Rethinking the Benefits of Music

Aris Setyawan
Aris Setyawan
Posted undercriticcultural studiescultureetnomusikologimusicmusik

I thought about this for a long time: what is the use of music to humans and humanity? Is music just entertainment, a secondary matter that appears as an intermezzo in the midst of other life lines such as work, eat, sleep, make love? Or, music is a primary matter, an equally important part of life?

Firstly, to understand the benefits of music for humans, we must first define what music is. Music is a sign system that uses elements such as melody, rhythm, time, harmony, scale, tempo, dynamics, and timbre to represent sound. Sound is a frequency vibration, the sound then vibrates the eardrum, converted into a datum which is translated into an impression by the brain.

Sound expert and author of Sound Business, Julian Treasure describes that sound affects humans in at least 4 ways, namely: 1. Physical (hormone production, heart rate, how to breathe), 2. Psychology (triggers stress or relaxes), 3. Cognitive (work productivity), and 4. Habit (triggers humans to do certain habits).

As a sign system that represents the intertwined various sounds, it is clear that music influences the human condition. Different sign systems (tempo speed, timbre difference, scale used, etc.) will create different feelings, give different impressions. This is why there are different tastes and interpretations for each person.

Music teaches humans to use reason and taste in order to understand the system of signs and impressions it creates. Music allows us to touch and understand some of our most complex feelings, what we want, how to be ourselves, and to understand how other people feel differently when we listen to the same music. Music is the embodiment of human desire, and at the same time teaches humans how to desire. To borrow the statement of the classical Chinese philosopher, Confucius, “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without”.

Unfortunately, music is also arbitrary. It forces its way into the subconscious, then participates in shaping it. A simple example, no matter how much we hate pop music, a sign system in the form of an easy listening melody that we accidentally listen to while passing through a public place will make a strong impression on our subconscious, then provoke us to sing it at another time. Want to hate dangdut like anything, the sign system in the form of a beat of ketipung will force our hips to automatically sway.

So, the name formation of tastes is not a figment. There are times when musicians, critics, capitalists, understand the arbitrary nature of music and use it to shape other people’s tastes.

Secondly, after we understand the benefits of music for humans, we will be able to understand the benefits of music for humanity, what is the use of music for human relations. According to the jargon we hear so often, “Music is a universal language”, It is said that music is able to connect people when language cannot. In the view of musical anthropologist Alan P. Merriam, music has 10 benefits in humanity, namely: emotional expression, aesthetic appreciation, communication, symbolism, physical reaction, relating to social norms, ratification of social institutions, cultural continuity, community integration, and entertainment.

Today, music has become a billion dollar industry. Thus, beyond the ten benefits of music to humanity, music is produced and reproduced as much as possible, circulated as widely as possible, based solely on the one use that most promises to sell: entertainment. Wherever we go, whatever movie we watch, there is always music to accompany us. Even an anti-pop music listener will be very difficult to avoid it. It will still be heard even if accidentally in a coffee shop or a shopping center toilet.

When music has become a commodity in a very large industry, then the law of supply and demand applies: to meet the huge demand for music as an entertainment commodity, there must be a lot of musicians who create it.


As someone with a formal education background in music, this question about the benefits of music raises a further question: has music education in Indonesia taught us how to understand the benefits of music for humans and humanity? Have those who are sitting in music education benches (formal or non-formal) provided with the skills to explore the arbitrary nature of music which then manifests in the formation of tastes? Or, music education in Indonesia actually produces musicians who only learn to become people who are good at processing the sign system? The musicians who later became a person with pivotal roles for the billion dollar music industry.

Citing the idea of academic Citra Aryandari, “the musicians who graduated from this music school are pretty good at squeezing the piano keys or strumming the violin, but their soul and musical emotions are not honed. After completing their music studies, they must participate in terrorizing the music lovers community by presenting capital-based music that does not prioritize aesthetics and taste”.

The music studies institute based in Yogyakarta, Art Music Today, noted in its book, Reading Music From Time to Time, that from the 1960s to 2015 there were only approximately 200 titles of Indonesian-language music knowledge books. Knowledge in a sense, it does not only study music as a practice of processing sign systems, but also examines music and its relationship with humans and humanity. When compared to the number of musical events that occurred (album releases, performances, and so on) in the same time period, this is clearly very unbalanced.

The practice of music that continues without being balanced by the production of knowledge about it will cause problems for future generations: there is no blueprint for creating and developing better music. Music is then understood only as a commodity, entertainment, intermezzo. Thus, music is created with predictable melodic lines, similar chord progressions, and a sense of musicality that—borrow the term from the poet Chairil Anwar—is still shallow. Nothing more than the wind. It cannot cooling the forehead.

In fact, studying music as a form of knowledge will be a capital for the development of a slick culture in the future. Take, for example, Andrew Weintraub, who describes the history of dangdut music in Indonesia in his book Dangdut: Music, Identity, and Indonesian Culture. Dangdut is a music that was reviled as a country music at the beginning of its birth, was banned by the regime because it was considered a form of resistance, until then it was embraced as a political campaign tool because of its position as ‘folk music’. Now, it is undeniable that dangdut is one of the most popular music in Indonesia. Or, consider how Jeremy Wallach recorded in full the popular music in Indonesia from 1997 to 2001 in his ethnographic book entitled Modern Noise, Fluid Genres, which was later translated into Indonesian by the Komunitas Bambu.

Another example is Michael Denning who in his book Noise Uprising describes how the spread of gramophone technology has also influenced the popularity of vernacular music (folk music). Denning mentions that in 1926 the German record company, Beka, recorded the singer and dancer of Batavia’s Stambul Theater, Miss Riboet singing the keroncong song “Krontjong Moeritskoe”. In the 1930s, radio networks in the Dutch East Indies played regularly the keroncong music that had been printed on the plate. This expanded the popularity of keroncong. Until 1940, the composer from Solo, Gesang, composed one of the most famous keroncong songs of all time: “Bengawan Solo”.

In another chapter, Denning states that the music that is established today is actually the vernacular music of the past. For example, Denning mentions how jazz, which today is considered a form of high art music played in fancy cafes, was born from the taverns and pubs of the working class in colonial ports.

In Indonesia itself, although not many, actually we have several practitioner have initiated the movement to study and interpret music as a form of knowledge. The late contemporary composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur, for example. During his lifetime, the composer from Surabaya, who preferred to be called Mas Slamet, intensively promoted the discourse of music as knowledge, both when filling various public lectures, seminars, discussions, and through various writings. Mas Slamet also raised public awareness about the importance of interpreting sound and the dangers of noise pollution by establishing a Noise Free Society.

In the younger generation, musicologist Erie Setiawan and Art Music Today (AMT) have been trying for years to raise public awareness about the importance of interpreting music as a science. This is done by publishing a book line, managing a site that regularly uploads music essays, to a record label line where AMT releases music albums whose production process is really carefully thought out from the musical material to the recording process.

I will close this article with a quote from Twilight of The Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche: Without music, life would be a mistake”. In this famous quote Nietzsche seems to say: music is something extraordinary. So, without music, life is a mistake. I will modify Nietzsche’s idea to “Without good music, life would be a mistake.” Even though we live with music, if the music is not good, made haphazardly, and not diverse because it is made based on the industrial market mechanism, then life is still a mistake.

So, this is a tough task for me, you, us, and all those who are involved in music, both as practitioners who study self-taught, as well as practitioners and academics who graduated from art education institutions (formal or non-formal), including music lovers (read: listeners). We must rethink the benefits of music to humans and humanity. Understanding music as knowledge, creating and recording good music. So that this will be a provision for future generations to create good music. So that we are not trapped in life as a mistake.

TaggedethnomusicologyMusicmusic educationmusicology

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