“Isis hates music for its power over minds and bodies,” wrote Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the Financial Times. Hunter-Tilney believes that, “songs are physiological experiences, capable of doing powerful things.” Apart from the Financial Times use of “ISIS” rather than “Daesh”, the appellation preferred by the French, and disliked intensely by misanthropic fanatics behind last week’s Manchester bombing, Hunter-Tilney’s argument is an irrefutable statement of a power most of us will have experienced.
The power of music to transform moods, to touch people in mind and body, has been known for millennia. Military bands were not about entertainment, they were about stirring up a response; the Scottish regiments did not go into battle led by a piper because he was an interesting cultural artefact. During the Great War, some 2,500 pipers served on the frontline, more than six hundred of them losing their lives. One does not risk so many lives without believing that there was something in the music that had the power to transform those men; that kilted soldiers would leave the mud and stench of their trenches and head into the hell of shells and bullets, and blood and wire because a man playing the bagpipes walked ahead of them. If one was inclined to disagree with the idea of music as having physiological power, then accounts of those highland regiments would quickly dispel any doubts.
It wasn’t just in warfare that music had power, a BBC Radio 4 documentary told of the power of music to affect the outcome of sporting events. The inimitable Max Boyce talked about the place of music and Welsh rugby; once the crowd got into the singing of Cwm Rhondda, the opposition knew they hadn’t a chance. Interviews with those involved in England’s final qualifying group match, in November 1997 for the 1998 World Cup finals told of how music had determined the outcome. It had been said that for England to qualify for the finals would be a “great escape”, they needed to garner a point from their last match. The fans knew the situation and, in the second half, began to whistle the theme tune from the film The Great Escape, the players spoke of being emotionally and physically lifted by the sound of ninety thousand whistles echoing around Wembley stadium, they held out to gain the necessary point and went on to the finals the following year.
Readily verifiable in martial and sporting contexts, the sensual power of music has been troubling to church leaders for decades. The advent of jazz brought vehement opposition from Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland, including “anti-jazz” campaigns. Rock and roll music was thought by many churches to be the work of the devil himself. The undisguised sexuality of recent artists and music has left no doubt as to the appeal which is being made.
A life-denying movement, whose vision of life is no more than a miserable existence, cannot but be troubled by the power of music, it speaks of social freedom and individual autonomy.