2015-12-02

Even If These Are Better Days, You Might Still Learn From Your Elders

Because music is omnipresent today, it's hard for people in this day and age to imagine what a music lover's life might have been like in, say, the 19th century. Back then, if people wanted to hear music, they had to make music. They wouldn't hear it otherwise.

The downside of that was that it was difficult to hear the music one loved the most back then. The upside was that those who loved music knew how to play it, often learning it from sheet music or by ear, and thus loved it on a much deeper level - as a musician - than the lower-key appreciation of casual "music fans" today.

Given the choice, no one would choose to turn back the clock and make music so hard to come by as it was two hundred years ago; but there's also no denying that the scarcity of music facilitated a more profound relationship with that music. 

Maybe we don't want to go back in time, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from the past.

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At Slate Star Codex, Scott Whoever has written a post about what appears to be an actual married couple he's counselling. It seems one of them wants to be poly-amorous and the other doesn't want to be poly-amored-upon. Ordinarily, this would be great fodder for a scathing Stationary Waves indictment of moral reasoning. But I really am trying to be a better person, so instead of going there, I wanted to explore something else.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that monogamy was a bit like music prevalence: whatever might have been the case in 1850, times have changed. We have internet radio, electric guitars, and the freedom to pursue as many casual sexual partners as we please. Hold your disagreements for a moment, just hear me out.

In that case, there may be an important parallel between music appreciation and marriage. Maybe the people who want to be poly-amorous don't want to turn the clock back and live the socially conservative version of marriage that existed in the 1800s - but maybe they also won't ever get to experience the kind of emotional connectivity, the level of cooperation and conflict resolution, and the benefits of lifelong commitment, that the average 19th Century spouses (in healthy marriages) got to enjoy.

Here the poly-amorous people will object. They'll say that their relationships are every bit as deep and meaningful and emotionally connected as a good marriage in the 1800s would have been. But how would they know? I know a lot of people who claim that they love music as much as I do, despite the fact that they can't read a note of music and have no idea what's going on conceptually in Beethoven's 9th Symphony, even if they like it. Of course I can't compare my level of enjoyment to theirs, but I can compare my level of music appreciation before I studied music to my level of music appreciation after I studied music. (Spoiler alert: I appreciate it more since having learned about it.)

I also don't know anyone who has learned about music who now appreciates music less than they did before. It stands to reason, and is as self-evident as anything can be, that learning to play music means you will love music all the more. So I actually can say with confidence that the same piece of music means more to me than it does to someone who loves the same piece, but who doesn't play music.

And while I can't say much about the alleged benefits of poly-amory, I can say with complete and utter confidence that no one who has been in the kind of committed marriage that a true, life-long, monogamous bond produces understands the depth of emotional connection involved here. Even those poly-amorers who claim to have experience with that kind of monogamy don't actually have the experience they're claiming - their poly-amory proves it. They can't have it both ways.

Anyway, maybe they don't want to be monogamous, and maybe society will never turn back the clock and go back to a one-spouse, lifetime commitment social norm. And maybe - I say, for the sake of argument - life is better that way in exactly the same sense that life is better now that music is everywhere. But if so, modern lovers have much to learn about the vast and profound emotional potential of a committed, monogamous marriage the likes of which used to be the norm a long time ago.