Edward Said London Lecture 2015

Making music an essential part of social life has always been a key goal of mine. I deeply believe in the greater importance of music and in its ability to influence and shape who we are as human beings.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, May 2015

Dear public, dear guests,

I am thrilled to be here today to deliver the 2015 Edward W Said London Lecture. Today’s lecture takes place here at one of London’s most important musical venues, so it is fitting it should be about music which was one of Edward Said’s greatest passions in life.

Making music an essential part of social life has always been a key goal of mine. I deeply believe in the greater importance of music and in its ability to influence and shape who we are as human beings. Edward Said shared this belief and it was in this common spirit that, after years of friendship, we embarked on the adventure and incredible success story that is the West Eastern Divan Orchestra.

As many of you know, we founded the orchestra together in 1999 and I have been proud to see it grow into one of the finest orchestras I have ever had the joy to conduct. From the outset, our approach in our workshops and seminars has been a comprehensive one in that we focus on understanding what it means to listen to each other – both as musicians and as human beings. Learning to listen in that way sensitises us both for ourselves and the world around us. The imperative word here, however, is learning as basic education in music is the essential prerequisite to be able to understand music more comprehensively and let it play an important role in our lives.

Sadly, music instruction in schools everywhere has decreased sharply over recent decades – to the extent that an alarming percentage of children and teenagers get little or no music education. Music is often only an optional subject at secondary schools, there are not enough qualified teachers and music is often seen as the subject that can be cut from the curriculum if there is a shortage of teachers, since music is not one of the core subjects as maths, literature, science and foreign languages are. Yet a basic knowledge of music always used to be considered part of a well-rounded education, just like a basic knowledge of literature or maths. And the worst thing about the decline in recent years is that it affects European countries which have been known for their proud musical tradition, as reflected in the long list of important composers and musicians who form the basis of European music.

That is why I am calling for music once more to be taught in schools on a par with literature, mathematics or biology. Not only so that listeners can have better auditory experiences later in life thanks to their schooling and also so we are guaranteed educated audiences in the long term – although those are extremely desirable additional benefits. The big reason for raising the status of music in schools, in my opinion, is that music has to be considered one of the elemental components of human education, since it can be instrumental in significantly improving people’s quality of life.

The scientist Antonio Damasio has conducted studies that show that the human brain processes music in a very special way. He writes: “Auditory stimuli enter the brain at the stem, a location that gives them direct access to the areas of the brain that regulate vital functions, in particular those that enable us to have feelings and react emotionally. This anatomical peculiarity has created a special link between music and the most important life-regulating mechanisms – at an individual as well as social level.” The implication is that systematic exposure to music positively affects the development of the brain and is therefore extremely important for the neural maturation process, which is associated with sociability, general perceptiveness and intelligence.

This finding leads us to conclude that our brain, our IQ and our faculty for sensibility will all be improved if we have contact with music from an early age.

Music allows people to have different sensations simultaneously. That would be inconceivable without music. In and through music, grief and joy, for example, or loneliness and sociability can co-exist. Music can mean different things for different people and even different things for the same person at different times. This kind of contrapuntal experience is important for human existence – but would not be possible to the same extent if we did not have music. More than that: music can enrich our lives as it fosters the development of the finest human qualities in a collective situation.

Music, unlike sport, is not subject to the usual laws of competition; music has to function as a communal experience. The experiences I’ve had working with orchestras, in particular the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, confirm this assumption. The young musicians have an advanced knowledge of music, which means they are prepared to listen as a group and make music as a group, even in a very delicate and tricky social context. In the process they have succeeded in overcoming supposed barriers. Music has taught them not only the possibility but the necessity to listen to other voices. Voices that are contrapuntal or commenting. This, in a certain way, is more important than the fundamental democratic right to vote. In music, every voice has a responsibility towards the other, in speed, dynamic and intensity. The difference between just producing beautiful sound and making music is that the latter means striving to create an organic whole of all the different elements, of one-ness. There should always be a connection between the different elements in music-making, not allowing any separation from the context.

Music is often seen as a way to escape the human condition: hearing music is meant to enable people to take time out from reality. But this is hearing without listening. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that approach, in my opinion, music should be giving us lessons for life as well as helping us to escape when necessary. I myself have had the experience, as a youngster, of playing mature music like Beethoven’s later piano sonatas without having first come up against the slings and arrows of life. So my playing was not a product of my life experience. It’s the other way round: my musical experiences have shown me how to live my life. In the 21st century it is our job to get exactly this point across to people, to show them that they can use what music has taught them to help themselves to live their lives.

Music has a spiritual component that can be expressed only through a purely physical medium: sound. It is that combination of the spiritual and the physical that gives music its power of expression. That is why music should be taught first and foremost as a practical skill, for instance by means of group singing lessons and relaxed familiarisation with instruments, starting at a very early age. Our experience of practice in the Berlin music kindergarten, for example, shows that 80% of children who study music in a playful manner early on continue with it when they leave kindergarten.

This trend also creates the potential of developing new audiences for classical music, an important aspect in the ongoing debate about subsidies for music. Specifically, letting new audiences develop would create a fairer ratio between subsidies and the public whereas both government institutions and private donors are currently often criticised for subsidising an activity for a small elite. That has to change. Providing a solid foundation in music education to a greater part of the population will lead to a larger percentage of the population remaining interested in music later in their life. This makes the excuse that subsidies are elitist and too expensive invalid.

There are many instances of music instruction. They range from musical grammar schools such as the Bach Gymnasium in former East Germany and the classical schools of music to extra-curricular music activities, youth choruses and orchestras. What I would love to see in the future is a choir and an orchestra in every school. We have a long way to go in that direction, but we have to lay the foundation now for a system in which music forms part of the basic education of every child and teenager rather than being just an exotic subject for a few children. On the other hand, the fact that in music schools there is little to no instruction in other spiritual disciplines adds to music being perceived as an ivory tower. Music cannot be considered an abstract subject but requires as rich a supplementary education as possible because the associations necessary to value music need to be drawn from history, politics, or literature. It is the art of thinking in and with music. Maybe we could envisage, both for music and non-music schools, a new form of digital education initiative which would facilitate access and give every family and child the possibility of participating by giving them the feeling that they personally are included and not merely part of a multitude. This would significantly improve the quality of life for individuals and social groups across the world.

– Daniel Barenboim