense squiggles I have poured over many a time before – and I remind myself that all of this is just a recipe to give someone a good time. That’s why we’re arranging notes in various combinations and laboring to follow precise instructions about how those notes should be performed… it’s all to give someone a good time. Really, that’s all it’s about – pleasure – but that is important.

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