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  • Michael Spencer

Soundings: communications…Confuciu…and kanji

By Michael Spencer

Spending  much of my time as I do flitting between Japan and the UK in my work for Sound Strategies, I decided to set myself the challenge of attempting to learn the Kanji, the Chinese characters imported into the Japanese language some 1,200 or more years ago.

There is a whole range of underlying meanings behind many of these characters which gives a depth and subtlety in nuance of which Westerners are seldom aware.

As a musician, one such coalition of characters I find particularly intriguing…


‘ongaku’.   This same character when combined with the character for ‘faith’ produces the word ‘onshin’ or communication.


A subtle and potent combination from which to start an exploration into the world of sound and its role in social exchange.

Its just this sort of example that I hope to draw upon at the International Association of Business Communicator’s EuroComm conference in Barcelona on 5 February 2008, which will be considering all aspects of Innovation through Communication.


Confucius said that ‘Music feeds social relationships’, and these days music can embrace a wide variety of sounds and cultures.  As the avant-garde composer John Cage once commented “which is the most musical, a truck driving past a factory, or a truck driving past a music school.”

My own musical journey from the London Symphony Orchestra via a position as Head of Education at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden has given me a considerable exposure to the sounds of different cultures, not only classical,  and the way in which they are used to cement social bonds, pass messages, and lend a sense of identity.

For one very simple example which is known only too well by all football lovers, and probably even by those not so enamoured of the sport. Click here

The way in which this has spread virally across the globe is an extraordinary phenomenon due in no small part to the exposure of large scale sporting events by the media.  To a lesser extent, the same is true of Pavarotti’s ‘gift’ of Nessun Dorma to football.  But it was not planned as such.

An older example can be found from the propaganda machines in WW2 where the iconic ‘V for Victory’ hand gesture was combined via its Morse code equivalent, into a powerful message for the unification of purpose. Click here.

Because of technological advance we are now just beginning to realise how hot wired we are in our relationship with sound.  Neuroscience is now beginning to reveal the dance across the brain that takes place in the processing of musical stimuli in areas far more numerous that those involved in deciphering language.

Our bonds are created from our early pre-natal stirrings, and it has been shown that sounds played to the foetus can be recognised by the child up to one year after its birth.

As an aid to memory and the preservation of language, history, genealogies and spiritual wisdom song has an extended legacy reaching back through the Nordic saga tradition to the legends of Orpheus.  In Japan the dissemination of news was frequently the role of the blind biwa players (a type of lute) who during the 17th and 18th centuries were one of the few groups people allowed to travel freely from town to town during the Edo period, and in Nigeria there is a long tradition of the use of the talking drum for spreading news.

In the constantly evolving world of corporate communications do we still use this sonic channel to the maximum effect?