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Tuba or not tuba? A serious question

The Baltimore Sun

What if the killers of today's mean streets knew they were taking the life of a Beethoven or a Brahms or a Rimsky-Korsakov?

Could anyone take a life after hearing Scheherazade?

If the shooter knew his action might deny the world such sublime melodies, would he still pull the trigger?

In some cases, to be sure, music wouldn't make a particle of difference. I knew this even as I wrote recently that classical music might incline some toward less-violent problem-solving.

Some readers were willing to consider the possibility, referring to the oft-heard quotation, originated by 17th-century dramatist William Congreve, that "music has charms to soothe a savage breast."

But others thought music might do just the opposite. It might inflame. The shooters might become more savage.

As one reader noted, "During World War II, the Germans played classical music while they gassed the Jews. ... Bombastic music from Beethoven was used as a background for foot-stomping Germans entering Poland. ... This music was probably not intended by the composers to highlight military invasions and killing. But it was used that way." Stalin was a big classical fan, too.

One basically skeptical if not derisive reader was willing to consider the impact of music in general - tongue in cheek: "Studies have shown that if popular music (big band music, Sinatra, Como and Crosby) is piped into cornfields, the music will stimulate the corn to grow 10 percent to 15 percent higher. But not classical music. Apparently the corn is not 'high class' enough for classical music."

On the other hand, classical music is not the worst you could do to a field of corn minding its own business. "If today's popular music is piped into a cornfield," said my correspondent, "the corn dies!"

I shared the concern about Hitler and Stalin with friends, who said not to worry. These mega-murderers' love of music proves nothing. They are such monstrous characters that including them in the discussion tends to distort a more positive general effect.

But there was plenty of doubt that more music would have any dampening effect on murder in Baltimore, racing now toward a pace of 300 homicides for the year. Community policing, foot patrols, gun confiscation and the like are offered with solemn ceremony as if untried in the past.

Many officials know this problem needed attention when the killers were younger and less fearful of the world they live in, less determined, as one expert puts it, to be "hyper-vigilant." The term, I take it, means willing to kill at the first perception of a threat.

So, of course, you have to start early.

Several readers reported efforts to make music more a part of the learning environment.

Wrote one: "My idea is to find musicians - any and all kinds - to volunteer in a school near them to play the piano during lunch, to start a choir, to teach instrumental sessions. Give a kid a guitar, not a gun. Pianos for Peace. Flutes and Fun. Tuba or not tuba, etc."

Of course, the therapeutic value of music may be beyond testing. As I said, it would have to start early, and many of today's shooters have gone past the moment when a sense of community responsibility might dissuade one from using a gun.

"I think we have dumped entirely too much faith on the classics to save us," said the writer with the fascinating data on corn. Then he added, "Anybody ... can sit back and criticize. ... But in my humble opinion, all classical music will do for us is make us a nation of 'high-class' killers instead of 'common' killers. Lord have mercy on us!"

I think the Lord will be more likely to have mercy on us if we proceed with some faith in ourselves, if we don't despair of penetrating the perceptions of young people, if we believe they can understand and revere the creative impulse. They deserve to be challenged.

What I'm suggesting is showing kids we believe in their potential. It's already happening, by the way. People are finding ways to share their knowledge and skill.

It's not just about the music or the painting or the dance.

It's about the love.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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