Music can be a lot of different things depending on who is listening. Though it has a technical foundation which can be analysed and hereby understood with music theory it is not the essential part of the phenomenon. In my eyes, it is solely what the music (or the sounds that together frame a piece) do to the individual; what emotions are evoked and how one understands it - what it means to the individual.
‘music can appear to be about something, but its ‘aboutness’ can vary from context to context, within a context, and from individual to individual’ (Cross 2003, 108)
It is not necessary to analyse and spend a lot of time thinking about what exactly a piece does that affects you, but instead it relies on the human instincts and our basic, given understandings of the sounds of the world. We know without looking further into a musical piece what emotion the piece is trying to convey; is it happy, sad, dreamy, etc. Our innate knowledge let's us understand that a slow song, often in minor, is somehow expressing a feeling of melancholy, whereas an upbeat song in major would suggest happiness. Rhythm of course also have a huge role in our understanding.
In my bachelor project, I researched on how music as a phenomenon is both biologically and culturally conditioned in terms of our understanding, interpretation and its status in the world as we know it. Music is a huge part of our everyday life as it is playing almost everywhere we turn; in the supermarket, on the radio, etc. We have endless possibilities to bring our own music with us and play it however and wherever we want, and other times we are "forced" to listen as it is used in commercials as mood enhancers, manipulating us in different ways. This all comes from the many sounds that make up music. A bird tweeting suggests freedom, happiness, and of course a location (in this case, being outside), whereas a scream immediately suggests that something dangerous is going on. High pitched noises often connote danger or something panicky, whereas lower notes are associated with something scary - or if they are conveyed in a slow, expressive manner, it expresses a feeling of intensity and melancholy.
Our understanding of sounds are a great part of the human evolution and by unconsciously employing our knowledge hereof, we are able to create musical pieces that expresses exactly what we want it to mean to us. Music is thus a language of its own, with its own syntax and semantics that together form a meaning. The beauty hereof is, that even an instrumental piece can convey strong emotions without anything other than sound directing your thoughts and understanding. This is also why the concept of music and the feelings toward it is such an individual thing. We all have our knowledge of the world, a special background, and memories connected to different periods of times that may remind us of a certain sound. Thus even a simple pop song with the most basic text, a love song for example, can mean the world to someone as it triggers some already stored feelings.
'...music is not only sonic, embodied, and interactive; it is bound to its contexts of occurrence in ways that enable it to derive meaning from, and interactively to confer meaning on, the experiential contexts in which it occurs, these meanings being variable and transposable’ (Cross 2003, 108)
This is the first part of a series of posts on the phenomenon of music. The theories of evolutionary psychology and bio-cultural reading will be recurrent in these posts as I find this perspective extremely interesting. I will also make an explanatory post soon on these theories that might help the reader understand the foundation for my thoughts.
Cross, Ian. 2003. ‘Music as a Biocultural Phenomenon’. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999: 1, 106-111. University of Cambridge.