It is often thought that the essence of music is harmony - and, indeed, that the essence of human life is harmony. The goal of humanity is to live in harmony with ourselves, with each other and with our surroundings; let wars cease, let there be no anger, no suffering, no exploitation. The lion shall lie down with the lamb; “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain”, as the Bible has it.
When humans who don’t know each other well sing together spontaneously, they sing in harmony. It’s quite surprising how rich that harmony can be, but it is ONLY harmony. No-one dares to step out of line, to be at odds with the group, so the basic harmony remains the same. Passing dissonances, blue notes and so forth may appear as transient variations, but they don’t effect change. If the singing started on a chord of D, it’s still on D after 5 minutes.
If the group knows each other better they may attempt more varied harmonies. They may even move from D to the dominant, A, and back again, maybe. But only a group of experienced musicians who know each other well are likely to attempt improvisation of more interesting harmonic movements and passing dissonances.
Simple harmony is very basic. And actually it is impossible to sustain for long. My group improvising on a chord of D would be unlikely still to be singing after 5 minutes: the fixed harmony would bore them rigid, so as none of them have the courage to do anything different they would gradually stop. I attended a meeting not long ago where the leader encouraged a very large group to sing together spontaneously; despite the leader’s best efforts to keep it going, the singing only lasted a few minutes then gradually faded away. Scripted singing, where people are singing known songs and improvising harmonies or singing in round, lasts for longer – but that too eventually fades and dies. Professional jazz musicians can improvise for a whole evening, but at the cost of considerable personal energy: group improvisation is a tiring activity. The energy to maintain harmony seems to dissipate over time.
People with a science background will recognise this as similar to the concept of entropy – the idea that the tendency of the universe is towards chaos, so maintaining order requires energy. Harmony is music’s equivalent of order – it takes energy to maintain it. Without energy, harmony quickly fades and dies. Contrary to popular opinion, harmony does NOT disintegrate into dissonance. Dissonance is not failed harmony. Dissonance is the energy source which makes it possible to maintain harmony.
Our cultural belief is that harmony is good and dissonance, bad. Those forms of music that have abandoned connection to what most people regard as “harmony” can be very difficult to listen to: for many people the onslaught of dissonance in much twentieth-century “serious” music amounts to torture, and they retreat to Mozart for relief. Yet music that has no dissonance is equally difficult to listen to, not because it is painful but because it is dull – particularly if it lacks rhythmic definition as well. Twentieth-century minimalist music is not as challenging to Western ears as twentieth-century serialism, but it is just as difficult to listen to attentively. After 5 minutes of unrelenting ostinato, the average listener is asleep.
Music requires both harmony and dissonance. Harmony is where we start and where we finish. It is the home to which we return. We are drawn to the sweetness of harmony. But energy and excitement is provided by dissonance, by excursions to remote keys, unexpected changes of harmony, clashing chords, harsh textures. It is astonishingly difficult to create excitement in a piece of music without creating some form of dissonance – causing pain, if you will. And without the excitement of dissonance, music lacks energy, lacks momentum, lacks direction. The pain of dissonance creates a yearning for resolution into harmony: without it, music can start anywhere, stop anywhere, doesn’t inspire, doesn’t engage. Without dissonance, music lacks meaning.
If you consider music to be an expression of all that makes us human, it is immediately obvious that music must have dissonance. No-one has a totally happy and peaceful life. Suffering is part of the human condition: music is one of the ways in which we express our pain. Music without the dissonance that expresses our anguish is inhuman. Unrelieved harmony is inhuman – it is the music of robots.
So what of economics? If music is a metaphor for human economic activity, where does the need for dissonance fit in? Surely our aim is to reach a state where there are no wars, no financial crises, no unsustainable booms leading to sudden collapses? If we could achieve that we would have the economic equivalent of unrelieved harmony. And unrelieved harmony is inhuman. We have booms, busts, wars and crises because we are human. Crisis is our nature –as it is the nature of nature itself, of which we are part. When we don’t have natural crises (or if the natural ones aren’t bad enough), we create artificial ones – because it is crises that give us energy and purpose. Without them we would stagnate and die. And for the whole of humanity to fade away through stagnation is a far worse prospect than some of us (or even rather a lot of us) suffering and dying in a crisis or a war.
So when the UK Prime Minister proclaimed that he had “ended boom and bust”, he was actually saying that we are no longer human. Fortunately he was wrong: very soon after that statement the world was engulfed by the worst financial crisis since the Second World War. That is not to say that the pain suffered by those who lost their money, their homes and their livelihoods in that crisis was a good thing. Clearly it was not. We cannot ever regard suffering as “intrinsically” a good thing: were we to do so, we would become immune to the pain of dissonance and lose the human yearning for harmony that gives us the energy to effect change. Permanent dissonance is just as inhuman as permanent harmony.
But what the crisis did – briefly – was unite the world with a common purpose to seek an end to the crisis and relieve the suffering of those caught up in it. Crises draw people together to make change. The dissonance is resolved through common purpose and we return to harmony. At least, that’s what should happen – but how well it works does seem to depend on how bad the crisis is. By far the worst crisis in the last century was the Second World War, and there is no doubt that huge changes were made in our societies during that war and shortly afterwards as a direct response to the chaos and suffering that it caused. The recent financial crisis, despite all the rhetoric about how dreadful it was, was not bad enough for common purpose to be maintained for more than a few months. All too quickly the world sank back into bickering about the right way to deal with the problems, defending old beliefs even in the face of evidence that they are fundamentally wrong, and – perhaps most worrying – demonising those worst affected by the crisis in order to justify doing nothing to relieve their suffering, or even deliberately making it worse. Cruelty is our song at the moment. Just as 20th-century composers did, we are learning to love and accept dissonance, and in so doing we are becoming increasingly inhuman. It is no accident that the height of the 20th-century love affair with musical dissonance occurred in the period that encompassed the two World Wars and the Great Depression. Cruelty was our song in that period, even more than it is now.
It seems a terrible thing to say, but the financial crisis of 2008 did not cause enough suffering. The dissonance was not severe enough, and the yearning for harmony not strong enough, to create the common purpose needed to force through effective changes against the resistance of a powerful financial establishment. Instead, the energy for change fizzled out before real change could be effected, and we now have long-running, low-level dissonance that doesn’t generate enough energy to force change. This is depression, and if it becomes permanent, we stagnate and die. Perhaps that is the reason for our cruelty: we instinctively try to create the suffering needed to generate the energy to break out of our depression, because the alternative – slow economic death – is worse. People who self-harm know this all too well: pain is better than numbness, because at least if you can feel pain you know you are alive. Numbness is death.
Permanent dissonance is perhaps not quite as dangerous as permanent harmony. The soporific effect of unrelieved harmony can be disastrous, as anyone who has fallen asleep at a car wheel could testify. Listening to challenging music can be an effective way of warding off fatal sleepiness. Listening to undemanding musak can make sleepiness worse. When things are going well we are lulled into a false sense of security, which means that the crisis when it comes is all the worse because it is unexpected. In the recent financial crisis many people asked why it wasn’t predicted. The truth is that it WAS predicted, by many economists, but politicians and people alike didn’t want to listen to the Cassandras and wheeled out their own “experts” to “prove” that there would be no crisis, despite the mounting evidence that there was an unsustainable boom in house prices and credit expansion. They were asleep at the wheel, and the result was a crash.
Compare this with the present situation, where there is unrelieved suffering among the poor and the highly-indebted middle classes, and also a degree of pain among the well-off who are suffering capital destruction due to very low interest rates and house price falls. There is some energy for change, but it is fragmented and undirected: everyone has a different view on what should be done to restore the economy. There is a sense of frustration that we seem to be “boxed into a corner” due to high levels of public and private debt, and a desire for radical action to break the stalemate. This is dangerous, because radical action can be stupid action, and frustrated sufferers are a good recruitment source for extremists. But from that simmering anger could come the common purpose and energy required to make effective change. It is far, far harder to make effective change when everyone is enjoying the good life.
Currently we have a crisis bubbling away in Europe. But that too has not yet caused enough suffering to create the energy needed to make changes. And politicians are doing just enough economic and political management to prevent suffering increasing to the point where radical change becomes inevitable. They are, if you like, suppressing the natural progress of this crisis. You will remember that earlier in this post I said that if natural crises aren’t bad enough, we create artificial ones? When a crisis is artificially suppressed, eventually people take matters into their own hands, and the result is war. I fear the European crisis will end bloodily, because I can’t see how the breakup of the Euro, that is (to me, at any rate) very obviously the only long-term solution to this crisis, can be achieved in any other way. Economic suffering alone will not force politicians to abandon such a high-profile political project, any more than an emperor would voluntarily close down his empire – but war would. We are already seeing fragmentation of the financial infrastructure of the Eurozone, civil unrest in the poorer countries, and – most worrying – increasing support for nationalist political parties. What form the coming conflict will take remains to be seen: the pattern of recent empire breakup (Soviet Union, Yugoslavia) suggests that local wars re-establishing old territorial claims and tribal identities are most likely, but if pre-European Union allegiances prove strong then yet another pan-European conflict is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
I do not think that smoothing out the business cycle and eliminating booms and busts is either achievable or desirable. We are part of the natural order, and our economic system, like our music, reflects the way the natural order works. Steady-state is not a natural state in nature, and it is not a natural state in human life, either. Wave forms – peak and trough, climax and release, compression and rarefaction, boom and bust, domination and extinction – are how our natural world works, and it is how our human systems work too.
It is time to embrace the cyclicality of human systems, and understand that individuals – particles, if you like – suffer and die in the “creative destruction” phase of the business cycle. At present we attempt to mitigate their suffering by dampening certain aspects of the cycle itself – usually those parts that special interest groups are most concerned about, not those that most impact the poor and disadvantaged. But I suspect the effect of this is merely to displace creative destruction from where we were expecting it to somewhere we didn’t expect where the impact is much greater, or delay it to a later date when the boom is even bigger and the collapse much worse. We still have no idea how to protect people from suffering without also dampening creative energy, and I admit I have no solution to this conundrum. Yet the people who suffer and die in crises are often innocent of the excesses that cause them. We owe it to the innocent to find ways of redirecting their suffering to those actually culpable, and avoid protecting the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak. And we owe it to them to avoid unnecessarily increasing their suffering, and to address economic crises in ways that reduce, rather than increase, the likelihood of war.