Why do so many modern musicians – including some who are commercially successful – appear to suffer from amusia?
Well, I suppose that diagnosis is a matter of opinion, since “amusia” has come to refer to a particular medical disorder related to “the inability to recognize musical tones or to reproduce them.” More on that in a moment. First let’s consider the original meaning of the word.
It begins with the Greek Muses. While “muse” has morphed into anything that inspires a creative soul, it did not begin that way. The Muses began as personifications devoted to nine children of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory). During Europe’s revival of Classical themes, they were associated not only with the arts, but with culture and refinement in general.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis records his admiration for one of his early teachers. This man taught him to love poetry, and although he practiced corporal punishment (standard for the era), embodied “perfect courtesy.” On an occasion he was sent to the headmaster, who misperceived that Lewis had acted inappropriately. After dispelling the confusion, this teacher, who treated his students as “gentlemen,” matter-of-factly said “you will have to be whipped if you don’t do better at your Greek Grammar next week, but naturally that has nothing to do with your manners or mine.”
The idea that the tone of conversation between one gentleman and another should be altered by a flogging (any more than by a duel) was ridiculous. His manner was perfect: no familiarity, no hostility, no threadbare humor; mutual respect; decorum.
“Never let us live with amousia” was one of his favorite maxims: amousia, the absence of the Muses. And he knew, as Spenser knew, that courtesy was of the Muses.
Muses, from this perspective, undergird civilization. But the Muses are fickle. One cannot create their own Muse. Inspiration comes to us of its own volition. It can’t be commanded.
Nearly four years ago, I posed this question in Mere Inkling: “Who is Your Muse?” Various literary figures have written paeans to the muses which inspire their work. In that column I also noted how our animal companions* often exert an influence on our own creativity.
The link between inspirational Muses and music itself is strongly intertwined. Consider, for instance, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who was brilliant, but much to be pitied. He despised God, but he did love music. In “Amousia: Living Without the Muses,” Classicist Stephen Halliwell discusses the importance of music for enjoying a meaningful existence. He begins with a quote from Nietzsche, and points out a Platonic corollary.
Without music life would be a mistake . . . So, famously, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in . . . Twilight of the Idols. As always, Nietzsche had deeply personal reasons for the force and pathos of this aphorism; music did indeed help to keep him alive. . . .
[W]e can detect in Nietzsche’s stark utterance, I would like to suggest, a trace and resonance of Greek feeling. We might even wonder whether in formulating his maxim Nietzsche was subconsciously remembering the passage in Plato’s Philebus where Protarchus, asked by Socrates whether music, as one of the ‘impure’ arts, is needed for the mixture of a humanly desirable life, says that he certainly takes it to be necessary – ‘at any rate,’ as he puts it, ‘if our life is really to be a life of some kind.’
Without music, Protarchus . . . seems to take the idea to be practically self-evident, human ‘life’ would hardly be worth the name at all.
Amusia as a Medical Condition
I suggested above that the caterwauling of some musicians suggests they are tone deaf, but in fact there is a genuine medical condition called amusia. It traces its beginning to the Muses we have been speaking about, and suggests their absence.
In “The Genetics of Congenital Amusia (Tone Deafness),” we learn that “congenital amusia . . . is a lifelong impairment of music perception that affects 4% of the population.” What’s more, “the pitch disorder has a hereditary component.”
In amusic families, 39% of first-degree relatives have the same cognitive disorder, whereas only 3% have it in the control families.
As the husband of a gifted music teacher, the father-in-law of another, and the grandfather of a number of extremely talented children, I understand the Greek principle. While I would miss music’s grace if I was stricken with amusia, I know a number of precious people for whom that would be one of the most terrible fates imaginable.
C.S. Lewis and Music
Like most of us, C.S. Lewis enjoyed some forms of music while others left him exasperated. Wagner, bravo. Church hymnody, not so much. A recent article by John MacInnis, a professor of music, goes so far as to claim: “music listening and discussion factored regularly in C.S. Lewis’s relationships, and love for music inspired his creative endeavors and prompted his best thinking.”
I agree with the first part of this, and will attribute the “best thinking” declaration to the hyperbole of one who has devoted his own life to music.
The author of “A Medium for Meeting God” explores in detail the effect of Wagner’s work, and the sense of Northernness it imprinted on Lewis’ psyche.
In 1934, Lewis, along with his brother Warnie and J.R.R. Tolkien read Wagner’s operas together in German, in anticipation of attending performances of the Ring cycle. MacInnis points out that Lewis enjoyed the music of Sibelius (also “evocative of Northern landscapes) and likened it to Wagner as an expression of natural or earthy music. This he contrasted to Beethoven, which he also enjoyed, and thought of as “noble” and even spiritual.
As for church music, Lewis had mixed feelings. I’ve written about that in the past, in “Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns.” Most of us would agree that music enriches our lives. Our tastes vary, of course, just as they do with literature.
And, speaking of which, just as there are tone deaf individuals who should avoid recording music . . . most of us have encountered writers who suffer from a literary variant of amusia. And, lacking the influence of anything remotely like a muse, would not the world be a more harmonious place if they simply laid down their pens.
* When we got our youngest border collie as a puppy, I named her Calli. Actually, that’s what we call her, but her given name is actually Calliope. I named her after the Muse of epic poetry with the hope she might inspire my writing.
Since she’s our fifth border collie, I should have known better. The very last thing Calli wants me to do is sit at the computer composing documents (no matter how interesting or edifying). “Get out of that chair and get some exercise with me,” she says plaintively with her body, voice, and pleading eyes.
She’s plenty loving, and her insistence on activity may well add years to my life, but if I look to her to help me write more productively, I’m guaranteed disappointment.