A couple of weeks ago I had the wonderful treat of catching up with an old friend. He was passing through town and we met over lunch, the first time we’d seen each other in 20 years. When I lived in Austin, he was the drummer in the band for which I played bass, and we travelled and played all over the state together. Now we immediately fell into reminiscing about gigs and car rides and it was as if we’d not been apart at all. I have little doubt that if we’d had our instruments we’d have fallen right back into the groove. As we chatted, we appreciated the unique kind of bond we had formed and continue even now to have, based on our years of playing music together.
That warm feeling is what some philosophers call human flourishing — not just experiencing mere happiness, but a deeper social connection by which we become more, well, human: less materialistic, less the automaton. It’s what societies need in order to function, and in our rampantly materialistic society today it’s little wonder that our social fabric is wearing alarmingly thin.
Sociologist Robert Putnam labeled these sorts of connection-building activities “social capital” and said that we need it every bit as much as we need the more familiar things like physical capital and human capital. In his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” he traced the erosion of this social capital over the second half of the 20th century and examined its influence on civic life.
In terms of social effects, there’s a difference between creating culture and thinking of it as something we just consume. Making music together is one of those places where our social fabric has frayed. The fraction of households in which even one person plays an instrument fell from over 50 percent in 1978 to 38 percent less than 20 years later. “We certainly have not lost our taste for listening to music, but fewer and fewer of us play together,” writes Putnam.
As anyone who’s been in a choir, band, orchestra or ensemble knows, playing music with a group of people is a team-building exercise commensurate with being in a foxhole together. (This is one of the many sad elements of schools not having wide-ranging music programs. Not everyone can — or wants to — be on a football team.)
Putnam notes that against the backdrop of our increasingly individualistic understanding of what culture consists of, “no longer must we coordinate our tastes and timing with others” in order to enjoy the aesthetic and social benefits of music. I’d never considered describing what Steve and I and our bandmates used to do in quite those terms, but that’s precisely right.
What’s more, Putnam continues, “electronic technology allows us to consume this hand-tailored entertainment in private, even utterly alone.” By contrast, I was interviewing a 1957 graduate of Yale University a couple of years ago about the cultural scene in that decade, and he commented that when the smash hit “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets reached New Haven, you could walk all the way across the Old Campus listening to it uninterrupted because it was blaring out of every open window.
When we think of art as something we do that binds us together, our whole society benefits. But when we let the arts atrophy, or think of them as something purely suited to our own individualistic tastes, they can’t play the beneficial social role they have the power to perform.
And we need a healthy social fabric now more than ever.