The Interesting Instrument

Music has been called the greatest thing that humans do; some are of the opinion that it, even if only in the form of songs sung around the campfire, it is the oldest example of human art. However, whilst a huge amount of music’s effect and impact can be put down to the way it is interpreted by our ears and brain (I once listened to a song comprised entirely of various elements of urban sound, each individually recorded by separate microphones and each made louder or softer in order to create a tune), to create new music and allow ourselves true creative freedom over the sounds we make requires us to make and play instruments of various kinds. And, of all the myriad of different musical instruments humankind has developed, honed and used to make prettyful noises down the years, perhaps none is as interesting to consider as the oldest and most conceptually abstract of the lot; the human voice.

To those of us not part of the musical fraternity, the idea of the voice being considered an instrument at all is a very odd one; it is used most of the time simply to communicate, and is thus perhaps unique among instruments in that its primary function is not musical. However, to consider a voice as merely an addition to a piece of music rather than being an instrumental part of it is to dismiss its importance to the sound of the piece, and as such it must be considered one by any composer or songwriter looking to produce something coherent. It is also an incredibly diverse tool at a musician’s disposal; capable of a large range of notes anyway in a competent singer, by combining the voices of different people one can produce a tonal range rivalled only by the piano, and making it the only instrument regularly used as the sole component of a musical entity (ie in a choir). Admittedly, not using it in conjunction with other instruments does rather limit what it can do without looking really stupid, but it is nonetheless a quite amazingly versatile musical tool.

The voice also has a huge advantage over every other instrument in that absolutely anyone can ‘play’ it; even people who self-confessedly ‘can’t sing’ may still find themselves mumbling their favourite tune in the shower or singing along with their iPod occasionally. Not only that, but it is the only instrument that does not require any tool in addition to the body in order to play, meaning it is carried with everyone absolutely everywhere, thus giving everybody listening to a piece of music a direct connection to it; they can sing, mumble, or even just hum along. Not only is this a wet dream from a marketer’s perspective, enabling word-of-mouth spread to increase its efficiency exponentially, but it also makes live music that other level more awesome (imagine a music festival without thousands of screaming fans belting out the lyrics) and just makes music that much more compelling and, indeed, human to listen to.

However, the main artistic reason for the fundamental musical importance of the voice has more to do with what it can convey- but to adequately explain this, I’m going to need to go off on a quite staggeringly over-optimistic detour as I try to explain, in under 500 words, the artistic point of music. Right, here we go…:

Music is, fundamentally, an art form, and thus (to a purist at least) can be said to exist for no purpose other than its own existence, and for making the world a better place for those of us lucky enough to be in it. However, art in all its forms is now an incredibly large field with literally millions of practitioners across the world, so just making something people find pretty doesn’t really cut it any more. This is why some extraordinarily gifted painters can draw something next to perfectly photo-realistic and make a couple of grand from it, whilst Damien Hirst can put a shark in some formaldehyde and sell it for a few million. What people are really interested in buying, especially when it comes to ‘modern’ art, is not the quality of brushwork or prettifulness of the final result (which are fairly common nowadays), but its meaning, its significance, what it is trying to convey; the story, theatre and uniqueness behind it all (far rarer commodities that, thanks to the simple economic law of supply and demand, are thus much more expensive).

(NB: This is not to say that I don’t think the kind of people who buy Tracy Emin pieces are rather gullible and easily led, and apparently have far more money than they do tangible grip on reality- but that’s a discussion for another time, and this is certainly how they would justify their purchases)

Thus, the real challenge to any artist worth his salt is to try and create a piece that has meaning, symbolism, and some form of emotion; and this applies to every artistic field, be it film, literature, paintings, videogames (yes, I am on that side of the argument) or, to try and wrench this post back on-topic, music. The true beauty and artistic skill of music, the key to what makes those songs that transcend mere music alone so special, lies in giving a song emotion and meaning, and in this function the voice is the perfect instrument. Other instruments can produce sweet, tortured strains capable of playing the heart strings like a violin, but virtue of being able to produce those tones in the form of language, capable of delivering an explicit message to redouble the effect of the emotional one, a song can take on another level of depth, meaning and artistry. A voice may not be the only way to make your song explicitly mean something, and quite often it’s not used in such an artistic capacity at all; but when it is used properly, it can be mighty, mighty effective.

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Why do we call a writer a bard, anyway?

In Britain at the moment, there are an awful lot of pessimists. Nothing unusual about this, as it’s hardly atypical human nature and my country has never been noted for its sunny, uplifting outlook on life as a rule anyway. Their pessimism is typically of the sort adopted by people who consider themselves too intelligent (read arrogant) to believe in optimism and nice things anyway, and nowadays tends to focus around Britain’s place in the world. “We have nothing world-class” they tend to say, or “The Olympics are going to be totally rubbish” if they wish to be topical.

However, whilst I could dedicate an entire post to the ramblings of these people, I would probably have to violate my ‘no Views’ clause by the end of it, so will instead focus on one apparent inconsistency in their argument. You see, the kind of people who say this sort of thing also tend to be the kind of people who really, really like the work of William Shakespeare.

There is no denying that the immortal Bard (as he is inexplicably known) is a true giant of literature. He is the only writer of any form to be compulsory reading on the national curriculum and is known of by just about everyone in the world, or at least the English-speaking part. He introduced between 150 and 1500 new words to the English language (depending on who you believe and how stringent you are in your criteria) as well as countless phrases ranging from ‘bug-eyed monster’ (Othello) to ‘a sorry sight’ (Macbeth), wrote nearly 40 plays, innumerable sonnets and poems, and revolutionised theatre of his time. As such he is idolised above all other literary figures, Zeus in the pantheon of the Gods of the written word, even in our modern age. All of which is doubly surprising when you consider how much of what he wrote was… well… crap.

I mean think about it- Romeo and Juliet is about a romance that ends with both lovers committing suicide over someone they’ve only known for three days, whilst Twelfth Night is nothing more than a romcom (in fact the film ‘She’s the Man’ turned it into a modern one), and not a great one at that. Julius Caesar is considered even by fans to be the most boring way to spend a few hours in known human history, the character of Othello is the dopiest human in history and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about some fairies falling in love with a guy who turns into a donkey. That was considered, by Elizabethans, the very height of comedic expression.

So then, why is he so idolised? The answer is, in fact, remarkably simple: Shakespeare did stuff that was new. During the 16th century theatre hadn’t really evolved from its Greek origins, and as such every play was basically the same. Every tragedy had the exact same formulaic plot line of tragic flaw-catharsis-death, which, whilst a good structure used to great effect by Arthur Miller and the guy who wrote the plot for the first God of War game, does tend to lose interest after 2000 years of ceaseless repetition. Comedies & satyrs had a bit more variety, but were essentially a mixture of stereotypes and pantomime that might have been entertaining had they not been mostly based on tired old stories, philosophy and mythology and been so unfunny that they required a chorus (who were basically a staged audience meant to show how the audience how to react). In any case there was hardly any call for these comedies anyway- they were considered the poorer cousins to the more noble and proper tragedy, amusing sideshows to distract attention from the monotony of the main dish. And then, of course, there were the irreversibly fixed tropes and rules that had to be obeyed- characters were invariably all noble and kingly (in fact it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the idea of a classical tragedy of the common man was entertained at all) and spoke with rigid rhythm, making the whole experience more poetic than imitative of real life. The iambic pentameter was king, the new was non-existent, and there was no concept whatsoever that any of this could change.

Now contrast this with, say, Macbeth. This is (obviously) a tragedy, about a lord who, rather than failing to recognise a tragic flaw in his personality until right at the very end and then holding out for a protracted death scene in which to explain all of it (as in a Greek tragedy), starts off a good and noble man who is sent mental by a trio of witches. Before Shakespeare’s time a playwright could be lynched before he made such insulting suggestions about the noble classes (and it is worth noting that Macbeth wasn’t written until he was firmly established as a playwright), but Shakespeare was one of the first of a more common-born group of playwrights, raised an actor rather than aristocrat. The main characters may be lords & kings it is true (even Shakespeare couldn’t shake off the old tropes entirely, and it would take a long time for that to change), but the driving forces of the plot are all women, three of whom are old hags who speak in an irregular chanting and make up heathen prophecies. Then there is an entire monologue dedicated to an old drunk bloke, speaking just as irregularly, mumbling on about how booze kills a boner, and even the main characters get in on the act, with Macbeth and his lady scrambling structureless phrases as they fairly shit themselves in fear of discovery. Hell, he even managed to slip in an almost comic moment of parody as Macbeth compares his own life to that of a play (which, of course, it is. He pulls a similar trick in As You Like It)

This is just one example- there are countless more. Romeo and Juliet was one of the first examples of romance used as the central driving force of a tragedy, The Tempest was the Elizabethan version of fantasy literature and Henry V deserves a mention for coming up with some of the best inspirational quotes of all time. Unsurprisingly, whilst Shakespeare was able to spark a revolution at home, other countries were rocked by his radicalism- the French especially were sharply divided into two camps, one supporting this theatrical revolution (such as Voltaire) and the other vehemently opposing it. It didn’t do any good- the wheels had been set in motion, and for the next 500 years theatre and literature continued (and continues) to evolve at a previously unprecedented rate. Nowadays, the work of Shakespeare seems to us as much of a relic as the old Greek tragedies must have appeared to him, but as theatre has moved on so too has our expectations of it (such as, for instance, jokes that are actually funny and speech we can understand without a scholar on hand). Shakespeare may not have told the best stories or written the best plays to our ears, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best playwright.