Saturday, October 8, 2011

Music's Functions

Mason's article described Adorno's theories of autonomous music and how it can reveal social truths. This along with our class discussion has made me think about the function of music -- that is, what are music's functions?

The functions that I can think of are: social, entertainment, sublimation, emotional communication, religious, skill development, attention, and healing.

First and probably most prominent, music serves a social role. Whenever you go to a social event 90% of the time there is music involved one way or another. Music brings us together, and sure enough where there is music there are people. Social events like dances, parties, bon fires, sitting around playing cards with your friends, grocery shopping, sporting events, and more. In the book, When Elephants Weep, Jeffery Masson tells a story of a man who sits in the woods and plays guitar, and animals gather and hide behind the bushes, listening. This supports the idea that music bringing us together is innate. Or possibly that animals are curious.

Another function music plays is entertainment. This can include background noise when you are driving, concerts, or even just playing for yourself. Music has a way of stimulating our senses and attention and strays us from boredom when we are doing relatively easy tasks.

Sublimation is known to Freud as a way to take sexual and aggressive energy and releasing by creating a piece of artwork. Sometimes people create pieces of music or other art works to feel better, and to take their emotions and rid of them in a mature fashion. I know for me, whenever I have a bad day, playing piano or writing a poem especially, just lifts a huge weight off of my shoulders.

The idea of art serving as a mode of emotional communication comes from the philosophy of Tolstoy. He believed that like language communicates thoughts and ideas, art communicates emotion. Sometimes when you hear a piece of music, read a piece of literature or poetry, or see an visual artistic creation, you feel an emotion that the artwork gave you. Tolstoy claimed that the more "infectious" the better, that is, the more people feel emotion from a piece and are brought together in brotherhood, the more successful the work is. A subcategory for music under this heading would be ecstasy. Some songs uplift us, or make our brains, as I like to say, "go crazy." They make us pumped up or sometimes even feel beautiful. Emotional communication also connects with sublimation, one way being that an artist may try to take their feelings and share those feelings with others.

Music has been a part of most religions since their commencement. In the Christian religion songs and hymns about God and Jesus, as well as the member's praise to them, are played in church. Church mass is not the only religious ceremony in which music is played in. In native American gatherings, as well as, I'm sure, in Neanderthal times, chants to God(s) were preformed to music. Many other religions use music in their practice as well.

Skill development is a separate and a bit of a different function than the rest of these, or perhaps a different sub category under entertainment. Sometimes people compose or play music, not just to entertain themselves, but just because they want to be good at something. Several people more or less has a talent, maybe inborn or not, that they have and do not want to use to make money or to entertain anyone else, but just to have as a hobby and to say that they are skilled in an area.

Attention is a function that does not apply to everyone. For some people music helps them focus when doing school work or taking tests. Others, music distracts them when performing these tasks. Music usually functions to divide our attention, rather than focus our attention on the main task. When we are in certain social situations music serves as background noise, we really are not paying attention to it, yet it feels awkward if it is not there. Although, if the music was not there, our attention to the situation would be higher than with the music playing. This also applies to driving a car, the music grabs our attention and we are focusing on that rather than the road, since driving, if you have been doing it for a while is a implicit task, it does not take complete conscious attention.

The last function music serves is healing. Music as a healing tool has recently re-entered the western world with music therapy. Yet, other cultures have kept it around since caveman times. Shamans will sometimes use musical chants on their patients. In western developed societies music had a healing purpose in the classical period as well (possibly before). Many times when women were involved in music back then, it dealt with healing. One example is the glass harmonica, which women played and it was supposed to suppress "sexual desires" on the listeners.

Questions: Does music serve any other functions than this? Are any of these functions more important than the others? Which ones and why?

Friday, October 7, 2011

RE: Peter "Rap/Hiphop: true music?"

Peter's latest blog talked about Rap/Hiphop and its relation to music and slam poetry. He ended with the questions:Is rap fully definable as music? If not, what parts of it are? Why? Does this idea apply to standard practices when dealing with aesthetics, or does it deal with a de-definition of art?

Rap is definitely definable as music it has melodies, harmonies, rhythm, and it is organized. Just like there are different styles of poets within a specific genre, there are different styles of hiphop artists. My personal favorite is KiD CuDi, who has a much more laid back style than most hiphop artists. His background beats aren't as repetitive, tend to be unique in some way which I can't exactly pin point, and have a colorful melodic contour. The language he uses also isn't vulgar like Lil' Wayne, Asher Roth, and many other rappers. Just like most songs of the early-mid 20th century to today, hiphop follows the pattern of: verse 1, bridge, chorus, verse 2, bridge chorus, etc. I cannot think of any reason why hiphop would not be considered music. In a recent post I asked why poetry was not considered music, and the reason is because the words are not drawn out and slurred together. I've been writing slam poetry for about five years now, and I completely agree, yes, rap is slam poetry put to music, but there is more to it than that. It flows with the music and limits the linguistic phrase to lasting as long as the rhythmic phrase. And also, the words are sung -- drawn out and slurred together. The cool thing about slam poetry is you create the rhythm and can change it when even you feel like it, you are not held within the confides of temporal phrasing. As for the applications of aesthetics, we do not need to re-define or "de-define" art. Although when looking at lyrical music, I think that language needs to be a consideration when observing aesthetic characteristics. The way things are worded in a song changes everything, especially sense our vocal chords are our biological instrument, and everything down to our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions of the world sprout from our knowledge and use of language. Have you ever heard a song and thought, "I'd like it so much more it it had better lyrics"? The words are what we take meaning from unlike programatic or orchestral music where it is open for interpretation. Hiphop especially is lyrically driven, its main characteristic is that it is fast speech over a rhythmic beat. If the lyrics do not make sense, it is not as aesthetically pleasing as when they do. So, we do not have to re-define what art is, but we have to add the variable of language into our aesthetic perception.

Question: What role do you think language plays in music? Would you say that, to the untrained ear, the lyrics are the most important factor to whether a song is aesthetically pleasing or not?