Essay: Popular Music

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Popular Music

One of the things that makes us uniquely human is our ability to communicate. We communicate in a number of ways: language, art, non-verbal cues, and music. Over millennia, music as an art form is a combination of sound, rhythm and silence. The creation, performance, quality and significance vary between culture and social context. It can be recreational, structured, improvisational and then divided again into more genres. Music may be performed in many different ways -- by the individual in any number of settings, groups from two to thousands. However, music's most salient definition as a form of communication is its ability to be cross-cultural, multi-dimensional, and universal. "The border between music and noise is always culturally defined -- which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus.. By all account there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be" (Nattiez).

Music communicates so well as a medium that every culture discovered thus far has some sort of music experience. Making music is fundamental as a characteristic human activity that draws people together to celebrate universal themes. Many scholars even say music is a universal language with the Ancient Greeks even postulating that it was imitative of the core of human emotion -- the connection to the universe. However, music is not strictly a language because it does not have easily detected meaning (literal) and we cannot communicate through music as we can through language. Thus, a common phrase might be, "I am very happy that my son graduated today with his degree in Fine Arts." This is complex communication expressing a feeling, a person towards which that feeling is projected and details. Musically, this may be interpreted in numerous ways -- through emotion, but not literally. This aspect of music does have some ambiguity (different interpretations and messages by unique individuals) as well as having fixed language assets. Does this make music any less interpretative or stolid? No, instead, it proves that humans carry an emotive response to music and do so in numerous ways. Hopefully, these responses elicit feelings or affective responses and help people form bonds that are cross-cultural as well as evolving through time (Worth).

It is also interesting to note that the idea of music seems to overlap the idea of the self, or at least of self-actualization. It music helps create unique identity, then one is not restricted to genre in terms of popular music also being a popular represntation of culture, curret events, or a combination of commentary and criticisms on modern society. Thus:

…[m]usic constructs our sense of idenity through the direct experiences it offers of the body, time and socialibilty, experiences which enable us to place outselves in imaginative cultural narratives. Such a fusion of imaginative fantasy and bodily practice makrs also the integration of aesthetics and ethics (Firth).

One of the genres of music that is extremely cross-cultural is that of popular music. There are various difficulties in defining popular music -- is it based on how many enjoy it (quantity)? How it is performed? Where it is performed (symphony Hall or a back alley bar)? Likely, while a piece of music may be popular, it is comprised of a number of music genres with wide appeal, now distributed to larger audiences:

Popular music, unlike art music, is 1(conceived for mass distribution to large and often socio-culturally heterogeneous groups of listeners, 2) stored and distributed in non-written form, 3) only possible in an industrial monetary economy where it becomes a commodity, and 4) in a capitalist society, subject to the laws of free enterprise, according to which it should ideally sell as much as possible of as little as possible to many possible (Tagg).

It is important for our argument to define the nature of this cross-cultural communication as much as possible through the manner in which it communicates culture. From a purely practical view, this might mean the economics and volume of sales volume. We might also define the spread of this cross-cultural communication through means of access -- how much time per day does music play through an audio devices and mass media. Finally, it might be a way to define a social group based on style and structure -- a mass audience that listens primarily for pleasure rather than any attempt to intellectualize. This is also problematical, because one could apply something from Bach to all the theoretical constructs. This is what makes music so very interesting as a communications device -- not one right way for all aspects of human communication. Nor should the genre and type of performance affect the listener's ability to communicate, but that communication may be general in emotive manner (e.g. happy, sad, morose, etc.) (Middleton, R., et al.).

To understand how popular music flows through culturally, it is important to understand that it may be universal in appeal, but takes on different forms. Popular music in Africa may be a mixture of tribal tunes and traditional rhythms, but performed by a "rock group," which can be any number of combinations of voices and instruments, while in the Appalachian Mountain areas of the Eastern Seaboard it might be folk tunes and a violin or banjo. In addition, with so many forms of technical playback, it is ironic that popular music of the 1950s, for instance, may now be considered "classic" and appeal to entirely new generations of listeners. Certainly, it is this aspect of music that spreads the message in a popular manner -- which is a long tradition from wandering minstrels or composers being commissioned by the Royal Courts to the emergent popular music industry of the 18th and 19th centuries in sheet music and then to the recording industry, morphing into television, variety shows, and now vast choices in playback devices, storage, sharing, and even computer programs that allow mixing and dissemination of music in a variety of ways (Middleton, R., et al.). What other reason could there have been for the tradition of wandering musicians (Minstrels) moving through Ancient towns to communicate and entertain and the current rabid nature of the popular music industry, worth billions if not trillions of dollars?

As with any communication, though, it is not only a two-sided equation, it has different psychological messages. It may be inclusive, culturally-based or it may operate in unique paradigms of clash and conflict. One example of this might be the historical notion of jazz as a way to understand the cultural conflicts and cooperation in a multi-disciplinary approach. Emerging out of the African slave culture with a musical synergy of tribal (rhythm, scales, syncopation, and improvisation) and the European musical tradition of harmony, instrumentation and chromaticism (Jay-Z). Ironically, this is now part of a street tradition of dialog more openly critical of society, minority issues, and economic inequality than ever before, but certainly noticeable in jazz tradition and most certainly part of the cultural communication and clash of popular music. Witness the similarity in style, rhythm (spoken) and timbre of these two popular offerings about 150 years apart from each other, the first a simple Minstrel Song of the Reconstruction Era, the last a popular rap song:

I ma gwine to prach, I is: and spose dis am de fust time, tho's I come berry nigh it once 'agoa when I sept out de church.Ize gwine to 'splain to de troof to de nebberlastin;' bressin; ob yoa poar souls… (Wondrich)

I've been real all my life, they confuse it conceit,

Since I will not lose, they try to help him cheat

But I will not lose, for even in defeat

When the grass is cut, the snakes will show (Z)

One famous musician noted, though, that jazz was uniquely American and that, "No America, no jazz. I've seen people try to connect it to other countries, for instance to Africa, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do with Africa" (Taylor). The idea of jazz seems simple, yet the actual concept is somewhat harder to define since it is really a conglomeration of many forms -- from Dixieland marches to Ragtime waltzes and even into 21st century fusion and rhetoric. It is the manner in which jazz allows musicians of all types to hear music in any number of paradigms that helps make jazz strong and endearing. Certainly, rather than being limited to tonal Baroque rules, Jazz finds new ways to explore tone and timbre -- in other words, stretching both the bounds of conflict and communication. Proof of this universality, Jazz welcomed desegregation -- it was about music, not race; and listening to jazz helped break down the color barrier as well. Indeed, after listening to Miles Davis at a New York club, another jazz musician commented: "Ah, yes, ain't that somethin'? We all came up with our own music -- and all using the same notes" (Mandell, 16).

Not only do we see… [END OF PREVIEW]

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