Category Archives: Song

Musical Consequences

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified two modes of maintaining social order. The first is mechanistic solidarity, wherein cohesion develops among people who play similar roles and whose status is more or less equally valued, save for those in leadership positions. This applies to kinship-based systems (formerly called “primitive”) where the unit of organization is the extended family or clan, and the distinction between the individual and society is minimal. The second is organic solidarity, in which order is achieved through a complex division of labor and role differentiation. This is typical of capitalist societies, which rely on the integration of specialized tasks.

Both systems have their merits and demerits. In the musical realm, the division of labor allows a select group, known as “musicians,” to focus on the craft and make significant cultural contributions. However, such specialization tends to have the opposite effect on the rest of the populace, which is tacitly discouraged from making music, even as an amateur pursuit. This contrasts with the norm in indigenous groups, where an egalitarian ethos encourages music from everyone. Although lacking in notation and recording, and all the artistic expansion they afford, their music can be remarkably intricate and varied.

Ethnomusicologist John Blacking was especially critical of the Western bifurcation of “musician” and “non-musician.” From his experience with the Venda people of South Africa, Blacking concluded that music is a species-specific trait, like language, and thus a natural mode of expression available to all. A passage from his book How Musical is Man? sums up this view: “[If] all members of an African society are able to perform and listen intelligently to their own indigenous music, and if this unwritten music, when analyzed in its social and cultural context, can be shown to have a similar range of effects on people and to be based on intellectual and musical processes that are found in the so-called ‘art’ music of Europe, we must ask why apparently general musical abilities should be restricted to a chosen few in societies supposed to be culturally more advanced.”

Blacking identified division of labor rather than an absence of aptitude as the dampening force on music compulsion. In capitalist societies, where skills become professions, commercial music is a major industry. Yet music sales still depend on our fundamental musicality. The performers may be specialists, but they are no more proficient in discerning musical sounds than the listeners who support them. Thus, the musical consequence of societal evolution is not biological but sociological. The shift from indigenous to industrial societies causes a general redirection of emphasis from collective music-making to individual listening. We remain musical, but our active expression is significantly stifled.

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.

Song to Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The acquisition of language in human infants usually begins with song. Mothers and other caregivers address infants in a singsong version of the native tongue, known variously as infant-directed speech, musical speech, and motherese. Pitch contours are exaggerated, phrasings are overemphasized, and stress patterns are overstated. Sounds are repeated, vocal pitch is high, vowels are exaggerated, tones range widely, and tempo is relaxed. More than the vocabulary itself, these extra-linguistic qualities set the foundation for language development.

The central ingredients of infant-directed speech, pitch and rhythmic structure, are also the essential elements of song. It is thus no coincidence that the singing of lullabies and playsongs is also a human universal. Such songs are a natural outgrowth or twin sibling of motherese, and, like musical-speech, their impact is more emotive than linguistic. Long before the child understands the meaning of words, she detects and imitates these vocal patterns of expression. Singing comes before speech.

These observations are familiar to anyone with child-rearing experience. They are about as revelatory as a step-by-step description of diaper changing. However, new research suggests that the connection between song and speech development runs deeper than previously intuited.

A massive study involving over a hundred international researchers, nine supercomputers, and the genomes of forty-eight species of birds recently culminated in the publication of twenty-eight articles. Among the findings are genetic signatures in the brains of songbirds that correspond to the genetics of human speech.

Humans and songbirds undergo a similar progression from “baby talk” to complex vocalizations, and both learn vocal content from their elders. This is something shared with only a few other species (“vocal learners,” like dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants), and makes us unique among the primates (the grunts of old and young chimps sound basically identical). What the new research shows is that humans and songbirds share fifty-five genes in the vocal-learning regions of the brain. Thus, even as the ability to vocalize developed independently in these species, it has similar molecular underpinnings.

Scientists hope to use this data to better understand and treat human speech disorders. (People cannot be subjected to the same experiments as birds.) There are also implications in the realm of music. Ethnomusicologists often claim that music is as important to humans as speech—a view drawn from the cross-cultural use of musical sounds in asserting individual and collective identity, conveying and retaining information, expressing and receiving emotional signals, and a host of other functions. “We need music to be human” is the discipline’s unofficial slogan. The fact that a child is first exposed to musical speech and first takes to musical babbling supports the notion of music as a human fundamental. New discoveries connecting bird songs and human speech could bolster that position. On a genetic level, it seems, singing and speaking are essentially variants of the same thing.

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

Music of the Squares

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Humans are vertically symmetrical beings. The skeleton provides scaffolding for mirror images on either side of an invisible divide. In both body and face, the average person exhibits an essentially balanced figure: two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and so on. And the more evenly proportioned, the better: cultures throughout the world view exceptionally symmetrical faces as the most beautiful. (This facial preference is also observed in some non-human animals, including various insects and birds.) Contrastingly, the more excessive the deviation, the more unattractive a face is thought to be. In global myths and popular culture, exaggerated asymmetry is a common feature of monstrous creatures.

Attraction to symmetry in conspecifics has a biological basis. Symmetry is an indicator of fitness: animals that are more properly developed have more symmetry in the body and face. A sound exterior is an indication of a sound interior. (Even the pheromones of highly symmetrical men are more attractive to women than those of less symmetrical men.) Intuitive detection of biological fitness underlies the more general association of symmetry with sturdiness, strength, and security.

In the wide world of art, symmetry is fundamental in works ranging from the sculptures of ancient Greece to the architecture of Imperial China to the poetry of Dr. Seuss. Musically, the desire for balance is most clearly represented in four-bar phrasing, which has dominated Western music since at least the Classical period.

Almost every folk, popular, and art melody consists of four-measure phrases grouped with other four-measure phrases (usually in eight- to sixteen-bar form). This is true of melodies as varied as “Yankee Doodle,” “Ode to Joy,” “Kalinka,” “Hava Nagila,” and “Wrecking Ball.” Virtually any song that springs to mind fits into this square structure. Indeed, four-bar patterns are so natural that, even when composers expand the phrasing with additional bars or extra beats between phrases, they typically even them out through repetition or tagged on measures.

The ubiquity of four-square melodies is not merely a product of collective cultural conditioning. Rather, it shares organic roots with the biological affinity for symmetry. Just as a balanced figure signals strength and reliability, so does a symmetrical tune evoke comfort and stability. The limited appeal of modernist music, which among other things rejects conventional phrasing, further emphasizes this point. Our ears are endlessly pleased by four-bar patterns. To update a Shakespearian phrase: “But hark, what music? . . . The music of the squares. . . Most heavenly music!”

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

Hearing Averages

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Our field of perception is constantly crammed with tastes, smells, sights, sounds and other intrusions from the outside world. To make sense of this multifarious bombardment, our brains not only choose which stimuli to pay attention to, but also organize that information. The procedure is aided by prototype recognition, or the categorization of perceptions based on the central or average representation of a class. Countless hues enter our vision, but we sort them out based on a finite number of colors—red, blue, green, etc.—with modifying adjectives—light, dark, -ish, etc. The same occurs when deciphering shapes, words, weather conditions, food odors, facial expressions, and so forth.

Organizing experiences in this way is highly economical. The brain simplifies reality by placing an enormous variety of information into basic classifications. Virtually everything we perceive is processed in this stereotyping way. Yet, as obvious as this might be, we are less apt to recognize the role of prototypical elements in ascertaining beauty.

In 1990, psychologists Judith H. Langlois and Lori A. Roggman published a study entitled, “Attractive Faces are Only Average.” They asked college students to rank the beauty of human faces in a series of photographs. Their conclusion: faces with features approximating the mathematical average of all faces in a population are the most attractive. On the flipside, the researchers noted, “unattractive faces, because of their minor distortions . . . may be perceived as less facelike or as less typical of human faces.” We subconsciously reference the prototype of “faceness” when evaluating appearances. Our preference for averages and aversion to extremes is likely rooted in a primal sorting out of genetic regularities from potentially harmful mutations. Normal is safe and safe is beautiful.

Of course, when we go beyond photographs into real life, unconventional faces can be (and often are) judged favorably. In such cases, beauty is said to reside in the “eye of the beholder.” However, this very cliché acknowledges a baseline or common appearance of beauty from which an individual departs. (The natural preference for a prototypical face is overridden by extra-facial qualities, like kindness, talent and a sense of humor.)

As it is with faces, so it is with music. Within a given population in a given time and place, certain musical features are normative. These can be likened to the mathematical average of faces, and might include major and minor triads, common chord progressions (e.g., I-V-vi-IV), rising and falling melodies, normal structures (e.g., 8-bar form), and so on. These features comply with expectations and suggest stability—traits also detected in the “normal” face.

In music, temporary deviation from these elements can be a measurement for separating “interesting” from “bland” and “good” from “mediocre.” But deviating too much is, to most ears, an unwelcome mutation. As a rule, popular music is popular because it is prototypical. Attractive songs are only average.

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

The Social Basis of Singing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

According to Chorus America, a national research and advocacy organization, the United States is home to some 270,000 choruses. A large majority are “church” choirs (217,000), a species that presumably includes non-Christian denominations as well. There are also roughly 41,000 school choirs (K-12) and 12,000 independent community and professional choirs. Nearly a quarter of American households boast one or more choral singers, a figure accounting for an estimated 42.6 million people (32.5 million adults and 10.1 million children). Together with researchers from the National Endowment for the Arts, Chorus America confidently asserts that choral singing is the country’s most popular form of performing arts.

Surely, the numbers are too large and too steady to suggest a fad. Choral singing is as ancient as it is popular, and while endowments and advocacy groups can create opportunities for participation, they do not guarantee the participants’ dedication. Advertisements help get singers to the audition, but commitment is cultivated through the singing itself.

Author Stacy Horn compares singing to “an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirit.” This observation is rooted both in anecdotal experience and emerging science that demystifies that experience. The “tranquilizer” effect is partly attributed to two hormones released while singing: endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins, known as the body’s “happy drug,” are chemically related to opium-derived narcotics, and induce feelings of pleasure and well-being. Oxytocin acts as a stress and anxiety reliever, as well as an enhancer of trust and bonding.

These latter results—trust and bonding—help explain why group singing is usually felt as the most exhilarating and transformative of song activities. From an evolutionary standpoint, the positive effects of singing can be viewed as a biochemical reward for coming together in cooperation—a social process essential to our species’ survival. It is plausible that endorphins and oxytocin were originally released to encourage group cohesion. Indeed, while solitary singing can have a similar effect, the difference in degree is telling. Almost without exception, the benefits are greatly amplified when singing with others.

This premise finds support in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In a paper titled “Unraveling the Mystery of Music: Music as an Evolved Group Process,” neuroscientists Chris Loersch and Nathan L. Arbuckle suggest a tentative (but potentially once-and-for-all) explanation for our emotional response to music—an occurrence that has long baffled scientists and philosophers. Using seven studies, the researchers establish human musicality as a special form of social cognition, demonstrating that musical-emotional responses are tied to other core social phenomena that bind us together into groups. This evolutionary basis is still extant in the psychological pull of music, which remains linked to the basic social drives underlying our interconnected world. Put simply, music evolved as (and continues to be) a tool of social living.

Concepts like these are not unique in the scope of theories on music’s origins. Social conjectures comprise a major area of speculation in the field (the other being sexual selection). What is coming to light is scientific backing for such claims. The benefits have always been felt in choral and other group singing. Now we are beginning to understand why.

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

Seasonal Separations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Maintaining distinctions between sacred and secular music is a common religious concern. Ever since people began writing critically about music, faithful authors have wasted little time and much ink appealing to a higher authority and inventing higher demands for the music of worship. Views on the issue can be passionate, imaginative and thought provoking; but they ultimately fall short of delineating objective qualities. While attempts are made to outline intrinsic differences between sacred and secular music (that is, looking at non-textual and non-contextual attributes), such efforts are always subjective, frequently elitist and habitually ethnocentric. Taste and convention play a far greater role in determining the “sacred” in music than anything else. Music is music, and all sounds are susceptible to multiple applications, religious and other.

The debate could—and perhaps should—end here. After all, if there is no such thing as a sacred interval or a secular chord progression, then critics are simply couching their opinions in pious language. However, while the scientific search for separate essences comes up empty, cultural conventions inform us otherwise. Continuous usage in one setting or another creates fixed associations. Add to this thematic content and musical purpose, and disco obtains a secular character, while plainsong earns a religious one. Pure reason tells us to abandon efforts to place genres in their “proper” place (a socially constructed concept); but visceral reactions to perceived musical encroachments remain real and often intense.

As mentioned, this is most frequently a religious problem. It is, in fact, a symptom of a larger religious concern: separating sacred from profane. Fans of popular music are not as likely to complain when a church-linked idiom creeps into a Top 40 hit. But religious intrusions into secular music can be just as jarring, and may occasionally ignite criticism.

A seasonal example is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman. Christmas is a double holiday: one part secular, one part sacred. The first part manifests in snowmen, ugly sweaters, dazzling lights and fruitcakes, while the second includes nativity scenes, scriptural passages, angels and worship services. The two halves of Christmas have their own soundtracks: “carols” for one and “songs” for the other. Sonic differences between the two are sometimes clear and sometimes not, but the lyrics rarely conflict. “Angels We Have Heard on High” retells a New Testament story, “Jingle Bells” depicts a winter joyride. Among the few exceptions is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a song that intentionally confuses the territories.

As a cultural icon, Santa Claus fits neatly on the secular end of the Christmas spectrum. Santa is not Jesus, and Jesus is not Santa. Autry and Haldeman stepped over this line. “Here Comes Santa Claus” utilizes light and dancey music typical of the non-religious category, and travels through the usual secular references: reindeer, stockings, presents, sleigh bells. But beneath this innocuous façade is a religious agenda, evident in these sneaky lines: “Hang your stockings and say your prayers”; “Santa Claus knows we’re all God’s children, that makes everything right”; “Peace on earth will come to all, if we just follow the light. So lets give thanks to the Lord above, that Santa Claus comes tonight!”

Not surprisingly, this song is a favorite of the “Jesus is the reason for the season” crowd. In their minds, it shines a much-needed religious light on the “frivolous” celebration of a sacred holiday. But just as religious people complain when elements perceived as secular seep into their music, secularists are justified in objecting to the Autry-Haldeman concoction. If distinctions between sacred and secular songs exist at all—and they certainly do to the ears of many listeners—then respect for borders should be upheld on both sides of the divide. For this reason, “Here Comes Santa Claus” is, at the very least, an uncomfortable hybrid.

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