Monday, November 19, 2012

The music of language and the language of music

I listen to a fair amount of music with lyrics in different languages: Irish, Scots-Gaelic, Spanish, Hindu, and Japanese, to name a few. Despite the fact that I don’t understand many of these spoken languages, I can still enjoy music in those languages.

Does music transcend the language barrier, then? Is music a universal language?

One of my undergraduate professors, Paul Broomhead, argued that music is not a universal language. He would play music to different groups of people and asked them how they felt. The answers varied greatly, especially across cultural and age spectrums, suggesting that music does not communicate the same thing to everybody even in the same culture. Music is not a universal language.

Musical style, however, is a type of language that people from different cultures can learn to understand. People who listen to a lot of electronic music, or Indonesian gamelan music, or Spanish flamenco music, to name a few, have a pretty good idea of the musical cues in each style genre, even if they can't verbalize it.


Permit me some brief examples of how musical style can be understood or misunderstood. In America, we are taught that minor mode=sad and major mode=happy. Besides this being an oversimplification even for Western music, it is patently false in Easter European folk traditions; they have plenty of very happy, minor songs. Those within the same socioeconomic can easily misunderstand a culture, too. For example, there is a whole Metal music culture (and multiple subgenres) that outsiders just don't really get (I include myself with those outsiders here).

Musical style does not necessarily match up with spoken language, either. This is why the Korean-language "Gangnam Style" is more understandable to today's Americans than Milton Babbitt's Philomel (1964), despite the fact that that latter is written (mostly) in English. Why? "Gangnam Style" is written with reference to an international popular music style, while Philomel is written with reference to the avant-garde electronic music style. It is amazing how something from a different country can still communicate, because they are using the common vocabulary of popular music. And how something written almost 50 years ago can still bamboozle people because the stylistic language behind it is new to them. I think both of these stylistic languages are very complex. But most people are bombarded with popular music constantly, and so they have learned to understand it. Those have spent the time to understand Philomel usually find it rewarding. But it might take a while to get to that point.
Babbitt's Philomel (1964).

In the end, understanding lyrics does make an impact in my value-judgment of the song. Words can make a song better or worse; I've liked songs less when I found out what the lyrics mean, but I've also liked songs more. Maybe I also feel culturally superior by liking non-English songs. But I still think it's the music that makes the most difference to liking a song.

Vocab: avant-garde, minor and major modes

No comments:

Post a Comment