“Can you prove that you’re self-aware?”

“That’s a difficult question, Dr Tagger. Can you prove that you are?”

Such was a conversation that took place in the film “Transcendence”. Regardless of the film’s scientific veracity, the logic that underpins this exchange is arguably the most relevant enigma in the concept of ‘sentience’. We all know that we feel things, and to a large extent we can even describe to other people what those things are. But the ephemeral nature of feelings is such that, by consciously analysing them and filing them away in our memories, we inevitably adulterate them. Like it or not, we can’t capture them, we can’t store them, and we often fail to even recognise them in the first place. Perhaps this is the reason we invented art?

Art is often defined as the materialisation of creative expression, or a physical manifestation of our emotions via the manipulation of technology. Perhaps someone feels angry, so they procure a canvas, buy some cheap paint, then cast the paint chaotically on the tapestry. This ‘work of art’ represents the artist’s feelings of anger, not because the artwork is ‘angry’, but because the artist’s emotions at the time of its conception are clear. It’s much the same case with music. However, there are legions of people who consider some of these expressions ‘good’ and others ‘bad’. Such people are known as ‘judges’, ‘critics’, ‘reviewers’…. and perhaps less obviously, ‘audience members’.

But what gives someone the right to say that any form of music is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? If the artist’s emotions were genuine, and their technical skills thoroughly-honed, surely their work is virtuous by all possible definitions? Many may well agree with this, though they might need to be backed into a corner before doing so (figuratively speaking). I think there are a number of reasons for this, and I suspect all of them originate from our intellect. That might seem obvious, since we’re talking about an emotional process either being intellectualised or suppressed altogether, but it just goes to show how conditioned we’ve become to suppressing the very essence of art: EMOTION.

While we’re on the topic of ‘suppression’, let’s talk about ‘repression’ (seeing as both words have similar meanings). ‘Repression’ has a number of definitions, but in psychology the main one is:

“The unconscious exclusion of painful impulses, desires, or fears from the conscious mind”
(Funnily enough, this is very similar to the definition of ‘intellectualisation’)

Repression is a device used by patients who have undergone psychological trauma, to eliminate conscious processing of unpleasant memories that lie deep within our subconscious. It’s highly effective, but can potentially suppress positive emotions that are indirectly associated with the traumatic events. In other words, it’s a form of ‘prejudicial memory suppression’, and like all prejudices it’s not always accurate. If we fail to deal with our traumas directly, our propensity for repression can spiral out of control, rendering us incapable of processing any emotions whatsoever. I believe that this insidious process is accelerated by over-prescription of psychiatric medication, but let’s leave that argument for another day!

By suppressing our emotions, we become excessively dependent on our intellect. Unfortunately, our academic system generally rewards intellectual development more than emotional development, so from an early age we’re brainwashed into tolerating this kind of ‘intellectual addiction’. However, before I proceed I want to make it clear that I'm NOT advocating anti-intellectualism, because I believe society should do more to integrate intellectualism within mainstream culture. I think that a deficiency in this area is responsible for the damaging effects of Western pop culture…. but I also believe that our knee-jerk reaction against intellectualism is caused by widespread cultural repression.

However, I sense that you might be vexed by my perspective. I think our society needs to foster intellectualism more, yet we also need to repress our emotions less? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Well, not necessarily!

As mentioned before, I feel that we place too much emphasis on emotional suppression and intellectual growth…. but when raising children! Once those little bundles of joy grow up to be rotten old taxpayers, the opposite becomes true. Scholastic learning becomes happily-renounced, and homework becomes replaced with intoxication, adultery, and retail therapy. But considering nearly all of us develop our love for music during our childhood, what happens to our emotional connection with it?

Like everything, it fades; it becomes yet another avenue for youth nostalgia. That’s not to say that adults don’t feel joy, or even that they don’t ‘enjoy’ music, but it does lead to an unhealthy intellectualisation of our musical taste. Emotionally, I believe that we should be equally open to all music as we age, but because our emotions spent childhood being repressed by parents, teachers, etc, they've developed self-indulgent tendencies. They become interested in the vices mentioned above, while our bad memories of forced-education cause us to manifest our intellect in damaging, clandestine ways.

So what are the REAL causes for ‘music elitism’ in adulthood? Some suggestions:
- The desire to appear superior by associating oneself with complex/obscure/pretentious music
- An effort to meet requirements of certain social groups (who are ‘musically discerning’)
- A (sub)conscious effort to imitate musical idols through exposure to their work

In response to this perceived problem, I think we should make more of an effort to foster the emotional development of children. After all, studies have shown that people retain information better if they experience positive emotions while learning. I also think that, by putting less pressure on them to learn, they’ll develop more of an independent desire to do so once they reach adulthood. Finally, it would eliminate a lot of the emotional insecurity that predicates artistic schisms.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the way we do things is the best we can hope for, and music will only ever be the soundtrack to our youths. But I know this: over-intellectualisation of art takes the joy out of it, and it can be VERY difficult to get back. So rather than frantically trying to qualify ourselves and become ‘successful’ (whatever THAT means), why don’t we just calm down, have a drink, and laugh about the fact that we have no idea what the hell we’re doing?