The Communicative Power Of Instrumental Music

Analogous
Analagous is the monthly column of Jeff Pearson.

“Let us share some thoughts, feelings, and meditate on life using the vehicle of universal music. Music is food for the soul.

I hope each of us finds something special in this short journey together.” – Anonymous

There are several ways to listen to music. There is, of course, the listener who simply hears the music as opposed to listening, which we are all guilty of at some point or another—thoughts can be incredibly clouding when it comes to actually trying to pay attention to something—but that’s neither here nor there. Some listeners act as a canvas for the broad brushstrokes of emotion to be painted upon; perhaps the listener doesn’t take in the full meaning or context of the song, but is moved by the tones with which it is performed. This is actually the closest definition to how I personally listen to music, though it wasn’t always that way. It took a specific song to pull me away from the other type of listening, where the only gateway into the songwriter’s head is the words they put into mine. There are, of course, many styles of music and individual songs where the lyrics tell the story, and the music itself is more like the train that story rides in on. At this point in my life, I am more interested in music that inspires me to feel something simply through those broad brushstrokes, that allows me to interpret its meaning through the emotions that the song simply brings with it. Instrumental music is what allows that type of interpretation the most, giving the listener the sounds but allowing them to write their own story built upon the emotions they elicit. For this reason, the various types of listening are all equally important; it’s sometimes necessary to take what the songwriter says and allow them to paint the picture for you, but at others you’re just given the paint, asked to turn your feelings into words.

I can vividly remember the first time instrumental music stirred me emotionally, painting a picture in my head that I’ll never forget. I was fresh out of high school, sitting in a community college classroom not unlike those that I was scratching and clawing my way out of only three months prior, in a Music Appreciation class. Up until that point the music that I had always taken to was the classic rock of my parents, Pink Floyd’s dark vision of the world being the sounds that spoke to me the loudest (which perhaps still remains to be true). I took the class not only because it was a requirement for my ill-fated Business Management major, but because I thought, “Hey. I appreciate music. Easy ‘A.’” Well, it was an easy ‘A;’ that part I had right. What I didn’t know was how little I had appreciated music until that point. An eighteen-year old kid in Athens, Georgia, I had hardly stepped foot out of the Southeast. However, when my professor played for the class a piece by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, I was suddenly transported to the edge of an unfamiliar river, the hilly terrain smattered with castles and ruins surrounding the winding waterway something not tied to my memories—I’ve never even seen a castle save for Hyrule’s[1], but something tells me that doesn’t count. The piece, composed in the late nineteenth century, was the second of six symphonic poems making up the orchestral ode to Smetana’s homeland called “Má Vlast,” the section of the piece that is meant to describe the Vltava River coursing through the country, beginning in two small springs and joining as a unified, surging body of water, making its way through the country, the sights and sounds of the people and places it passes by flitting through the composition. I could practically feel the water rushing over me, the sounds of the current splashing against the rocks below the majestic Vyšehrad. To feel the limitless potential of a simple melody as a transportive vessel, much like the descriptive words in a book, was a breakthrough for me. It was then that I truly learned how to listen to instrumental music.

What is really interesting is that people somehow don’t need to be told these things to feel what the music is meant to make them feel. It has recently been discovered that musical moods can communicate a lot more than we previously thought. A study in 2009 conducted by Thomas Fritz of the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences tested the reactions in both Western listeners and a portion of native African population known as the Mafa where they were played Western pop music and asked to identify what feelings the shifts in tone or rhythm were brought on. The Mafa subjects were able to discern the different emotions meant to be conveyed through the music, whether it be feelings of happiness, sadness, or fear, above chance. The study was a breakthrough in forwarding the thought that music might be the world’s only universal language. Though no ideas or emotions are expressed explicitly through music, the reactions that are invoked within listeners are nearly universal.

The most obvious, and perhaps purest, form of emotional expression brought on through music is, of course, dancing. We hardly need to be told twice when a roiling four-on-the-floor beat thunders through a PA system that it is time to flail our bodies around in whatever semblance of rhythmic dancing we can conjure up. The urge to dance hasn’t always been merely a response to earth-shattering bass, however. In many cultures dance and the music that propels it is a means of communicating in the deepest sense of the word, connecting not only physically, but spiritually as well. Dance music extends as far back as written records exist, and particularly in African culture, dance was the primary means of communicating through music. Many tribes in Africa still practice the art of dance as a means to connect with a higher power, to share their joy of living and give thanks. Chuck Davis, the founder of the Dance Africa festival, understands the power of music in celebrating what it means to be alive, stating, “Dance is life. Dance is spirit. It’s in everything we do, and that’s particularly true of African dance.”

Artists are no strangers to the concept of communicating through more than words.[2] In a 2001 interview with Jambase, Sound Tribe Sector 9’s drummer Zach Velmer spoke on his band’s intentions on moving people spiritually with their instrumental performances, saying, “What we’re trying to do is just keep truth. Keep truth of our intentions and share with these people. Make these people go home and take the inspiration and the love and the fun-ness (if that’s a word) home and do their art. That’s what we promote - Time Is Art. Once we get all these people doing their art, then it’s just off the hook. Then it’s just a carnival, a celebration of life – love in full effect. That’s what it’s all about.” Velmer touched upon very early in Sound Tribe Sector 9’s career what they believe they had the power of communicating to a crowd without ever picking up a microphone. It speaks to the uplifting nature of their music that a room full of people at completely different stages of their lives can go home from a show with a unified idea and energy, that they can be driven to the same goal. Besides instilling the obvious urge to dance until you’re practically slipping in your collected sweat on the ground, Sound Tribe Sector 9 seeks to enlighten their audience and push them to create their art and participate in whatever way they can.

One of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time, J Dilla’s Donuts, also happens to be one of the greatest purveyors of the concept of eliciting feeling simply through strong emotional undertones in the music. Dilla was wheelchair-bound, slicing up samples from his hospital bed, doing everything he could to get Donuts to the public and deliver his last messages as lupus took its final toll on his body. Though not instrumental in the traditional sense, Donuts sees Dilla cut vocal samples in such a way that the record plays like his goodbye to the world, and as a whole the cyclical nature of life. The circumstances behind the recording of Donuts are what make those messages so profound. Dilla’s illness had forced his hand in a way, leaving music as his only form of communication. As The Roots’ Questlove put in back in February, “If you analyze everything that’s said on Donuts—from ‘Workinonit,’ (where the sample says I’m still working—’cause that’s the thing, he was confined to a wheelchair, he really couldn’t talk, he was half his weight. To see him would freak you out and frighten you. And then he’d press play and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute!’ And that’s when it hits you, like, ‘Oh, OK, the brain and the creativity inside him are still the same even though the physicality is different.’” Perhaps never before have emotion and communication been so importantly tied together in music.

Music and communication have always gone hand in hand. There are of course ways that messages can only be conveyed through lyrical interpretations, but I find that some of the most intense and enriching emotional experiences have come through purely instrumental movements. From the very first time that my mind stepped foot on the shores of the Vyšehrad, a river I have never, probably will never truly step foot on the shores of, I have found that communication is a completely different concept than words.


1. Not so coincidentally, if I hear any six-note motif I learned long ago on my Ocarina as a fresh-faced Link (or as I always named him, Bojangle) while playing Legend Of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time on my Nintendo 64, I am immediately taken to the corresponding area. Whether it be the slow, country twang of “Epona’s Song” reminding me of the first time young Bojangle met his soon-to-be mare or bottled his first batch of Lon Lon Milk, or how “Saria’s Song” lit my way through the labyrinth of the Lost Woods, those songs are deeply connected to memory, and to feelings.

2. Even Extreme!

About Jeff Pearson

Jeff's life as a musical fan has very distinct shifts in attitude: the early years were fueled by crackly cassette tapes and popular radio on the way to school with his mom -- Gloria Estefan's "Conga" was inexplicably played into oblivion on his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles In Time tape -- while high school's listening was characterized by classic rock and jam music, catalyzed by a first listen of Pink Floyd's Animals on a drive home from Barnes & Noble around Christmastime with his sister, and finally his twenty-something's world was completely burst apart by a pitch-black-basement experience with Sigur Rós' ( ). He is also a life-long Atlanta Braves fan whose favorite season is, ironically, autumn. Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffrpearson.
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