Does Music Matter? A 60-second lecture at the New School

My lecture from New School University's "New School Minute" event, where faculty from every school present their timely and celebrated research in a series of rapid-fire 60-second lectures. (Actual time for me? 2:44.)  The full text of my speech is below.

Does Music Matter?

Around age 14, I decided wanted to be a professional musician. My mother warned me it wasn’t a stable path. To some extent, Mom, you were right. (There. I said it.) Since I graduated from Juilliard in 1992, the music profession has suffered debilitating changes.

These days, we blame two familiar culprits – technology, and the economy – but to me, it’s really the same old story: telling us that music belongs at the margins. That music doesn’t really matter, at least not as much as the stock market does.

 I teach entrepreneurship classes at Mannes, and in these classes we challenge this story. I argue that we need new language to talk about what music is and what music does in the world.

Most conversations about music trade in universals, ascribing magical powers to music: we talk about music building bridges, building peace, healing wounds, and so forth. I'm intellectually skeptical of universals. I’m much more interested in musical specifics.

 So. Think of a song that was important to you when you were young? Have you heard it lately and felt all those old feelings flooding back? Neuroscience shows that music acts on both explicit and implicit memory systems: your conscious and your unconscious memory. So you experience your emotions at age 16 and at age 43, past and present selves, simultaneously.

Now I want you to imagine everyone else in the world who’s ever heard that same song and loved it, too. The song contains their memories, too, and their present selves. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of memories.

 Now imagine all the variations a song can take: covers, mis-heard lyrics -- they're called mondegreens, right? -- fragments of melody, elaborate improvisations. And yet the song remains the same. So from personal to cultural, across time and geography: music makes connections with dazzling speed and specificity and precision.

So, does music matter? Well, I’d like to enlist your support for an idea. First, I’d like you to reconsider the ordinary song as a remarkable feat of social and cultural engineering. And from there, I’d like you to make a leap and move music from the margins of social conversations to the center, where I believe it belongs.

 Thank you very much.