This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part two of a two-part article.
There is a golden thread that laces together humanity across the globe, despite the eclectic mix of languages, cultures and social experiences. It is the hinge upon which we all unite, regardless of warring nations and jarring political beliefs. Putting aside distance or time zones, rain or shine, this shared common experience occurs day in, day out. It is an experience that has connected us since the days of Neanderthals. It is music.
The shared and global experience created by music was first defined in 1995 by Australian musicologist Christopher Small. ‘Musicking’, as he called it, is “an activity in which all those present are involved, and for which all those present bear a responsibility. It isn’t just a matter of composers, or even performers, actively doing something for the passive rest of us to contemplate. Whatever it is that is being done, we are all doing it together.”
What better example of ‘musicking’ is there than Korean pop star Psy’s 18th single ‘Gangnam Style’? The tune - and the dance - went viral across the world within just days of its first Internet appearance in July 2012. Now, in 2014, it has surpassed two billion views on YouTube alone and has made history as the most popular YouTube video to date. Almost immediately after its release, flash mobs and parodies spontaneously popped up everywhere, imitating Psy’s fisted crossed hands, relentless trotting and repetitious “op, op, ops.” Brides and grooms could be found incorporating the curiously infectious dance moves into their wedding receptions. In 2012, then-United Nations’ Secretary Ban Kimoon was even caught dancing to Psy’s catchy tune. It had a prolific global impact.
The song’s reception transcended the linguistic and cultural boundaries commonly seen as we all attempted to sing along in uncertain, muffled voices through the Korean lyrics until the chorus came back - “Ooh... sexy lady.” Critics and politicians the world over applauded the song as an ultimate demonstration of international fraternity as Psy topped the charts across the globe. Locally, South Korea benefitted from an increased global interest and awareness of its geography and culture, whereby K-Pop became a sort of gateway to all things Korean.
Within the music industry, record companies began coming to terms with their relinquished control as YouTube and other online distribution channels proved a powerful route for artistic dissemination. Commercial ventures capitalised on the song’s popularity through reiterations on talent shows such as The X Factor in the UK, whilst social morale seemed boosted through performances of that ‘dance’ at nearly every sports game or end-of-year company party. This feel-good marketing tool was then eagerly embraced by others looking to ride the Gangam wave, such as Greenpeace’s amateur parody, ‘Gangam, Greenpeace Style’.
Taking Psy’s catchy example, Small’s theory of ‘musicking’ is essentially a non-verbal ability to not only entertain us, but also entrain us. Humans ‘musicking’ together with other humans throughout the millennia has subsequently assisted our linguistic and social development. As ethnomusicologist Ellen Dissanayake notes in Art and Intimacy (2000), this pre-historic human behaviour can still be readily observed in parent-infant communication.
Parents converse with their babies in a highly rhythmic and melodic way. This involves putting emphasis on the speech sounds that are meaningfully relevant and outlining the high pitches that are perceptually non-intimidating. They also exaggerate their physical movements to highlight the emotions attached to their productions of sound, either by smiling, frowning, laughing, and cooing at appropriate points of their nursery rhymes and lullabies. As babies mirror their parents’ vocalisation and facial expression, the ‘musicking’ youngsters learn what is culturally salient and, in turn, discover some of the most basic yet crucial survival skills.
The visceral activity of ‘musicking’ is also entrenched within the human condition in the fact that it can be linked with the social movement from isolated individual hunter-gatherers to sociable and cohesive cultures. Recent empirical studies have found that collective musical performance and group listening causes our breathing, heart rate, and even blinking to synchronise with those around us. It is this synchronicity that is perhaps most obvious in day-to-day interaction. As any modern job interview or dating experience will tell us, mirroring the body language of others and effectively taking turns to lead the interaction can quickly establish a good first impression. In effect, we have come to judge a person by our synchronicity with them; by our ability to absorb ‘musicking’.
Music binds humanity through our experiences of different emotions; it puts lyrics to the sound of our heart. As philosopher Jerrold Levinson reasons, music, above all other arts, is best equipped to express emotions. This is because music is able to speak to us on a higher level than any stationary image; it has a dynamic nature, which can readily mirror the temporal processes that our emotions go through and create non-visual signifiers for multiple emotions.
One seemingly untiring theme in music is love; be it falling in, being in, falling out of, or unrequited love, we can all attach ourselves to at least one of these feelings at some point (even if the negative emotions of love have induced a much more prolific output than their positive counterparts). While you might expect the musical antidote and non-visual signifier to feeling sad to be listening to happy music, it is not always the case. Take a look at the most popular types of music and you will quickly notice they are largely melancholic: Taylor Swift’s encyclopedic collection of break-up ditties, Adele’s powerful heart-broken first album, Franz Schubert’s song cycles of unrequited love, the list is endless. No doubt we all have a favourite we like to belt out in the shower, but somehow we gladly feed off these negative emotions - especially when we find ourselves in those same painful situations.
Music psychologist David Huron suggests that ‘sad’ music has a propensity to engage us in introspection, empathy and stress management. In his text Sweet Anticipation (2006), Huron expresses the complexity of our association with music. Although there is no rule as to what makes music sad or happy, the way we interpret music is often mutually coherent. When the music speeds up or gently traces the minor scales, we create an association with how those sounds make us feel, and what we see when we hear them.
By empathising with sad music, and sharing the experience with the artist, we provide ourselves a chance to wallow in our distress, reflect on the past, come to terms with the present, and, in time, prepare for the future. We find a way of relating and responding to music, identifying with the musician’s sentiments and synchronising our emotions with theirs. As such, the moments and emotions we are living through dictate the music we choose to listen to. The associations we create are logged in our memory to develop a more emotionally intelligent approach to similar future circumstances, and the songs act as signifiers for feeling certain ways.
While music can be a uniting force, there is of course some cultural sensitivity inherent within musical expression. The falsetto singing of Chinese opera is often considered shrill and overly punctuated by Western listeners, while conversely Chinese audiences deem the bel canto style of Western opera imprecise. Different types of music have inevitably developed across the globe and our enjoyment of particular sounds can be dependent on our indigenous musical style and preference.
Despite this, though, it remains true that the globe was almost united by Psy’s intoxicating gallop and catchy lyrics. Listening to music is, for the most part, a uniting activity for humans - even if it is uniting in discussion of divided opinion. Whether it is a ceremonial chant, a pop-tune we just have to dance to, or a song of lost love that we listen to in our darkest times, our relationship with music is as ephemeral and complex as the medium itself. In every action and reaction we have been joined together by the shared heartbeat that is music.
Archive: PETRIe 66
Words: Jiaxi Lui