Music, the universal communicator

(October 07, 2011)

If music is a universal communicator that means it transcends language and culture. If folk music is ‘music for folk by folk’ does that mean the communication is any clearer? Does it reach out on some primordial level to offer a connection that other forms lack? The answer is, on the face of it, probably not. However, the premise that music communicates universally is potentially incorrect. Communication by conveying meaning and understanding (after all the basis of language) is missing if the method of transmission and the content are lost on its potential recipients. And too much ‘musical communication’ either goes unheard or is deliberately ignored, derided or misheard.

Music used to deliberately confuse

Consider for a moment ‘popular’ music of the 21st century. There’s the music of the podcast, the web, the m3 player, radio and the television. This is the most over-communicated society that has ever existed on this planet and yet it is the one where communication – even music, is used to deliberately confuse or is derided because it only talks to a certain percentage of the population. Within this outpouring of sound there are in the main general music broadcasts and specialist programmes. Forget for the moment the specialisation – let’s concentrate instead the day-to-day ‘musical food’ fed to the population. Does that communicate? The answer must be ‘yes’, some of it. But what does it communicate? Where is the message in the repetitive pulse electronics? What is the message in the ‘manufactured popular pap’ regurgitated in various forms by a multitude of solo artists, boy and girl groups? How about the messages of anger and violence buried not too deeply in some rap and metal? Is this the communication we want or deserve from music?

Agree for the moment that music provides a common currency for the articulation of ideas and shared experience. If that’s true why does music, as much as any other art from fall into distinct and it would appear, mutually exclusive factions. But do those factions need each other to survive? Indeed, do they require each other to become their own genesis? Would punk with all its angst and ‘teen fury’ have existed if not for the pompous excesses of stadium rock that preceded it? The only issue there is the birth pains of punk engendered a vast sea of useless, tuneless punk that in many ways swept over and through the very best that punk had (and still has to offer). The same is also true of most other genres by the way. The birth of any musical style drags along with the good a vast ocean of crap. And then you end up with music that neither communicates nor inspires.

Music reaching out on a primordial level

Sometimes, though not always, there are in any genre musical gems that shine out and generation by generation these open channels of communication and talk to their audience – sometimes not the original intended audience. This music reaches out on that same primordial level. It touches time and time again. It is beyond the basic boundaries of communication and maintains the clarity and longevity of its message way beyond what may be considered its ‘shelf life’. The songs that have this indefinable something that gives them life beyond their expected span cut across genre as well as time and space. It is this extended ‘shelf life’ that one may hear across all genres when ‘good music’ lives on. Thus it continues despite the ravages of time or fashion.

The blues of the pre-war period, the gospel of southern soul, the mournful reflection of country and the urgent insistence of rock – in all realms there are classics that remain. Whatever tastes prevail good music remains good music. Then if you apply the shelf-life theory and good music theory to folk music it perhaps explains why songs that are in many cases hundreds of years old, remain current, and continue to communicate. Not only are they good songs their message still means something and it still talks to people across the years.

 ‘Good’ music or just long lived?

Perhaps that is the essence of communication through music or at least the essence of lasting, meaningful communication. Does that mean folk music communicates down the years because it is ‘good’ music or does it communicate because of its longevity? One could ask the same question of medieval, classical or sacred music. So perhaps a long life does not necessarily translate into ‘good’ perhaps it is merely a component part of musical memory that cannot fade because it is so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of a culture or society.

The desire to use music to convince or persuade people verges on propaganda. Move down that road and you become close to the proscriptive musical ideals of Nazism or Chilean juntas. The controlling factor in music seems to be more allied to the gods of capitalism and commerce than the gods of war. The communication in too much of today’s music  is more to persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash than to alter their beliefs, make a point or get a message across. And that line of music as previously stated has little if anything, to do with communication.

But some music most certainly does communicate sometimes on a deeply rooted level and others on a purely superficial basis? It’s really up to the listener to decide which they want to hear. That’s why some music falls by the wayside, or drops into minute niches with minority audiences or requires a revival to resurrect its message. And if you think about it then folk falls into all three.

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