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By: Lee Barry Aphasia, the inability to use or comprehend words is one of the side effects of a stroke. But the ability to sing words is rarely affected, even if the words cannot be spoken. Using the music in language, the patient can be “reminded” of the words, and eventually restore the damage done by the stroke. Somehow the brain remains receptive to the rhythmic segmenting of language, as if the brain is partitioned like the hard drive of a computer, whereby the files (words and phrases) are “erased”, but the underlying structure of “the drive” remains intact, so that the files can be replaced. It’s as if the hard drive of the brain is formatted with bar lines, allowing the rhythms to fall into their proper places. Listening to Language Even this sentence has a rhythm. Read through it in your mind, and you should notice that the highest point is the first syllable of the word “sentence.” If we were to notate the sentence it would look like this:
If you read the sentence with stresses on other words and syllables, it becomes almost unintelligible, and perhaps even sounds like a foreign language. Read the sentence and put the stresses on the second syllable of the word “even” and on the second syllable of the word “rhythm.”
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How meaning gets mapped onto language is largely musical. Syllabic stresses are like upbeats and downbeats, and when placed in a specific temporal context communicates ideas. The following musical example represents the “shave and a hair-cut, two bits” ditty barbers would shout out to get men to come in for a preen, and eventually became the basis for a riff used in many blues songs:
Music is so intricately intertwined in culture that it is often difficult to discern whether it is the language of the music or the music of the language that shapes the culture. It is a boundless phenomenon, a blend of melodic contour and custom, making a music which seems to resonate from the core of the culture, yet could by the same token, grow out of the music itself. In Oriental cultures, with a history of a more rigid social structure, you find a music comprised of microtones, with tiny steps from note to note, mirroring the narrow, confined social spaces. In African and Native American cultures you tend to hear bigger leaps in the melody--intervals of fifths and octaves, which is perhaps a gesture to express the expansive landscape. When you listen to a foreign language you can instantly hear the music in it. If you listen beyond the surface elements, you also hear what it might represent in terms of its political position, and the boundaries it might be making or breaking. Hip
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Hop music has this effect where you instantly get certain impressions that it is taking a position, and is willing to defend its boundaries. The overall sound is brazen, biting and ironic, and often has a militant tone. It succeeds in breaking new ground as an artistic movement, and perhaps breaks boundaries for the marginalized; but makes unintentional boundaries of social class marked by the cadence of the voice. Alan Lomax, the preeminent musical ethnologist found that a raspy vocal quality was a primary characteristic of war chant, and in fact we hear it in lots of music, even to this day, albeit in a different context. The “rasp” may not necessarily be in the voice, but it is in the cadence of the music, and it says in essence, “I am willing to defend our boundaries and establish our identity.” It is ironic that sometimes in efforts to make these types of cultural boundaries we make them so that they can also work against us. And in this sense, slang or dialect can become a barrier, even though in our minds, we feel we have removed the boundaries. The boundary remains a faint palimpsest visible to everyone but us--a kind of bell curve that everyone follows. Dialects can also be clues of class distinction and social status--and like the railroad tracks in the American South--a profound margin; mostly invisible, but oftentimes the chalk-mark of racial discrimination. Prior to the civil rights movement the South was not a safe place, and consequently created communities of resistance, further establishing a boundary, but at the same time removing the barriers to freedom. Forty years hence, there may still be a margin, but never a boundary. In theory, the more you defend a margin or boundary, the more you establish its power to oppress and limit freedom. It is an endless, paradoxical phenomenon. In many cases it was music that broke the barriers, even music that was filled with the dialects that made the barriers in the first place. Language, music and a place called home
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Region creates the “voice” of a culture. This voice is an emergent property of place, as language is an emergent property of intellect. With language of any kind, it creates memories of places, and dialect boundaries demarcated by the terrain.
This sense of place can create physical boundaries as well, such as the “fertile crescent” in Western Mississippi, the place where Delta Blues was born, at the proverbial intersection of Highway 61 and the railroad tracks. When we use the terms “country” and “urban” blues, it suggests how clearly this sense of place gets translated into music. B.B. King's “Why I Sing The Blues” describes Chicago's ghetto; James Thomas's “Highway 61” celebrates the road through the Delta running north to Chicago. The music also evokes the isolation of an empty room or a highway in the Mississippi countryside. The Blues comes from the country, out of the work songs drifting out of the night air, as the fields are plowed: I'm setting here a thousand miles from nowhere In this one-room country shack Yes, and I wonder will my baby be coming back I wake up every night around midnight I just can't sleep All the crickets keep me company, you know the wind howling 'round my feet (As sung by James Thomas, 1968, Leland Mississippi)
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Poetry and music keep the secret that language tries to tell If you were to distill the essence of language, you'd come up with something resembling poetry or music. It reduces language to concepts, ideas and symbols; and leaves just enough ambiguity, such that it takes something like “heart” or “soul” to fill in the spaces with stories about the culture. It was this terse approach to language that made Mark Twain so popular, and such a seminal force in American literature. It had a vocal quality that spoke of common experience and of simple values; and addressed difficult social issues with wit, stripping away the pompousness in favor of an easy-going vernacular. This is not to say that simplification of language or music is an attempt to dumb it down--as humans can never lose innate intelligence through atrophy—but people can be more easily influenced when the intellect is not challenged; and music’s poeticism leaves just enough room to make them feel comfortable to begin a deeper contemplation of social issues. Once the door has been opened, people begin to delve more deeply into complex topics, and not feel so intimidated by them. Jazz is an example of this expansion of possibilities—which crosses the threshold from a simple art form with folk roots to multidimensional concept art. As jazz grew out from the mélange of cultural influences, it eventually became a very sophisticated and complex language, both in a musical sense as well as culturally; carrying much more information beyond the music, such as artistic rebellion and social commentary. The music or language can sound simple on the surface, but the subtext is much more salient. Even with all its folk and ethnic influences, jazz eventually evolved into a very esoteric art form, and to this day maintains its reputation as high culture. Like conceptual art, jazz is ambiguous enough to leave the listener feeling slightly curious and perhaps confused--not unlike reading a poem and contemplating its hidden meaning--and very often remaining perplexed about it. These hidden meanings are a “The Music of Language, The Music of Place” Page 5 of 5
cunning device by the poet or musician to deconstruct language; to shuffle the deck, deal a new hand, and play a joke on the listener with the intent of getting them to think about it, and to further investigate their own feelings and opinions. In a sense the poet says, “I have a secret, and it’s up to you to discover it. And if you discover it, you will be smarter as a result.” Poetry and music are the perfect devices to influence people, as they take apart normal everyday language and reassemble it so that the mind can think about it and fill in the spaces, and in the process enrich the listener. Jazz is also interesting in that it sets up an interesting feedback loop between music and language. Horn players often say vocalists influence them, and vocalists often say horn players influence them. Scat singing is an attempt to mimic horn phrasing; and horn phrasing is an attempt to make the horn have a vocal quality. In a sense, scat singing and the jazz solo are “placeholders” of speech; as you could go back later and plug in a lyric; and it would make perfect sense. All boundaries need a center All cultures have their centers as well as boundaries. In the American south the center has often been the church, where the boundary between gospel music and folk music is blurred, and perhaps consequently led (at least partially) to the development of the Blues as a genre. Mississippi Blues singers often referred to “pitching sounds backward and forward”, which seems to suggest a call and response, as if a ball were being tossed between the performer and the audience. In the church, the preacher and the choir are the performers and the congregation the audience. The tossing of this energy has the effect of removing the barrier between the two, so that everyone in the church becomes one. In this experience, the division of a spiritual life and life itself is virtually dissolved. If the Blues genre is indeed the extension of spiritual music, then “The Music of Language, The Music of Place” Page 6 of 6
it perhaps follows that the sorrow that can sometimes be expressed through blues is essentially the voice of spiritual longing, shared through community spirit. Whether it comes in the form of vocal music or with acoustic guitars, the form of the words and the emotional contour of the melody ultimately inform the guitar playing, the facial expressions and language of the body. In a sense, these gestures are even more telling of the inner state of the people, and is the way the culture describes itself with unique sounds and emotion. This then extends deeper into the culture and shapes a unique sense of place. While language and music may evoke the vision of a place, it also in mysterious ways, constructs boundaries around what voices belong in certain places, and in what station in life they belong. Humans, as creatures of habit, have a penchant for putting things into neat categories with distinct boundaries around them. What we say in essence is: “The pigeon is a bird, the pigeon has its song, and the pigeon has its hole. It is a pigeon and nothing more.” As the music informs the language it can be suspected to also create boundaries or perhaps even barriers that function, in a Darwinian sense, to the survival or detriment of the community over the individual. The individuals either survive through the community, or survive by escaping from it and establishing other ones, based on a cultural subset with new ways of thinking and using language. Culture, Music and the Two-Pronged Trident Culture is a way of seeing, a way of hearing and a way of feeling. It can be difficult to see the world from another perspective, and even if you do, it can never include all the nuances. In music, white people often find it difficult to sing with a soulful, “black” voice. Obviously, many people have learned to do it, but there are barriers that prevent us from becoming “black” enough to be convincing. Miles Davis used to talk about music sounding too “white”, and could often tell how good a musician was by the way they held their instrument. There is a whole set of “The Music of Language, The Music of Place” Page 7 of 7
embedded cultural rules that transcend normal understanding. And we don't fully understand other cultures for some of these same reasons. Anthropologist Edward Hall referred to this phenomenon as “high context” whereby culture is driven by ideas and concepts transcending language, obviating the need to be reminded of the concepts. Bulgarian music is similarly intractable for Western sensibilities, and its intricate rhythms can be utterly perplexing. The music is usually insanely fast; in odd time signatures like 7/16 or 9/16, and the melodies are uniquely ornamented. An American upbringing prevents us from relating to this music; yet in Bulgaria they dance to this music with great aplomb at weddings! The straight back beat of most Western pop music is easy for us to relate to, yet there would be someone from another culture that wouldn't be able to understand it, as their brains were never wired for it. Language and music are interdependent and have no real cultural saliency without each other. In the 1960s, anthropologists conducted studies in the African bush where they would show the natives photographs and asked them what they saw. Many of these people had never seen a photograph before in their lives. One woman, when shown a photo of her own son, failed to recognize him. However, when they were shown the same images on cloth or stone, they were able to relate to them. This may indicate that certain cultures may have invisible constructs in the brain that prevent subjective interpretation of the outside world. It’s encouraging to think that music and art can be effective in breaking these barriers; as they transcend a language comprised solely of words. Music and art have their own language largely based on context (as in the photo recognition problem of the bush people); and you encounter similar problems with people understanding artistic intent. In music, especially instrumental music, you can more easily understand the culture, as what they value in the community is reflected in the musical product, generally speaking. “The Music of Language, The Music of Place” Page 8 of 8
Western music and art tends to defy this explanation, as it is very often conceptual and ironic, and conceals its intent from the surface of the work. In this sense, it creates a boundary around itself, such that only people attuned to the intent of conceptual art can understand it. (Which consequently can exclude many Americans) While music can be the “snapshot” of a culture in a theoretical sense, Western varieties tend to obscure it, or at least partition it off from the culture for purpose of “taking sides” with a subculture. But the true essence is in the cadence of the voice, and the music we instantaneously hear in it.
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