Music and Communication

Musical note

English is now a common language around the world, but for thousands of centuries, people from different areas of the world have made contact without sharing much or any common language, and let’s face it – many still do. But have you ever thought about the way people communicated long ago, before formal languages even existed? Doesn’t that make you think about the different ways in which people may communicate now, even when they do not share a common language? In the early stages of human life, music was probably used more for communication than for pleasure: drums, horns and bells, even the human voice; pitched to carry many miles. Some researchers believe that early forms of human language developed from communication through music, and certainly music continues to fulfil many functions in different cultures today.

We can take a look at nature for one example of how music is used as a form of communication; birds are an excellent example of one of the many living creatures who can communicate by making meaningful, but musical sounds. Birds can “talk” with one another in sophisticated ways even though they do not have the kind of tongue or teeth you need to form words. From the early morning birdsong, that is music to the human ear, which is used for courtship, mating and to establish territories, to the call that there is no mistaking, when one bird warns others of the presence of a dangerous cat or snake. And before you say, that’s for the birds, some cultures still use languages, which to the uninitiated would simply sound like whistling and tweeting, for example “El Silbo”, a whistled language spoken by the inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, it was developed to enable communication across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate through the island, and the best thing is you don’t get an “out of range” message when you use it.

Even today, music is one of the few ways in which people can connect with each other without language, it is one way in which cultures can not only identify themselves but also communicate with each other and find common ground. Think of a culture that’s very different to your own; one that you have noticed for some reason or other, but don’t know very much about. You’ll probably get an instant mental picture of the people of that culture and perhaps have some impression of their language, art and music, too. These sights and sounds can leave a deep impression on us. The sights and sounds of a particular culture may affect us without our fully understanding the meaning of their importance within that culture.

Even though we don’t always have the time or opportunity to explore the subtleties of the music of another culture, there is always a meaning behind the sounds. Sometimes that meaning is quite basic, at other times, the meaning can be very complex and strongly connected to the beliefs and practices of that culture. For example: there’s no mistaking a soothing lullaby whatever the language, or there may be an ice cream van in the neighbourhood which announces its presence with a familiar tune. Then there are church bells that use music to call people to worship, or to celebrate or convey information about other important events, and during these events, be they marriages or deaths, certain music will be played. At sporting events, like the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics, a variety of national anthems are sung, each one reflecting something about the culture of that country. And if you still don’t believe music can convey a message, try watching a scary film or a romance with the sound turned off, during the era of silent films music was used to set the scene and convey emotion, and that tradition carries on today.

Of course music is now part of the commercial world, we place great importance on today’s musical stars, so much so that they can reflect or attempt to change public opinion; music is often used as a way of expressing protest, it played a huge role in the anti Vietnam war movement, and nowadays there isn’t a disaster in the world that doesn’t get its own song to raise money or awareness. Let’s face it, we’re all at it; whenever we send a friend or loved one a song link through the internet, or make a compilation CD for someone we like, we are using music as a form of communication, and you can certainly learn a lot about someone from the kind of music they listen to, one of the main sections on profiles in social websites is “Favourite Music”.

There’s something inside humans, and other animals, that recognises and responds to sound arranged as music. Perhaps music is even more important than language in helping people from different cultures to connect with and understand one another.