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Soundings: Music isn’t (just) a language

Music isn’t (just) a language

A phrase to beware of: ‘Music is a universal language’. It usually gets trotted out by someone at a particularly inspirational moment when it appears as if the whole world is dancing to the same tune – usually a Western rock classic. One rather dubious variant on the theme implies that everyone, anywhere, will instinctively appreciate music based on the European tonal harmonies of melody, chords, bass. The ‘universal language’ theory, however, can be sorely tested when the same person is faced with a particularly complex qawwali improvisation, a neatly turned tee-hi or an enigmatic kouta. Place our universalist in a full blast thrash metal gig and the theory rapidly disintegrates altogether.

Music operates largely at socio-cultural levels. It enhances both the inclusion and exclusion aspects of tribal behaviour, and even if certain iconic elements can be found in almost every musical culture, their existence is largely obscured by the socio-cultural associations surrounding the music in question. Punk rock is musically pretty basic and not difficult to analyse in purely technical terms, but its nihilistic anti-social message ensures that it would never be included in the pantheon of big ‘universal language’ tunes.

The intricacies of how music can operate simultaneously on several different levels – symbolic, iconic, rhetorical, Pavlovian – tend to be lost on the average advertising or marketing specialist. With the consequence that their musical choices, when it comes to putting it to use as a marketing tool, can be largely hit or miss. The fact is that creatives rarely have the knowledge or awareness to tap into the psychodynamics of sound in the same way that they instinctively take into account established research on visual and textual semiotics.

But it’s also true that, although research into how music affects us is multiplying monthly, there have been few attempts so far to pull together the various disparate strands in a way that might benefit a hard pressed ad agency. Philip Ball is a science writer whose latest book, The Music Instinct (Bodley Head), is as clear an explanation you will currently find, managing to derive truly universal conclusions from a global study of music in all cultures. It thus avoids the Euro-centric bias often found in other attempts to explain music’s workings. But, like every writer about music that ever existed, he soon becomes entangled in the difficulties of describing what we hear, unable to proceed without recourse to conventional musical technical language. And of course he stops short of considering music merely as a marketing tool.

So – in anticipation of Sound Strategies’ own Guide to Making Music Work for You – here is a snippet to whet the appetite: effective music works by establishing a delicate balance between the expected and the unexpected. It teases you into paying attention, simultaneously feeding the need for confirmation and the appetite for novelty. It’s a form of rational addiction.

Andrew Peggie

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