The Meaning and Power of Music

music and society; music and culture

by

The Meaning and Power of Music

We listen to music while alone or in a company, in a dance club or at home, through simple headphones or via high-end speakers, as background or as foreground, after we get up or before we go to bed. Music accompanies us when we are traveling, doing sports, shopping, working or relaxing.

Music is woven into the fabric of society and culture, which raises several questions. How can we define music? How does it affect our lives? How does music contribute to shaping our identity? What power does it have? Does it have any meaning? Is it important to understand its meaning?

Let's look at different aspects of music and think about what role it plays in our daily lives, how closely it is connected with our culture.

In the first two fragments you will hear different interpretations of the word "music". The first one is given in a book for music students, the second - by a famous American writer. Which do you like more?

Um, who would like to give me a definition of what music is? Any music. What do you think? Music. What do they think the music is ... in general? What do they think? Anybody? Nobody? OK. Let's uh let's go to the text. And we turn to page, um four. And we read that "music is sound in melodic or harmonic combinations whether produced by voice or instrument.

“Shadows of Shadows passing... It is now 1831... and as always, I am absorbed with a delicate thought. It is how poetry has indefinite sensations to which end, music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry. Music without the idea is simply music. Without music or an intriguing idea, color becomes pallour, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Notes:


  • pallour - the state of being very pale
  • carcass - the body of a dead animalespecially a large one that is soon to be cut up as meat or eaten by wild animals
  • catacomb - /ˈkæt.ə.kuːm/ - a series of underground passages and rooms where bodies were buried in the past

The first definition is rather technical, while in the second one music is represented as a life-giving force. Thus music is an integral part of our life and to understand culture we need to understand its music.

Below you will see some examples how music is integrated with cinematography. Very often to understand allusions you need to be aware of the music of a particular country. Watch the videos and try to understand the message.

The hills are alive…With the sound of music.

In both videos we can hear the same words: "The hills are alive with the sound of music".

What do these words mean? Do you know? These words are an allusion to one of the most famous American musical drama film The Sound of Music (1965) directed by Robert Wise, and starring Julie Andrews.


The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years.

The second video is a fragment of the famous musical romantic drama Moulin Rouge! (2001).

In the first video you can see Blue Meanies, a fictional army of fierce music-hating beings and the main antagonists in the cartoon film Yellow Submarine. They allegorically represent all the bad people in the world.

And again the idea of the importance of music is emphasized, as those who don't love it are bad.

As you can see, The Sound of Music is an important part of western culture. It has been popular and loved by people through decades. In 2015 the song was sung at Oscar Awards ceremony by "the one and only" Lady Gaga.

The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years. The hills fill my heart with the sound of music. My heart wants to sing every song it hears. My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake to the trees…

As we can see from the previous examples, music can last for a long time, quite possibly, it can last for ever. Though, sometimes it can be transformed with time, as in the videos below.

Spirit move me
Every time I"m near you
Whirling like a cyclone in my mind
Sweet Melissa,
Angel of my life time
Answer to all answers I can find
Baby I love you come, come
Come into my arms
Let me know the wonder of all of you
Baby I want you,
Now, now, now and hold on fast
Could this be the magic at last
And now for all you people who believe in magic.So let it be a magic.
Oh baby, it's been so long
I've waited so long
And now that I have you
I want you to come, come, come
Come into my arms
Oh, baby, I need you 
I want you 
Oh, please, stay with me 
I wish you come into my arms again.
Spirits move me
Every time I'm near you
Whirling like a cyclone in my mind
Oh sweet Peter, angel of my lifetime
Answer to all, answers I can find
Baby, I want you
Come, come, come into my arms
Let me know the wonder of all of you
Baby, I want you
Now, now, oh,now, oh, now and hold on fast
Oh, could this be your magic at the end? 
Spirits move me, every time I'm near you
Whirling like a cyclone in my mind
You're my life line, angel of my lifetime
Answers to all answers I can find
Baby I want you come, come, come into my arms
Let me feel the wonder of all of you
Could it be magic now, now, now and hold on fast
Could this be the magic at last?

All these songs are different interpretations of "Could It Be Magic" first performed by Barry Manilow in 1973. In the second video you saw the song sung by Donna Summer in 1976. And the last version was presented by an English pop group Take That in 1992.

But the most interesting thing is that Barry Manilow based the music of his song on Chopin's Prelude in C minor. You can listen to the original.

It seems a good example of how classical music can live on in popular songs. One more example of that you can see in the film episode below.

- Mr. Sullivan. 
- Yeah.
- What kind of music do you like to listen to?
- Um
- Don't be afraid.
- Rock'n'roll.
- What about you?
- Rock'n'roll.
- You?
- Classical.
- Brown-noser.
- Does anybody here like Johann Sebastian Bach? Other than you? I'll bet all of you, whether you know it or not already like Johann Sebastian Bach. [] What's this called?
- A lover's Concerto.
- Who wrote it?
- The Toys.
- Wrong! That was "Minuet ib G", and it was written by Johann Sebastian Bach. [] Can you hear it? Bom, bom, bom. bom, bom. and he wrote it in 1725. They are both prime examples of the Ionian scale. Now listen...and see if you can hear the connective tissue between what i've just played and this. 

- 
 
- 

We all distinguish between classical and popular music, though there is a "connective tissue" between them, as we've seen in the fragments above. But do you know what popular music is? If to summurise what is written in Wikipedia, popular music is music with a wide appeal, music that "can be enjoyed and performed by people with little or no musical training". These distinctive characteristics make this music popular with a lot of people.

We can think that "pop music", quite a familiar term to all modern people, is a short form for "popular music" , but it is not so. Originally the term was applied to music of the 1880s Tin Pan Alley period in the United States. Thus popular music is a generic term for a wide variety of genres of music that appeal to the tastes of a large segment of the population and its main quality is that "songs and pieces have easily singable melodies".

And what about pop music? What does this term stand for?

As we've already learnt, it's a genre of popular music, which originated in the US and the UK in the mid-1950s. The identifying factors of pop music are short to medium-length songs normally written in a verse-chorus structure format with repeated choruses, melodic tunes and hooks (a hook is a musical idea, often a short riffpassage, or phrase, that is used in music to make a song appealing and to "catch the ear of the listener").

It may sound strange, but pop and rock were roughly synonymous terms until the late 1960s, when they became quite separated from each other.

What can we learn from the mentioned above? The popular music has been transforming with time, getting easier and easier to listen to. Does it mean that people are becoming less and less sophisticated and educated? Or is it connected with the fact that due to technology progress much more people have got access to music? Or maybe our life has become completely different and music now is very often just a background.

All this long text has the single idea. Music is closely connected with what is happening around. It is influenced by social, political, economic, technological, and multiple other developments. In fact, every new genre in music is inspired by some changes in our lives. Many new genres have appeared as a protest.

Let's study it, with rock'n'roll, so liked by the students in the film episode above, as an example. Rock'n'roll is of great significance in western cultures music, American in particular.

So what is rock'n'roll and why was it for many years such a controversial issue. Let's start with the film episode, in which a conventinal attitude of that time to this genre of music is presented.

-Mr Holland it has come to my attention that you are teaching the students rock'n'roll.
-Is this a problem?
- Is this a problem? Yes I think so. Our only job is to teach. We cannot teach and the students cannot learn, if there is no discipline.
- I'm sorry, what exactly is your point, Gene? 
- My point is rock"n"roll, by its very nature, leads to a breakdown in discipline. 
- Well, what you'd like me to do is to deny that rock"n"roll exists?
- What I am s...what we are saying is that you should be pushing the classics. Brahms, Mozart, Stravinsky.
- Starvinsky was the music of the Russian Revolusion, if you want to talk about a breakdown in discilpline.
- You are deliberately exaggerating. 
- How about the Kingston Trio, Gene?  
- How about "Sing Along with Mitch"?
- Just a minute, gentlemen! Mr Holland, I do not want to interfere in the curriculum of any teacher. But next week I have a meeting with the school board. And there are people who believe rock"n"roll is a message sent from the devil himself. Now when that issue comes up, what can I tell them?
-Mrs Jacobs, you tell them that I am teaching music and that I will use anything, from Beethoven to Billiy Holiday to rock"n"roll, if I think it'll help me teach a student to love music.
- That's a reasonable answer, Mr Holland.
- 

- 

To learn about the birth of rock"n"roll you can from the picture below.

Much more information about rock"n"roll you will find in this article ifrom Britannica. You can even do a quiz on rock"n"roll there. You can also watch an interesting video, in which they are telling about some reasons for rock"n"roll to enter peoples' lives in the 1950s - 1960s. And we can see again that those reasons are mostly social.

I will summarise the ideas expressed for those who are lazy to read and watch.

The emerging rock-and-roll culture was branded the “devil’s" by religious leaders, government officials, and parents’ groups, while it sounded exotic and thrilling to a younger generation. Young people searched for freedom and change, rock"n"roll gave them a chance to rebel, "to air" the stuffy social rules and values.

Elvis Presley, the transnational personification of rock'n'roll, served as a catalyst in the fusion of black and white culture into something far bigger and more complex than both.

An inretesting fact is that for decades African Americans used the term rock and roll as a euphemism for sex, and Presley’s music oozed sexuality.

All those things make it quite easy to understand why this music was prohibited and frowned upon by the Soviet regime, in which the key things were discipline, no rebel and no sex.

The 1950s were the dawn of the modern era. New music, new technology, new prosperity, new luxury. A new spirit for a new age. In which rock'n'roll played a key role.

If rock'n'roll is associated with a rebel and no discipline, there is music, which is compared to intoxication. Can you guess what music it is? Jazz! Read the article below and listen to the song. Does it sound debasing and degrading?

"What a Wonderful World" is a jazz song that was first recorded by Louis Armstrong and released in 1967 as a single, which topped a lot of pop charts.


Who else may not love jazz? Maybe grammar teachers? :))) Listen to the song "It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing", written by Duke Ellington (the lyrics were written by Irving Mills). The song became famous, Ellington wrote, "as the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among jazz musicians at the time.

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
It don't mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
It makes no diff'rence if it's sweet or it's hot
Just give that rhythm ev'rything you got
Oh, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
It makes no diff'rence if it's sweet or it's hot
Just give that rhythm ev'rything you got
Oh, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)
(Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah)

Read what David Richardson, an Afro-American, thinks about this song and jazz. It will help you to understand this music better.

"This song was born out of the Black American Jazz Artist’s frustration that they did not get full credit for this Jazz music genre and it was being imitated unsuccessfully without the element of «Swing». The music form, «Jazz» and the speaking form, «Jive» were variations on music and on language that were invented in Black communities in America. At first they were difficult for many White Americans to understand until they decided to just sit and listen to Jazz and Jive. By law in America Blacks and Whites lived separately but «equally». It is therefore exponentially more difficult for the foreign ear to understand this Jazz and Jive and then replicate. But the jazz musician Herbie Hancock said so eloquently, «Jazz really is about freedom, it’s the expression of freedom of the human spirit». Perhaps this is why in the past Soviet officials were so bent on «straightening the saxophone» and keeping out the «decadent» American music».

To learn more about jazz you may from this article in Britannica.


Now let's talk about songs and their meaning. Songs consist of music and lyrics, written words created specifically for music. When we listen to a song, is it important to understand its lyrics? Do lyrics always go well with a mellody?

Listen to the melody in the next video? How does it make you feel?

The music of this well-known song sounds quite optimistic and uplifting. And the audience is rather enthusiastic. And the event celebrated, the Queen's diamond jubilee, is very significant. So everybody is having a good time and everything goes well together, except ... the lyrics of the song. Listen to it now.

I saw the light on the night that I passed by her window. I saw the flickering shadows of love on her blind. She was my woman as she deceived me I watched and went out of my mind. My, my, my, Delilah. Why, why, why, Delilah? I could see that girl was no good for me, but I was lost like a slave that no man could free. At break of day when that man drove away, I was waiting. I crossed the street to her house and she opened the door. She stood there laughing. I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more. My, my, my Delilah. Why, why, why Delilah? So before they come to break down the door forgive me Delilah I just couldn't take any more. Yeah! She stood there laughing. I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more. My, my, my Delilah. Why, why, why Delilah? So before they come to break down the door forgive me Delilah I just couldn't take any more. Let's go again!

Rewriting music is not a new thing. Doing that musicians very often take a timeless piece from the past and inject a new life in it that resonates with today’s ears. But sometimes rewriting is not about taking a famous song and singing it again. There are cases when rewritten songs became much more popular than the originals. "My Way", a song popularized in 1969 by Frank Sinatra, is a good example. The original song was never so popular, besides it had rather trivial contents. The lyrics for "My Way" were written by Paul Anka and they are unrelated to the original French song.

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I'll make it clear
I'll state my case, of which I am certain
I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more
I did it, I did it my way
Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much, much more
I did it, I did it my way
Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
And through it all, whenever there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it, did it my way
I've loved, laughed and cried
I've had my fill my share of losing
And now, as tears…

If you know French, you have a chance to understand the meaning of the original version.

With Frank Sinatra we've come to the term standards. In music, standards are compositions originating from the 1910s and onward which have become widely known, performed, and recorded across the world. Standards are often quoted and commonly serve as the basis for musical improvisation.

Standards exist in the classicalpopular and folk music traditions of all cultures.

Frank Sinatra with his songs is on the list of American Standards Music, as well as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, whose singing you've listened to, and many others.

You need to be aware of that kind of music to understand some allusions or even humour.

Music can even give rise to some political terms, as that of the Sinatra Doctrine.

The term was born by chance after the following words appeared in the programme «Good morning America»: "We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. He has a song, I Did It My Way. So every country decides on its own which road to take."

This example illustrates how music can enter quite unexpected contexts, and to understand them we need to know those standarts.

Being rewritten a song itself can acquire new meanings. Gloria Gaynor's hit song "I Will Survive" released in 1978 is a good example. The song's lyrics describe the narrator's discovery of personal strength following an initially devastating break up of a bad relationship. Although it has especially attracted women, over the years, it has become meaningful for everyone who has overcome just about any difficult situation. Before listening to different interpretations of the song listen to how Gaynor herself sees the song.

At first I was afraid, I was petrified...
- When you recorded tha I will survive, did you realise how good the song it was.  
- Yes, I did. I thought that it was a timeless lyric, everyone will be able to relate to it and it would be popular for as long as they would play it. The song brings hope and encouragement and empowers people to help them get through all kinds of situations and circumstances that we all have and...and this in itself is timeless, so the song is timeless as well. 
Music for me is a universal language that...that I use to communicate throughout the world.

The empowering and encouraging effect Gloria Gaynor noticed in her song came at a time when she had just spent six months in a hospital. The song served as her own source of motivation to survive.

In 2017 Gloria Gaynor rewrote her song to encourage Texans with remixed 'Survival Anthem'. She

posted a video of her singing a new version of the song to Texans on Twitter.

Hi, my neighbours in Texas, this is Gloria Gaynor with a song that hopefally will cheer you up just a little bit. 
At first we were afraid, we were petrified.
Kept thinking Texas couldn’t live in flood waters this high. 
We know you spent plenty of time preparing for this Hurricane.
Who could have known that it would come with so much devastating rain? But, we will strive. And you’ll survive.
With all our love and help and prayers we will stand strongly by your side. We are your neighbors tried and true and we’ll do all we can for you. And you’ll survive, you will survive.
You will survive.

Through identifying with the song's theme and lyrics, people receive a means to express their personal struggle in life, their grief, their personal circumstances.

In the next three videos you will see personal interpretations of the song "I will survive" sung in the present situation, which is pretty same, but by different people in their personal circumstances, which are different.

At first, I was afraid, I was petrified
The need to poo was brewing from deep down inside
But there is no toilet roll not a single tiny bit 
And now the cat, (Meow) is looking like a perfect fit.
Yeah, I had to wipe, and that was that
Have you ever searched in google – 'remove human faeces from a cat'
I should of used another tool maybe wiped it on the grass. 
Cause now I’ve got a bloody hair ball, stuck up in my ass  
Oh please don’t go, and panic buy
Just turn around now, its easy if you try,
I went down to the shop just to get a single roll
Just to spare my pet cat Mittens, from cleaning my bum hole        
but, I’ll take 5, I will survive,
As long as I self-isolate, I know I’ll stay alive.
I would sell my little soul, for a pack of toilet roll.
But I’ll survive, I will survive. 
It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
When I saw the mass of people gathered in the park 
What these twats don’t understand is that distance saves a life 
If you think this is two meters then I feel sorry for your wife!
Understand, And wash your hands
We need to help the NHS with a social ban
and as for all you panic buyers that just haven't got a clue
I'm coming round to your front door step, the next time I need a poo! 
Oh please don’t go, and panic buy
Just turn around now, its easy if you try,
There will always be some idiots that will never understand
but we won't crumble, if we just stick to the plan. 
but, I’ll take 5, I will survive,
As long as I self-isolate, I know I’ll stay alive.
and if you sell this on EBAY, I'll get on my knees and pray
you won't survive, you won't survive hey hey!

Explain what makes the song sound different.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote "Every new context, every repetition will also influence that identity, it will change it. In a different context that is in relation with other identities in other circumstances, an identity will not remain the same. You could say that it starts to differ from itself." 

These words can be true about music. In a new context it acquires new meanings, new interpretations, it gets a new life, which makes music timeless and its power endless.

Watch the last video in this module and think what interpretation you would give to it.

To sum it up, music is an essential part of our life, it is our life, it is our identity. It has an enormous power. To learn a language and culture we need to learn about the music of the country.

At the same time music is a universal language that can be understood throughout the world and maybe even outside it. Listen to the idea expressed in the audio.

Специализируемся на развитии навыков говорения и понимания реальной речи на слух. Используем только оригинальные материалы.