Musings on Music and Sport

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musicsportSince the middle of May the peculiar circumstances of England’s covid restrictions have brought a particular cultural trope to consciousness rather more explicitly than usual. The circumstances have been that singing in groups has continued to be severely restricted while major sporting events have gone ahead, bringing us images of large crowds not only in the stadiums but also in bars, public spaces and in transit.

The trope has been the idea that music and sport are rivals for attention and resources, and that sport is often handed an unfair advantage in this competition. The trope arises in normal times primarily through issues in the scheduling of school activities, which see clashes between for example choir practice and cricket matches, with the expectation that the latter will always take precedence.

In these strange times, it has emerged in observations about the relative priority the Department for Media, Culture and Sport gives the different elements of its name, and tweets like the one reproduced above.

Now, whilst I consider the policies to which choirs have been subject this Spring and summer to be irrational in the context of the overall restrictions, I have also thought that this oppositional trope isn’t very helpful. It’s not the sports fans who have created this wildly unfair situation, after all, and a ‘them and us’ narrative obscures the many ways in which the two share common interests.

First, of course, is the fact that many people enjoy both sports and music, as participants and/or as fans. This makes sense: they both offer their participants opportunities to develop rewarding relationships with people who share their interest and the satisfaction of honing skills. The participatory experience of both creates immersive environments in which physical control and stamina are conjoined with complex cognitive skills in dynamic intersubjective spaces. For fans, these qualities are also intensely pleasurable to experience second-hand.

And, as we have been observing in all the clips shared in envy, sports fans like to sing. They don’t always do it with the greatest finesse, but they often do it better than the grumpy comments of choir leaders would have you believe. I have heard some impressively bright justly-tuned 5ths floating across Edgbaston Stadium as the party crowd in the Eric Hollies stand belts out ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. And I once shared a train carriage with some drunken young men on their way home from a football match who were singing, ‘He’s got the whole chicken in his hand,’ with real clarity and ring.

From a technical perspective the main issue you hear is people struggling with register shifts when they start a song higher than they can manage using a thick contact between their vocal folds, but how to cope with that can be taught readily enough. When I hear the level of engagement in a sports crowd’s singing – the connection of voice with body, the integration of voice with emotion – I just want to go over and invite them all to join my chorus. (I don’t, partly because a middle-aged woman soliciting a crowd of drunken men in this way might be a bit weird, but also because I’ve not yet been in this situation in the natural catchment area for the Telfordaires.)

The ostensible culture clash between music and sports is I suspect a proxy, or possibly a vehicle, for other, more fundamental differences in value-structures. There is more than a touch of old-fashioned class prejudice involved, with both snobbery and inverse-snobbery involved. There are also echoes of the newer culture wars between dog-whistle tribalist patriotism and the citizen-of-nowhere metropolitan elites.

I have been reflecting, however, that ‘sports vs music’ is a peculiarly unsuitable lens through which to view these differences. To start with, I can’t think of a more internationalist, un-tribal life than that of top-class sports pro. When you’re playing for your country, your team-mates come from all your closest rivals in your national tournaments, and when you’re playing in your national tournaments, your team-mates come from all over the world. Like professional musicians, you go where the work is.

And the virtues the two professions celebrate have as much in common as the pleasures they offer participants. Sports commentary is full of compliments for teams being organised and disciplined, for have prepared well, for having a clear plan and focusing on its execution; this is the foundation on which the virtues of flair and virtuosity are built. Flashy playing without teamwork or discipline is frowned on as egotistical or flying by the seat of your pants; advanced skill is valued in its service to the wider good.

Of course, the images of ‘music vs sports’ tropes don’t focus on these deep parallels, but usually contrast the discipline of the (musical) practitioner with the abandon of the (sports) fan. Control, maturity, and dedication are pitted against unbridled emotion, the cerebral against the animal. You could of course make that same distinction by contrasting the quiet, steely efficiency of Stephen Hendry in his prime with scenes from a mosh pit; both worlds contain both sets of experiences.

Anyway, unlike many of my musings, this one has actually generated a useful outcome. The confluence of conversations about how if you want to sing in large numbers you need to go to a football match, with England getting to the semi-finals of the Euros prompted me to arrange ‘Three Lions’ in a cappella 4-part harmony. As well as having great tribal singalong potential, it has considerable emotional nuance and insight into the relationship between hope, disappointment and loyalty, and thus represents a useful repertoire song for both England’s successful times and its lean years. Enjoy!

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