An American Idol Safari: Musical Language

You might believe there to be two universal languages: math and music. I had always thought this was true since I first heard it, and have used it for my own purposes to justify music education (yes, in my teaching classes we learn tactics to save our jobs. Sad). But recently, a friend of mine brought something new to my attention. There are musicians who often cross cultural boundaries — ethnomusicologists and such — that claim music is not a universal language whatsoever.

Wait, what?

Music as a universal language seems like an easy enough idea. We believe it to be so globally understood because melody and harmony illicit physical responses that do not require the weight of words. We can listen to Spanish pop, Italian opera, Mexican mariachi, or Canadian folk and understand the emotional message. So there’s your background. Moving on.

Music is a language, and as a language it evolves, degrades, blends, expands, etc. etc. I think a great example would be American Idol. For the last ten years, it has been at the peak of popular culture in our country and exemplifies — if not pioneers — the way we listen to popular music and popular music’s changing culture. So, rewind to when you were a pre-teen and listen to Kelly Clarkson’s winning performance in 2002:

Mm! Such good memories. Now it’s time for observations. We’re going to act like ethnomusicologists now. Ready?

This American Idol concert is now our “field,” so let’s make some field notes. Start simple.

She sang in English (duh), she was emotional (again, duh), she interacted with the audience, the backup band was a recording (either that or they’re very sneaky), the audience made noise verbally and non-verbally in support, and they were fairly well lit. Let’s stop there.

Make sense? What we’ve observed are “cultural codes.” According to author Mat Schwarzman,

All communities have cultural codes to signify their most important shared agreements and values — “I will cross at the crosswalk because that’s where drivers agree to stop for pedestrians,” “I will go to school because I believe it leads to a more fulfilling career,” etc.

These codes include many things, from team mascots (Go, [Gophers]!)  to historical community incidents (Were you around when…) to maps (That’s where the [Mississippi] river is) to well known individuals. Cultural codes can be expressed through a song, a statue, a phrase, or any image that sparks strong feelings and associations.

Cultural codes are powerful. They shape our thoughts, our dreams, what groups we identify with, everything down to our most basic sense of reality.

You might not realize it, but any concert audience you’ve been a part of has gone through steps that are culturally specific. We know the appropriate moments to applaud, the appropriate way to applaud, the appropriate action to take when the lights dim, etc. (I did lights at an all-Somali high school graduation recently, and realized that very little of the audience had any sense for what to do when the houselights dim. Suddenly, my entire job had no purpose!). The concert-going atmosphere becomes our tiny “reality” and most of us don’t think about how anything else could be different.

Okay? Okay. Now we compare. Here’s Nevena Covena’s winning performance in the first Bulgarian Idol of 2007:

Did you “get it”? If not, that’s okay. We’re talking about music as a language, and if you haven’t grown up hearing Bulgarian music, you just listened to a foreign language.

Field Notes: She sang a Bulgarian folk song in Bulgarian; there was a live bagpiper, positioned equally onstage with Nevena, though not lit equally; the audience’s reaction was non-verbal; only a specific section of the audience was standing in the beginning, and the rest was sitting (did you notice that?); the seats were not positioned in a way that would let the Nevena interact with the audience, and they were poorly lit; outwardly, Nevena’s emotions were in check.

All of these fall under “performance practice” that make up the structure and exercise of a performance, which goes beyond what the musician is doing. It would seem that the Bulgarian Idol focused more highly on the accompanying instrument and less (very little, actually) on the audience’s reaction. Does this mean that Americans are more interested in critical response?

There are other cultural codes that are at work also. We could also talk about the stage, the lighting, the camera movement, the specific audience members seen on camera, the use of the microphone, and Kelly’s clothes, not to mention the actual music they sang.

Maybe music isn’t so universal as we thought. Maybe music is like a language, and it needs patience and practice to understand, both as the performer and as the listener. So, what do you think? Is music still a universal language to you, or not? And is that good or bad?