Category Archives: Song

The Evolution of Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest rudiments of musical expression were most likely vocal. This basic premise connects diverse speculations about music’s origins. Whether music—broadly defined as structured, controlled, and purposeful sound—began with grunts of aggression, wails of pain, mating howls, or infant-directed communication, the vocal instrument was the source from which it sprang. Despite the lack of records stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, speculative musicologists have sketched cursory evolutions of vocal music. According to Alfred Einstein, the eon-spanning process had three stages: pathogenic (emotion-born), logogenic (language-born), and melogenic (melody-born). This hypothesis, presented in his 1954 essay “Words and Music,” is unique for its qualitative editorializing. In Einstein’s view, the combination of voice and music becomes increasingly problematic as the stages unfold.

The first stage, pathogenic music, represents the “starkest expression of pure emotion.” Einstein viewed the spontaneous, wordless tones of so-called “primitives” as the most pristine type of vocal music. Beyond romanticizing the “noble savage,” he argued that “the meaningful word weakens rather than strengthens such pure expression, since convention tends to attenuate it.” The union of word and music pollutes the original purity.

The degrading effect is less pronounced in stage two: logogenic music. In word-born song, melodic shape, movement, phrasing, and cadences are directed by the ebb and flow of a text, rather than a consistent beat or meter. It is a form of musical grammar—sometimes called speech-melody or stylized speaking—wherein accents and inflections are stressed through unobtrusive, arhythmic, word-serving melodic figures. Such is the mode of Greek epic poetry, Gregorian plainchant, and Jewish scriptural cantillation. Logogenic music has its own disadvantage—namely, the neutralizing of emotion. Because the music serves the text with formulaic motives (described by Einstein as a “minimum of music”), the same sounds are invariably used to transmit texts of varying thematic and emotional content. In this sense, it is the opposite of pathogenic vocalizing.

The third stage is song proper: a short poem or set of words fitted to a metrical tune. By and large, musical considerations, like rhythm and melody, outweigh textual concerns. Although songs often grow from or reflect upon emotional states, the rules of style and form tend to restrain raw feelings. The structure limits the syllables available, and measured phrases and poetic devices reduce word options. The result is filtered sentiment—a contrast to both unfettered pathogenic music and text-first logogenic music.

Without doubt, Einstein’s scheme has its weaknesses. Not only is the evolution of song non-linear (all three forms still exist today), but blending is also not uncommon. For instance, blues singing, which adheres to highly conventional forms, is known for its “pure emotion.” Within a strict melogenic framework, short phrases and repeated words convey rich layers of emotional content. Even so, Einstein’s three-stage outline raises awareness of the potential impediments of the various types of vocal music. Knowledge of these built-in barriers can help the performer or songwriter transcend them in their own musical quests.

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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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.

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.

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman (Book Review)

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman, by Mary G. Hurd, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 157 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman is fundamentally a book about song lyrics. This “minus the music” approach can be problematic, as a song’s sonic features—particularly timbre in the case of recording artists—tend to have equal or greater impact than the words themselves. Anthologies like Hal Leonard’s The Lyric Book reveal a general truth about songwriting: when words intended for singing are stripped of their music, their appeal is greatly diminished. Without the distraction of catchy melodies or infectious beats, stanzas can become flimsy, rhymes can become forced, and sentiments can become insincere.

Kris Kristofferson would seem likely to suffer from this approach. With such a recognizable voice—described variously as “raspy,” “jagged” and “froggy”—and a knack for exuding authenticity through it, his words risk being tarnished in the absence of sound. However, as Mary G. Hurd explains, Kristofferson is more poet than entertainer, more troubadour than singer-songwriter. Unlike many who pen lyrics for melody, his verses have legitimate literary interest; and nearly five hundred artists have recorded his songs, making his own voice less central than it otherwise might be. This is remarkable considering Hurd’s point that “each song reflects how [Kristofferson] felt at the time it was written, all his songs tell the story of him, psychologically and emotionally, and record his changes brought on by experience and the passage of time” (p. xvi).

The book begins with a biographical sketch. Because Hurd’s primary focus is lyrics, she offers only select glimpses into the complicated factors that shape Kristofferson’s songwriting. Of note is his upbringing in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where the ugliness of anti-Mexican sentiment taught him to sympathize with the downtrodden—a theme most strongly heard in his much-criticized album Third World Warrior (1990), which protests the U.S. government’s encroachment into Central America. After earning a B.A. in literature from Pomona College, Kristofferson deferred his military service to accept a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford’s Merton College. He became immersed in the writings of William Blake, adopting Blake’s injunction that the artist has a moral obligation to develop his talent. Kristofferson later resigned his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a decision that alienated him from his military family and from his first wife.

His commitment to the artist’s life and working class ideals also required a rejection of the highbrow world his education had prepared him for. He worked as a janitor at the Columbia Recording Studio in Nashville, which kept him in contact with industry professionals, and later jeopardized his success by emulating the self-destructive lifestyles of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr.

Hurd’s overview is a bit scattered and at times hard to follow. Nevertheless, it succeeds in contextualizing the career of an unlikely country music icon: an educated liberal whose imperfect voice, organic songwriting, sophisticated lyricism, and introverted nature emerged during Nashville’s slick and commercially oriented countrypolitan period. His anti-establishment bent—both musically and philosophically—propelled him to the ranks of future Highwaymen band-mates Jennings, Nelson, and Cash, and proved there was room for the “white man’s blues” in an age of glitzy country-pop.

Hurd, a retired professor of English, accomplishes the difficult task of using songs to summarize Kristofferson’s turbulent forty-year-plus career. As noted, she does this primarily through an analysis of lyrics, which she divides into six chapters: 1965-1970; 1971-1975; 1977-1984; 1985-1995 (Highwaymen); 1985-1991 (solo); and 1995-2014 (printed with an unfortunate typo as “2104”). Characteristically adept is her examination of Kristofferson’s award-winning song, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970). She peers beneath the surface depiction of a miserable hangover: “Aching with loneliness and alienation, the speaker renders a powerful evocation of alcoholism and the loss of traditional values (family, home, and faith)—not unlike Kristofferson’s own situation—and the burden of freedom that follows that loss” (p. 35).

It is unlikely that this book will appeal to readers who are not already Kristofferson fans. Prior interest in his life and work (including his film roles) seems a prerequisite for appreciating the depth of analysis. An optimal reading would involve some degree of hearing the songs in one’s head. On the other hand, the book might inspire casual readers to listen more intently—or perhaps for the first time—to Kristofferson’s songs. (This reviewer found himself doing just that.) What this book does best is illustrate the intimate link between songwriter and song, and the complex layers such a link can entail.

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

Musical Meanings

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theories about meaning in music are divided into two main camps: absolutist and referentialist. Absolutists holds that meaning is autonomously generated by the music. Responses stirred are secondary and independent from the music itself, which can only express musicality. Referentialists, on the other hand, contend that music is a shorthand for concepts, actions, images, and mood states. Music legitimately refers to things outside of itself. Whether the truth lies at either pole or resides somewhere in between, this debate usually grants a pass to song. By virtue of incorporating the comparatively straightforward symbolism of language, even the most obscure song is thought to have clearer signification than music without words.

Words substantially relieve music of the burden of generating meaning. They instantaneously imbue sound with an essence, which can change as quickly as the words are switched out for others. Still, it would be a mistake to think that lyrics are the ultimate decider of a song’s meaning. For every song that gives a more or less uniform impression, there are at least as many that leave room for interpretation. This is not only true for lyrics featuring ambiguity or metaphor; even lucid songs can be multivalent.

This is partly because songs typically originate from a personal place. The songwriter writes about experiences and sentiments tied to specific people, settings, moments, and so on. Listeners tend to personalize these themes and make them their own, with all the subjectivity that implies. Another complicating factor is association. The meaning of a song can be formed and re-formed depending on when, where, and with whom it is heard. This is exemplified in the “our song” phenomenon, when strong connections create a sense of ownership, and the “recycled song” phenomenon, when a tune begins on the radio, makes its way into a movie, becomes a wedding song, gets used in a commercial, etc. New meanings accumulate with each new usage.

There are also listeners who pay little attention to song lyrics, either because of thematic non-resonance, linguistic incomprehensibility, or an attraction to something else in the performance. This nullifies any clarity the words may have provided.

In the end, vagueness is a unifying aspect of music with and without words. Lyrics can mitigate uncertainty, but the fuzziness of musical meaning remains.

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.

Songs of House and Home

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A special issue of Rolling Stone published in December of 2004 touted “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Aside from pandering to its list-obsessed readers—and feeding its own list obsession—the article provided a window into the imprecision of musical taste. For starters, it made no mention of criteria used to evaluate the songs (if there were any), nor did it explain what kinds of songs were up for consideration. A breakdown of selections shows some glaring biases: 94% of the songs came from North America and the United Kingdom, 69% of the songs were from the 1960s and 70s, “La Bamba” was the only song not in English, one instrumental was included (technically not a song), and only one was recorded before 1950 (sorry, Irving Berlin).

It is easy to quibble about the contents of the list: how it differs from “greatest songs” lists published elsewhere, how “all time” really means 1950s to the present, how commercial success skewed the selection process, how certain bands were overrepresented (the Beatles have twenty-three songs), how Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” made it to number one (after all, that song helped inspire the magazine’s name). Issues like these expose the arbitrariness of “greatness” and challenge the very pursuit of a pop culture canon. However, despite—or perhaps because of—its flaws, the list tells us much about the human relationship with song.

It is clear that the 500 songs had personal importance for those who selected them. Each song was a radio hit, meaning that they were “in the air” during the selectors’ teen and early adult yearsa period of tremendous physical and emotional change when surging hormones make everything seem monumental. Music heard at that time is both a comfort and an identity marker, and its significance is sealed for life. Thus, the abundance of songs from the 1960s and 70s suggests that most of the selectors were baby boomers. There were also a few older voters (seventy-two songs were from the 1950s), and a smattering of younger voters (eighty-two songs spanned the 1980s to early 2000s).

From this perspective, what constitutes the “best” arguably has more to do with ownership than with the music itself. To use a domestic analogy, it is the difference between a house and a home. A house is a building designed for human habitation. It can be attractive to our eyes and suitable to our needs; but because it is not our dwelling place, it is of minor consequence. Yet, if we were to move into that house and fill it with our furniture, knick-knacks, routines, and memories, it would become our home. Like the songs we cherish, our affection for it would make it the “best.”

This subjectivity is implied in the Rolling Stone article, which makes no attempt at outlining objective measurements. Although its title suggests definitiveness, it is basically a glorified opinion poll. No reader would agree with all of its contents or the order in which they appear. This is not a criticism. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that songs are important to everyone, and that we are all curators of our own lists.

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