Category Archives: singing

In Birds as in Humans?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

David Rothenberg concludes Why Birds Sing with an answer to the question implied in the book’s title: “For the same reason we sing—because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sounds.” This notion is reminiscent of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s application of funktionslust—“pleasure taken in doing what one does best”—to impressive animal displays. In both cases, the pleasure is not merely frivolous or “for itself,” but an evolutionary adaptation that increases the likelihood of survival. As with theories of musical development in early humans—from Darwin’s sexually selected mating songs to Joseph Jordania’s “battle trance,” in which repetitious beats prepared our prehistoric ancestors for the hunt—there appears to be a mechanistic basis for sonic aesthetics.

One of the refreshing aspects of Rothenberg’s work on bird song (as well as whale song and bug rhythm) is his apparent embrace of the pejorative “anthropomorphizer.” A musician and philosopher, he compares structural and functional aspects of human and avian songs, and freely speculates about links between them. He is no stranger to criticism from the scientific community: “Scientists who say they are investigating what actually occurs in nature caution that musicians and poets tend to hear what they want to hear, to extract some human meaning out of the world’s alien inscrutability. Musicians remain enthralled by what seems unassailably beautiful about the sounds of birds, whether akin to noise music or dulcet melodies.”

Is there common ground between the two camps? Can we, as primatologist Frans de Waal advocates, avoid “gratuitous anthropomorphism” without conducting “linguistic castrations”? More to the point, can bird song reveal anything about our own songs?

Research on bird mimics offers intriguing possibilities. A brief report by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology summarizes several explanations for this behavior. In northern mockingbirds, which can learn upwards of 200 songs, mimicry is likely a sign of fitness. Females seem to prefer males who sing more songs, and adding tunes to the repertoire—from other birds and environmental sounds—can give a mating advantage. Similarly, male marsh warblers pick up songs from wintering grounds in Africa and bring them back to Europe—presumably to impress potential mates. Human virtuosi and sophisticates have similar allure.

Other birds use mimicry to fit in. Indigobirds, for example, are brood parasites that lay eggs in the nests of other species. Chicks learn the begging calls of the host to blend in and get fed. The female thick-billed euphonia uses alarm calls of other species to solicit help in defending her nest from predators. Assimilating songs of the “in-crowd” and using sounds of the “other” to gain their sympathy—these, too, have human analogues.

Occasionally, bird mimicry can also go awry. There are numerous cases of birds learning the wrong songs, such as a vesper sparrow singing songs of the Bewick’s wren and a common yellowthroat singing a chestnut-sided warbler song. These hapless mimics often go unpaired. For humans, engrossment in “uncool” music has a comparable effect.

Hard-nosed scientists caution against drawing parallels between humans and animals—especially distant relatives like birds. Without doubt, there are significant limits to such comparisons. At the same time, the distance provides room for reflection. The immediacy and ubiquity of music in human life—not to mention its labeling as “entertainment”—can obstruct our awareness of its functional basis. The scientific approach to bird song encourages us to ponder like traits in our own music cultures.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Musical Exodus (Book Review)

Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas, edited by Ruth F. Davis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 220 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

If music is the “Jew” of Jewish studies, as musicologist Edwin Seroussi contends, then Sephardic Jewish music is the “Jew of the Jew” of Jewish studies. Not only is it a marginalized topic, as music generally is, but it also suffers from an Ashkenazi bias, which permeates all of Jewish studies. Ruth F. Davis’s edited anthology, Musical Exodus, strives to fill in the oft-neglected picture. It collects ten research papers on musical subjects related to “Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas,” the title of a 2008 colloquium of the International Council of Traditional Music held at Cambridge University, which forms the basis of the book.

Following an informative introduction by Davis, Dwight F. Reynolds outlines the complex and multifarious cultural, religious, and musical backgrounds that gave rise to Arabo-Andalusian music (music of medieval Muslim Spain, “al-Andalus” in Arabic). Vanessa Paloma Elbaz examines the subtle integration of “feminine” vernacular songs into male-dominated worship services in Tangier, Morocco. Daniel Jütte looks at the role of Jewish musicians and dance instructors as cultural intermediaries between Jews and Christians in Renaissance Italy. Piergabriele Mancuso describes the cultural makeup of the Sabbatini, a group of southeastern Italian Catholic farmers who claimed to be “children of Israel,” encountered Italian Jewry, formally converted to Judaism, and migrated to Israel en masse in 1950. Philip V. Bohlman describes how images of al-Andalus as a model of religious and cultural tolerance became symbolic for Enlightenment Jews in Europe. John Morgan O’Connell connects the exclusion of indigenous Jewish musicians in early Republican Turkey to the ousting of Eastern (Ottoman) aesthetics, and the assertion of Western culture. Jonathan H. Shannon explores the contradictory silence surrounding Jewish musicians in Syria, and the persistence of “Jewish fingers”—a hand gesture in Syrian musical practice developed by Yacoub Ghazala, a Jewish musician whose memory officials have worked to erased. Tony Langlois discusses Jewish commercial musicians in the port city of Oran, Algeria, who performed an eclectic style known as chanson Oranaise between the 1930s and 50s. Carmel Raz considers the secular revival of piyyutim (liturgical poetry with roots in al-Andalus) in modern-day Israel as a means of bridging secular and sacred and Mizrahi/Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Edwin Seroussi surveys Hebrew Andalusian poetry unique to Jews of Tripoli, Libya and Djerba, Tunisia. Stephen Blum’s afterword urges further investigation into cultural interactions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in al-Andalus and elsewhere.

Each exploration is richly detailed and defies adequate illustration here. As with any edited volume, some chapters are better presented than others, some fit better within the overarching subject, and some are of more inherent interest to the reader. (These observations are, of course, subjective.) Nevertheless, the book’s expansive timeframe, dispersed geographies, and widely varied musical traditions paint a composite portrait—by way of case study—of a vibrant and multi-layered area of Jewish music, history, and culture.

From this sundry material emerges four recurring themes of special interest to this reviewer. First is the pervasive myth of Jewish life in al-Andalus as a “golden age.” As with any romanticized period, medieval Spain was not quite as glorious as the romanticists claim. Both Davis and Bohlman trace the myth to Enlightenment Jews in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, who saw al-Andalus as a paradigm of ideals they cherished: equality, religious tolerance, and cross-cultural interaction. Davis writes: “Pitting an idealized Islamic tradition of tolerance against the grim realities of European anti-Semitism, they constructed a ‘historical myth’ of an interfaith utopia under medieval Islamic rule, which they presented as a challenge to Christian Europe and as a strategy to improve their own position” (p. xv). The myth was later taken up by Arab academics and journalists, who blamed Zionism for turning Arabs against Jews. Jewish historians countered with earlier evidence of intolerance and persecution in Arab lands and the founding books of Islam. Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries used the “counter-myth” of persecution to align themselves with downtrodden Ashkenazi Jews, and “claim an equal share of the Zionist dream” (p. xvi). Naturally, each myth and counter-myth exhibits degrees of cherry-picking for political purposes.

A second theme is oral transmission. According to Reynolds, “Because musical notation was not in use in Muslim Spain, we possess a wide variety of historical sources about medieval Andalusian music but not the music itself….On the other hand, the large number of living musical traditions that claim some sort of descent from the music of medieval Muslim Spain does allow us—with great care and very judiciously—to navigate at times back and forth between medieval historical documents and modern living traditions and to come to an approximate understanding of the basic structures of medieval Arabo-Andalusian music” (pp. 3-4). This helps to explain both the diversity and continuity within and between various idioms expressive of an “Arab style.” With reliance on generational transfer rather than written notation, these traditions could develop and flourish in a variety of directions without losing a fundamental link to the past.

The third area is the role of poetry. In the classical conception, Arab music was not considered an independent art form, but a vehicle for sung poetry. Thus, melodic construction was largely dictated by the rhythms, meters, and forms of Arabic poetry (essentially a form of logogeneic, or word-born, music). Because of this more or less stable linguistic foundation, the “Arab style” could accept expanding influences from Byzantine, Persian, African, and other sources without losing its aesthetic signatures.

Fourth, and most central, is hybridity. Again quoting Reynolds: “Over a period of nine centuries, from 711 to 1610, there is evidence of professional musicians from a variety of different ethnic, religious, and regional origins performing diverse musical traditions before patrons and audiences of diverse backgrounds. There is also good evidence for understanding the music itself (and not just the music makers) as a very cosmopolitan tradition that incorporated influences from multiple sources and developed innovative new forms by combining and hybridizing traditions” (pp. 21-22). Such hybridity remained a feature of the Sephardic diaspora. For example, Jewish performers of chanson Oranaise, mentioned above, combined medieval Andalusian repertoire and French chanson, a popular genre of music halls and cabarets. Beyond music, hybridity is a characteristic of Sephardic languages, such as the Moroccan Judeo-Spanish vernacular of Haketía, which combines Spanish, Moroccan Arabic, and Hebrew, as well as performance contexts, such as the piyyut revival in Israel, which mixes secular and sacred, East and West.

These themes and the chapters that elucidate them remind us not only of the substantial musical contributions of al-Andalus and its Jewish diasporas, but also of the complex and nearly indefinable nature of Jewish music. More broadly, they support the case for answering questions of “Jewishness”—musical and otherwise—in the plural: Jewish identities, Jewish traditions, Jewish styles, Jewish diasporas, Judaisms. As Ruth Rubin observed decades ago, the music of the Jews is “as diverse and variegated as the Jews themselves” (A Treasury of Jewish Folksong, 1950).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Gestural Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Gestures should be minimized during training in order to heighten awareness of interior, involuntary muscular movement.” Thus reads the entry on “Gesture” in Cornelius L. Reid’s A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology. As a Western vocal pedagogue, Reid was ever concerned with the aesthetic standards and norms of European classical music. His recommendation is in keeping with a long-held view that music should speak for itself. An early example comes from Franchinus Gaffurius’ Practica musicae (1496). The chapter on “How a Singer Ought to Behave When He Performs” warns that an “extravagant and indecorous movement of the head or hands reveals an unsound mind in a singer.”

These rules of conduct have been reiterated in various ways within the “proper” world of European classical music. However, they do not apply to the opera subgenre, where theatrics are essential, or to many music-cultures outside the classical sphere. A global view of gestural aesthetics would place subdued movement alongside two other options: ritualized gesture and free bodily expression.

The union of gesture and melody is normative in many cultures. Melodic knowledge is embodied in gesture, such that one reinforces the other. For instance, Hindustani Khyal singers incorporate stereotyped and quasi-spontaneous hand motions resembling the tracing lines in space. Mothers in rural Uganda sing and sway ritualistically during pregnancy. In these and other public and private settings, vocal action is “co-performed” with bodily action. It would be improper and unnatural to sing the repertoire without the accompanying physical display.

In the less regulated arenas of popular music, there is an array of genre/style-specific singing movements, both spontaneous and choreographed. These include rock and roll gesticulations, punk aggression, pop diva arm flails, funk dancing, and many others. Audiences expect such exhibitions, which provide a visual analog to the audible content. The absence of visceral antics would be perceived as inauthentic.

The three gestural options—minimal, ritual, and freewheeling—engage musical expression in different ways. For the classical purist, expression is housed in the music alone; unimpeded inward focus is central to a song’s interpretation. In settings where gestures are traditionalized, song and movement act as mutually reinforcing modes of expression. In the heterogeneous realm of popular music, movements are employed to complement and enhance musical expressiveness. The contrasting conventions also imply differing ideas of what constitutes music—specifically, music as sound, sound plus choreography, or sound plus free (or seemingly free) bodily expression. What is crucial in all cases is that the performance conforms to expectations.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Dialects

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin received a package in 1858 from Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and evolutionary theorist whose reputation rivaled that of Darwin himself. Spencer’s gift was a collection of essays on wide-ranging topics, including “The Origin and Function of Music.” Darwin wrote Spencer a letter of gratitude, noting, “Your article on Music has also interested me much, for I had often thought on the subject and had come to nearly the same conclusion with you, though unable to support the notion in any detail.” The idea proposed was that music developed from the rhythm and pitch contours of emotional speech.

As the years went by, Darwin remained “unable to support” this intuitive hypothesis, and eventually flipped the scenario. Rather than putting speech before music, he proposed that biological urges gave rise to musical sounds, which then developed into speech. Specifically, he situated music’s origins in courtship displays, when our ancestors, like “animals of all kinds [were] excited not only by love, but by the strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph.” The cries that sprang forth, presumably akin to animal mating calls, were the precursors of language. Darwin’s theory had the benefit of rooting music (and subsequently language) in an adaptive process: “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”

The issue is far from conclusively decided. Contemporary theorists are split between Spencerians, who view music as an outgrowth of language, and Darwinians, who view language as a byproduct of music. This chicken-or-the-egg debate is likely to remain unsettled, in part because of the absence of the proverbial time machine, and in part because music and language are so inextricably intertwined.

However music and language came about, it is clear that they mirror one another. Both Spencer and Darwin based their theories on evidence of musical characteristics in expressive speech. Similarly, those who study global musics often find the syntactic and tonal patterns of regional dialects reflected in the phrasings, cadences, inflections, and intonations of regional songs. Indeed, distinct language forms help explain the variability of timbre, modal, and structural preferences from place to place. The folk melodies of Algeria and Zambia may not have much in common, but each is tied to speech patterns used in those countries.

A good illustration of the speech-song convergence is Steve Reich’s three-movement piece, Different Trains (1988). The melodic content of each movement derives from interviews recorded in the United States and Europe. Looped spoken phrases, drawn from recollections about the years leading up to, during, and immediately after the Second World War, are paralleled and developed by a string quartet—an effect that simultaneously highlights and enhances the musicality of the spoken words.

Yet, none of this tells us which came first in the history of our species. Music and language have existed side by side for eons. Musical norms have affected speech organization, just as speech organization has affected musical norms. In the end, the question of evolutionary sequence is less important than the very indispensability and interdependence of music and language.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

More than Words

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Communication is usually defined as the exchange of information or ideas. The expansiveness and nuance of modern languages is such that almost anything can be put into words. Vocabulary helps us make sense of the world and process our experiences in it. Contrastingly, nonverbal communication is very limited in range. While it takes many forms—from gestures and facial expressions to posture and speech patterns—it mainly operates on the level of feelings. Nonverbal cues typically do little more than reinforce or contradict what is being said (like saying “thank you” with a smile or “everything is fine” with a frown). Nevertheless, psychologists have long known that the wording of a message is far less important than how the words are expressed.

In 1968, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian published an influential paper, “Communication Without Words,” which examined the relative effect of verbal and nonverbal communication. He found that the impact of speech is fifty-five percent facial, thirty-eight percent tone of voice, and only seven percent verbal. This comes pretty close to arguing that it doesn’t matter what we say, but how we say it. Of course, the formula applies less to purely factual statements, like giving directions or one’s stating name and address; but in ordinary conversation, nonverbal communication carries disproportionate weight.

While the 7%-38%-55% Rule might seem exaggerated, proof is readily found in our day-to-day lives. Just think of how sarcasm can flip the meaning of a phrase. Positive words are reversed with an eye roll or resentful tone. It is an entirely extra-linguistic trick, making it notoriously difficult to put into writing. Without vocal or facial indicators, “nice going” just means “nice going.”

The power of nonverbal communication is also felt in song. The musical content of a song is often thought of as additive—that is, as a vehicle for clarifying and transmitting lyrics. However, in many cases, the opposite is true: lyrics can simply be an excuse for making music. If spoken messages are thirty-eight percent voice tone, then song—a medium that accentuates the voice—is swayed even more by sound. Add to this the visible aspect of a live performance, and the importance of words dwindles further still.

There are many songs in which words have an exceedingly small impact. We all like songs with lyrics that, if merely spoken or read, would not interest us in the least. These come in six basic types, though there may be more: Songs with trite or sophomoric lyrics; Songs that make little sense; Songs with themes we do not condone; Songs with ideas we do not agree with; Songs in a foreign language; Songs about things with which we have no experience. In each case, words probably account for less than seven percent of our attraction.

To be sure, plenty of songs include thoughtful poetry. But they are not the majority. If, for instance, we were to comb the extensive Beatles catalogue, we would find that most of their lyrics are simplistic, some are nonsensical, and a small number are truly exquisite. These lopsided figures do not impact the band’s popularity, just as the words we say do not make or break how others feel about us. Communication is much more than words.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sousa’s Menace

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.” These dire words begin John Philip Sousa’s 1906 article, “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Riding on anti-modernist sentiments and fears of cultural degradation, the March King warns against the nascent technologies of phonograph recordings and piano rolls (for player pianos). He predicts the demise of amateur music-making and the deterioration of human intimacy: “When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same sense that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?” “In the prospective scheme of mechanical music, we shall see man and maiden in a light canoe under the summer moon upon an Adirondack lake with a gramophone caroling love songs from amidships. The Spanish cavalier must abandon his guitar and serenade his beloved with phonograph under his arm.”

Sousa abandons his usual charm for a prophetic voice calling out on behalf of the populace. Without the impulse to sing or play instruments, the nation’s throat will weaken, its chest will shrink, and its soul will recede. Modern critics have noted Sousa’s cultural nearsightedness and hypocrisy (his band was among the early recording ensembles). Others have shed light on personal interests underlying the essay. Among other things, Sousa worried that recordings would adversely affect ticket sales, decrease royalties and threaten composer’s rights (concerns still relevant today). The old business model relied on amateur musicians, who would purchase sheet music, learn it, and go see it performed in concert, or attend a concert and rush out to buy the sheet music. Both of these put money directly into Sousa’s pocket. Not so with the record industry’s corporate-controlled mass production.

Setting these observations aside, it is worthwhile to return to Sousa’s surface argument. Like most alarmists, his prediction was overblown. One hundred years later, the United States is home to thousands of amateur choirs and orchestras, and music teachers can still find work. Yet, although the “menace” was not as severe as Sousa warned, homegrown music-making has been in decline. Access to recordings, glitzy concerts, and aggressive promotion of selected performers have made consumption the norm. Why make music if others can make it for us (and do it better than we can)? It seems that the more technologically advanced a society is, the more passive its music culture.

In contemporary America, there are only a few social contexts in which ordinary people are expected to contribute musically. These include preschools (where song is a pedagogical tool), karaoke bars (where liquor drowns inhibitions), and houses of worship (where singing is a form of devotion). It is important to note, too, that in many (most?) congregations, the harmonized notation of hymnals has been ditched for unison song—yet another sign of dwindling musical literacy.

To be sure, consumer culture is not totally to blame for declining musical activity. There are other factors, such as the high cost of lessons and instruments, the elimination of music programs in many public schools, and the increasing value placed on specialization. Music as a hobby is no longer a cultural expectation. Still, listening to recorded music has stunted amateurism in two important ways. First, high quality recordings are intimidating. The unfiltered sounds of our own making seem inferior in comparison, and thus not worth attempting. Second, it is well established that music satisfies fundamental emotional, psychological and social yearnings. How and by whom the music is produced can have varying degrees of impact, but what is important is that music is being experienced. Thus, given the convenience and capabilities of mechanical devices, it is only natural that we gravitate toward them. We need music and they give it to us.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 

Musical Suspension of Disbelief

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creators and performers of worship music come in two basic types: those who are believers and those who are not. While it might be assumed that the first group represents an overwhelming majority, candid admissions from composers, accompanists, choristers, music directors, and even some clergy would suggest that nonbelievers (and people on the fence) have a sizable presence among the makers of prayer-song. On the surface, their involvement reveals a scandalous contradiction: they lead congregations in devotional music, yet they are not themselves devout. However, a poll of people in the pews would show a similar assortment of true believers, nonbelievers, and occupiers of spaces in between.

Among other things, this indicates that level of conviction does not necessarily determine level of sincerity. One can be fully committed to the enterprise of worship music without pledging allegiance to the words. The simple reason for this is that music allows for easy suspension of disbelief—or, more precisely, makes belief secondary to experience. Music-making is an inherently spiritual activity in that it facilitates deep sensations, heightened awareness, and a departure from one’s ordinary state of being. As such, it accomplishes the religious goal of tending to the spirit—and it does so regardless of textual content.

This is especially true for religiously disinclined composers who nevertheless write music for expressly religious purposes. A famous example is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who, according to his poet wife Ursula, was “never a professing Christian.” In her biography of her composer husband, Ursula wrote: “Although a declared agnostic, he was able, all through his life, to set to music words in the accepted terms of Christian revelation as if they meant to him what they must have meant to [religious poets] George Herbert or to Bunyan.”

As a conscientious composer, Vaughan Williams was careful to match lyrical themes with appropriate musical accompaniment. He undoubtedly took equal care when setting secular words to music. In the process of composition, he absorbed himself in the text, not in order to believe its literalness, but in order to turn words into an elevated—and elevating—musical experience. Like so many musicians and congregants, he approached the words of prayer essentially as an excuse for music, and the spiritual gratification he received validated his efforts.

Before we rush to judge Vaughan Williams’ position as false or impoverished, let us reflect on these eloquent words from his wife: “He was far too deeply absorbed by music to feel any need of religious observance.” So it is for innumerable others who devote their talents to worship music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.