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What Does Music Communicate?

The sounds, rhythms and melodies of music combine to communicate to its listeners.
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Shakespeare's love-sick Duke Orsino pleaded that "if music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die." People turn to music, hoping it will express what seems too big for mere words. Poets praise it, scientists analyze it and musicians wield it as their most precious tool. According to an article from Rowan University, Plato thought music was so powerful, it should be censored. Music communicates emotion, culture, movement and stories.

Music Arouses Emotion

Music can both communicate the emotion of the artist and arouse the emotion of the listener, making it a two-way channel. Philosophers and scientists have studied this phenomenon, struggling to give concrete reasons for why this is so -- whether it was a particular vibration of a string or the tonality of the music. Some philosophers are of the school that emotions are purely dictated by our own experiences and how we interpret music while others believe the music itself arouses specific emotions regardless of experience.

Music Communicates and Crosses Culture

In a less esoteric fashion, music communicates culture. Certain music becomes associated with particular nationalities, ethnicity, religious groups or subcultures. Appalachian mountain music, the grandmother of bluegrass and classic country, has a very different sound and communicates a different culture than Japanese taiko music played by large drum ensembles. Music may bridge cultures when different forms meet, and create new genres. For example, according to music producer and film director Mark Shimmel, "Hip-hop is the singular most important melding of black and white cultures that has ever existed in the United States.” In the Middle East, Argentinean-Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim and late Palestinian-American activist Edward Said created the West-Eastern Divan to bring young musicians together from Israel and the Arab world for musical training.

Music Inspires Movement

Music makes us move. “Music sets us in motion -- dancing, marching or just tapping our toes. The combination of music and motion can also lead to an emotional response, making one feel romantic, patriotic, or just happy or sad,” said Dartmouth researcher Thalia Wheatley. Syncopated movement helps children develop language. "Movement is an absolute necessity for a toddler, and music stimulates the best kinds of movement," said Don Campbell, author of "The Mozart Effect."

Music Narrates Stories and Meaning

Aristotle wrote that music imitates the world around us. In this role, music communicates a story, meaning and intentions. Drums can beat out military messages, marches may stir people to battle and political songs may inspire people to take action. Ballads, ballets and operas tell stories both literal and metaphorical. Movie soundtracks communicate the arrival of a villain or the death of a hero. Symphonic "program music" was a form of classical music that attempted to tell a story through instrumental music alone, such as Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel."

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