Hello. I am working at the moment on trying to find a definition of ‘functional music’, and, relatedly trying to work out if as a category it even makes sense.
At a very superficial level you might define it as music that serves a purpose (eg, music to work to, music to sleep to) rather than an aesthetic end (eg, music to dance to) - but then again, why would dance music not be ‘functional’ in this sense?
I think I would use the term “functional music” not as a genre itself per se, but rather as a term to further describe its purpose. And even then, “functional music” wouldn’t be the term I’d use for specific things, but rather as a broad description of different functions music could be described with.
To further explain, something like Sabaton’s music, or at least much of it, can be described as “descriptive/storytelling” music, while music that gets made specifically for a movie or video game music is called “movie/video game” music/soundtrack.
So while I wouldn’t call something “functional music”, the term could be used to put the wide variety of music made for a specific purpose under a larger “umbrella”, if that makes sense.
Classical music to deter the youth with, muzak as music to make other people to shop to, airplanes play music to play calm people down (from fear of flying rather than climate anxiety, which is irrational), in Japan museums start playing music some time before closing time to indicate it’s time to wrap up the visit without making a PA announcement about it. Well… religions obviously modulate populations in order to grab cash and power… Warfare and music of course go hand-in-hand…
I’m not sure if this is helpful, but I’m writing hungry.
I think also music may function for a creative purpose but not a product purpose, ex. making music as therapy but not for consumption by others. Or creative research in order to ask questions about processes and materials, that is not intended for any other use. Through a consumer’s lens, that music may not be “functional” but as a creator it would be very functional.
I’ve been using music to help me figure when I have my next meeting because I’ll often get distracted and forget. If I have a meeting in 5 minutes I’ll find a track that’s 5 mins long so I know that when the track ends it’s time for the next meeting. This is a similar use case to musical chairs where the actual music doesn’t matter; just whether or not it’s playing.
There is work music, it’s a whole thing in ethnomusicology. Some (was it Snape and Born, 2022) say the Lofi Girl is a way to function “just keep working” after all possibility of alternatives to capitalist realism has been crushed and hope abandoned. Maybe applies to all lofi chill ambient hip hop beats.
Music is a way to help the body remember the lyrics… in oral cultures… maybe.
Interesting idea, and the boundaries may be quite blurry. Historically, a lot of music has been used as part of religious ceremonies. Singing/chanting to invite the divine presence, etc. You could say the real “function” of that music is to attune the congregation to the divine. OK, fine, and now how is that different from a DJ playing certain songs at a rave, placing a bass drop just so to make the crowd go wild?
In short, I think most music is used most of the time with some “functional” intent, rather than just to be listened to and appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. I guess, re-reading the original post, that I think “music to sleep to” and “music to dance to” are both functional. (I don’t dance aesthetically, I guess – dancing is some sort of working out of physical/psychic needs, although different from sleeping in that I can go longer without dancing.)
I read somewhere (I think here) that someone found heavy metal to be useful for concentration and visually likened it to filling in all the cracks in their brain where distractions could otherwise get in. Well gosh darn if that doesn’t work pretty good for me too, so I have a screamo/metal playlist of I often reach for when I want to tune everything else out, but don’t otherwise really listen to those genres.
Psychologist Stephen Pinker describes music as a spandrel – a byproduct of language – writing: “As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world.”
He does at least concede that music can be pleasurable, which I suppose could count as function?
How much sex would not have been had were it not for music? How many babies were conceived because of rock-n-roll? How many people in bands scored because of the animal magnetism of being up on stage making those wild beats? I think Pinker doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Arguably, any music is “functional” in the sense it serves a listener’s purpose? Be it using a piece of music to act as a sound cue for a certain action [i.e. place is closing, time for bed], to invoke or enhance a certain emotion, as background ambiance, as therapy - it all serves a purpose depending on the context. I also think it’s a bit artificial to assume there has to be a certain hierarchy of function/purpose because again, that is highly dependent on the context.