The Cultural Listening Expereince

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Why do we love music?

Music has always astounded me. As long as I can remember music has moved me, and I didn’t really know why, even the cheesy pop songs with lyrics like, “my lip gloss is cool, my lip gloss be poppin’” held my attention for some reason. There is something indescribable about music that moves me. But recently I got my hands on this article by Caroline Desmond. Desmond sheds some light on how and why music might move us and argues that our listening experience may well be a cultural experience.

Why do we love music? Why does it move us? Why do some chords, melodies, rhythms cause us to mourn, dance, weep, reflect, and sing along? I’ve often wondered why there are some artists who tap into my soul and why some artists are better at getting me to empathize with them than others. Perhaps it’s them-they have felt what I have felt, or at least can empathize with me. Or maybe the reason lies in what culture has made of music.

Western culture has adapted meanings to certain musical sounds that we all, as “westerners,” can understand. This is our language of music. Music is not a “universal language”, much to the chagrin of those trying to “save the world” through music. The society in which Americans find themselves has culturally embedded itself with musical meaning; meaning that those of another culture-third-world Africa, or aboriginal Australia-may not understand. Why are there notes (for you musicians: a 7th (a leading tone) or a minor 2nd) that create in us such a yearning for resolution? Even the name “leading tone” is term that is culturally based. A leading tone “leads” to the tonic-the resolution.

For those of you none technically trained musicians, let me explain it this way: some have learned (and some teach) that a minor key sounds “sad.” This view was taken to be true in the classical and romantic time periods of musical writing-Bach, Beethoven, etc. But this didn’t always hold true. During the Renaissance, the minor keys were labeled the “sweeter” tonalities. Lately there’s been a trend in popular/club/dance music toward the minor key. But in these arrangements the minor key doesn’t seem to be seeking a “sad” sound. Maybe the reason is cultural defiance. Or, maybe it’s same reasoning behind the Renaissance use of the minor key, a desire to return to the lesser-heard, “sweeter” tonality of minor in the pop/club/dance context. Whatever the case, we begin to see that musical meaning rests in the arms of culture.

Musical listening cannot occur without culture, on a global or personal level. Not only does western culture bring meaning to music, but we personally bring our own meaning to the music we listen to. We would never have a “favorite song” that we could not personally identify with, even if it is culturally identifiable. This concept of the enculturation of music can unify, but also discriminate. Music we do not understand, because it does not make sense to our “western ears,” shouldn’t be deemed “lesser.” Take India for example. Rāga (melodic modes used in Indian classical music) contains notes we as western musicians don’t have, and aren’t even capable of producing on some instruments. To our ears this music is too chromatic and sounds out of tune. The use of a minor 2nd (what we in the west call “unresolved” or “leading tone”) is completely different in Indian music than it is in Western music. A global awareness of this could change how we view music of different cultures. This could lead to a changed view of people from different cultures, and has exponential possibilities to not only change music, but to change culture. So the next time you sit down to listen to your favorite tune know that you aren’t listening in a vacuum; that your culture has as much say on what “sounds good” to you, as your personal tastes do.




Caroline Desmond is finishing a master’s degree in music education at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. After teaching in the Virginia public schools for five years, Desmond currently works in the Washington D.C. suburbs as a conductor of children’s choirs, and has conducted honor choirs and lectured on music education in Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Minnesota, and New Jersey. She is interested in connecting children’s music education and excellence with culture and society.