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The Music of Language, The Music of Place

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

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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


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

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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

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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


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.

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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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