Ted Gioia is an accomplished music historian whose crisp writing and expansive studies have made his eleven books essentials. His new book, Music: A Subversive History, is a worthy conclusion to a 25-year project, charged by his core belief that “music is a force of transformation and empowerment, a catalyst in human life.”
That belief has been revealed in his award-winning books, among them How to Listen to Jazz, Love Songs: The Hidden History, Work Songs, Healing Songs, The History of Jazz, and The Imperfect Art. Educated at Stanford and Oxford, Gioia later taught in Stanford’s Department of Music, and is a jazz pianist himself. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, Bookforum, The Millions, and many other publications. The Los Angeles Times calls his new book “dauntingly ambitious”—in other words, an absolute treat for those drawn to the history of sound and subversion.
Image’s culture editor, Nick Ripatrazone, talked to Gioia about what music does to our bodies, where innovation in music comes from, and how the secular and sacred often blur in song.
Image: Your introduction includes a wonderfully concise and accurate description of your project with Music: A Subversive History: “A key theme of this book is that the shameful elements of songs–their links to sex, violence, magic, ecstatic trance, and other disreputable matters–are actually sources of power, serving as the engines of innovation in human music-making.” What has caused music to have an almost preternatural connection to disruption and subversion?
Ted Gioia: Music has a more powerful impact on our body and biochemistry than other art forms—it’s almost more like a physiological force than a cultural artifact. Our brain waves match the rhythms of the music we hear. Our blood cell count changes when we are immersed in music. Our immune system is stronger, energy levels raise, and many other physical changes take place. But, most important of all, the hormone oxytocin is created in our bodies when we listen to music—and this makes us more trusting of those around us. We bond together with others as a result.
This is why people dance or listen to music on romantic dates—the songs actually bring couples together from a physiological standpoint. This is why countries have national anthems and why labor unions sing their solidarity songs. But this ability of music to bring people together also has a dangerous side. It also creates group cohesion for soldiers in warfare or in violent gangs. The first hunters in human society relied on music for this reason. The music actually helped them kill prey.
In other words, music is linked to sex and violence from a very objective scientific standpoint, and this connection is reflected again and again in the history of songs. Many believe that these aspects of music are shameful, but if you try to comprehend music history without taking them into account, you will fail.
Image: I was surprised to learn that “for most of human history, the song was more powerful than the singer–performers and composers were so unimportant that their names weren’t preserved.” What caused the shift, and what have we gained (and perhaps lost) from the change?
TG: Today we assume that music serves as personal expression for the singer or composer. But this has not always been the case. Consider the case of early Christian music. During a period lasting more than a thousand years, the composers who created these songs remained almost completely anonymous. When a name has been preserved in the historical record—for example, Hildegard von Bingen—it’s a rare exception. In her case, it’s probably due to her reputation as a mystic and authority as an abbess that her identity was attached to the music, not to honor her as an artist. We need to remember that this kind of music celebrated something higher than personal expression. It literally aimed to connect with the divine. Adding a composer’s name to the piece might actually be seen as a distraction from that purpose. Of course, nowadays you would stir up endless intellectual property lawsuits if you took that approach to musical composition.
By the way, I see that the Hong Kong protesters recently embraced a song as their anthem, but the composer remains anonymous. You can understand the reasons why. The situation is different from medieval church music, but the impact of this anonymity is the same. The song has a higher purpose than to give recognition to just one individual. It becomes everybody’s song, not just the composer’s.
Image: I love your discussion of Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, in which you note “these are two very different views of music—songs as a pathway into euphoric trance and as a source of teachable moments—and often in conflict with one another. The resulting tension has never been adequately resolved by Christianity.” Has this resulting tension fueled or hindered the role of music in Christian spirituality, practice, and celebration?
TG: In every society, music is incorporated into rituals because songs create altered mind states. They are a path to inspiration, ecstasy and group cohesion. Religion leaders always are attracted to this power, but they also fear it. So conflict invariably arises between two views of spiritual music. You can keep it safe and low-key, but you lose much of music’s transcendent power. The alternative is to draw on that magical energy, but this can prove disruptive and dangerous to an organized religion. If the music is too powerful, it soon turns into disorganized religion.
There’s a famous story about the controversial music therapist Tomatis, who was called in as consultant to a French monastery where the monks were exhausted and depressed. The monastery had recently limited the time spent chanting as part of its modernization efforts after Vatican II. Tomatis understood that the monks drew energy and focus from their long hours of chanting. He convinced the head abbot to reinstate the traditional practices, and the chronic health problems disappeared within a short while. The monks could now thrive with just four hours of sleep and still handle all their chores and chanting. Without the music, no amount of sleep could restore their psychic energy.
There’s a lesson here. If you want to inspire and uplift people, you will have to limit your desire to tame and control the music. The power of song is lessened the more it is controlled by elites.
Image: In the songs of troubadours, “we find the most heated expressions of sexual desire placed side by side with calls to chastity.” You acknowledge that “most readers nowadays will view this as little more than hypocrisy,” which you think “reflects a basic misunderstanding of the rules of the game–not just the dictates of courtly love, but also the implicit compromise between the secular and religious forces that allowed the music to come out into the open.” Does the shadow of the troubadours extend to the present? Is such tension anachronistic, or contemporary?
TG: Because the troubadours often sang about sex, many have assumed that they had frequent love affairs. But this misunderstands the complex relationship between Christianity and the troubadour ethos, which are interlinked at every stage. Certainly there were seductions and indiscretions, but more often the troubadours preferred to sing about an unobtainable lady—for example, the wife of a noble—because this allowed them to express the most passionate feelings in a manner that was still compatible with the dictates of chastity.
It’s hardly a coincidence that the cult of the Virgin Mary was at its height in European life during this same period. The secular and sacred often blur together in this music. In fact, the Christian and moralizing elements in the troubadour songs are almost as prominent as the romantic themes, yet they usually managed to find a way of co-existing. If this had not been the case, these songs would have caused constant problems, and not just censorship by church leaders. Nobles would hardly have invited troubadours into the castle if their music was openly used as a tool of seduction.
Image: A key thesis of your book is the “assertion that musical innovation comes from the underclass.” Why are blues, in particular, a useful “test case” for this thesis?
You could hardly find a better example of innovation from the underclass than the blues. When the blues arose in the Mississippi Delta, that state was the poorest in the United States. It had the lowest rate of automobile ownership of any state in the US. It had the fewest telephone lines per capita. It had the largest number of residences without electricity. Mississippi was like an impoverished third world country in the middle of the US. The fact that blues came from this setting tells us how much popular music is an expression of the underclass.
By the way, Elvis also grew up in Mississippi—so that connection also exists almost at the very start of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s no coincidence that country music arose from the same poor Southern regions that produced the blues. You could tell a similar story about the underclass and the British Invasion from Liverpool, or the rise of hip-hop, or even reggae, samba and tango. Wealthy people may control the music business, but innovations in music come from the bottom up.
Image: “A useful dictum: If you really want to understand a new type of popular music, turn away from the stage and gaze at the audience.” What should we look for when we consider the audience? What have you found?
TG: Music was once embedded in the lives of the listeners. But today it is sold as a lifestyle product. That’s not a small difference. As a result, music doesn’t reflect the person we are, but instead the kind of person we want to be—or maybe our unrealizable fantasy life. If you look at the audience through the prism of their music, you can find their deepest hopes and aspirations. Maybe you can’t be a rebel, but you can listen to rebellious rock. Maybe you can’t be an outlaw, but you can listen to outlaw country music. Anyone who wants to succeed in the music business needs to understand these dynamics. Music literally was the place where lifestyle marketing was invented.
Watch Gioia’s lecture on “The Hidden History of the Love Song.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.