Introspection # 33: Music as Communication

History has proven our predilection for the delivered word, especially in the form of the speech. When employed by orators with talent, the spoken word is an immensely powerful and moving tool. A strong, well-delivered speech can motivate, can convince, can inform, and can compel. It can instill in an audience a panoply of powerful emotions or provide them with unanticipated and unrecognized perspectives. The power of speech is evident in the reverence and respect given to some of history’s greatest speakers, the likes of John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet the vocal word is not the only tool that can be employed to such an end. Speeches do not stand alone as the medium through which emotion, ideas, and perspectives can be conveyed.

Music and melody are too capable of accomplishing what speeches often achieve. Who doesn’t feel moved or feel a strong emotional response to a sad or happy song? Who doesn’t feel compelled to action or motivated after listening to a “pump-up” song? Similar to how we seek out specific speeches on certain subjects when the circumstances call for it, we seek out certain songs and sounds. Similar to how we respect and revere the great speakers of history for the powers of their rhetorical talent, a manifestation of what their speeches do to us the listeners, we too respect and revere our most talented musicians and singers. Music is, like the speech, a powerful tool of communication. Music, like the speech, can inform, can motivate, can convince, can inform, and compel.

The connections between music and speech, between melody and the delivered word, are numerous and deep. We process and understand the two in similar manners; it is no wonder, then, that they are capable of similar powers. Music is socially consumed and interpreted as being meaningfully structured, produced, performed, and displayed; that is, rather than being a collection of patterns of sounds, music has meaning. Music is thereby the conveyance of ideas, a form of communication. Significant in the application of music as communication, the concept of communication does not need be an idea or action in and of itself, but rather the process where ideas are rendered meaningfully. In other words, music can be a powerful tool for communication not through the specific sounds themselves, but rather through our understanding and application of those sounds; “pump-up music” is not inherently motivational, but our understanding of what a heavy beat means is manifest in our excitement derived from it. Similar, words are consumed and interpreted with meaningful structure, yet too are simply patterns of sounds. Still, from the meaning we derive from our understanding of words, an understanding developed in the similar process of socialization and education that we come to understand music, we are conveyed ideas. Music and speech are thus intricately in the way we process and understand them.

As stated before, and manifest from the connection between music and speech, melody can elicit from us intense emotional responses. A happy song, like an upbeat speech, can make us feel happy. A sad song, like a sad speech, can make us feel sad. Similar to there being speeches appropriate for weddings or funerals, there are songs appropriate to weddings or funerals. Emotions are one of our main, and perhaps our most important, driving impulse. They are the context in which our thoughts, perspectives, and decisions are made. When we listen to a powerful speech, or a powerful song, we are emotionally manipulated; in effect, we are having our emotions changed by an intentional effort. From this manipulation, we are in a more capable position of making certain choices or seeing certain perspectives. Such, for example, is why we listen to a “pump-up” song, or an inspirational speech, before playing in a big game. We emotionally brace ourselves for the situations that we are encountering or about to encounter. Such is the approach we take to these equally powerful forms of communication.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t enjoy music. It is a pervasive element of our society; indeed, of societies and civilizations spanning the globe and throughout history. Yet, while music surrounds us constantly in our daily lives, its power as a tool of communication, and our application of it as such, is perhaps under recognized and undervalued. Just as we are not all talented speakers or speechwriters, we are not all musicians and singers. Though we appreciate both speech and music, we do not all endeavor to develop the skills needed for them in ourselves. Yet, just like speaking, musical skill is not an innate and immutable talent. It is something that, through practice and study, can be developed and improved. Perhaps, then, in order to become more convincing and more capable individuals, we should also focus some of our energies on developing our musical talents. It need not be a neglected tool of communication which we constantly indulge in without understanding or readily acknowledging its capabilities.

Being Snowed-In At Boston: A Reflection

Most students would probably be enthused over missing half a week of class due to snow. Yet, after day seven of being stuck in an odd-smelling, increasingly cramped hotel room in Boston, I was looking forward toward nothing less than being back. By Tuesday the 17th of February, I, along with 14 other McDaniel students, had been in Boston for over a week. At first we had been participating in the 2015 Harvard Model United Nations simulation; later in our trip, we had become stranded student survivors of a super-sized snowstorm. Our flight back to Maryland was scheduled for a Sunday. Mother Nature had decided to drop more than 8 inches on Boston that Saturday. We wouldn’t be sleeping in the comfort of our own beds until the early morning of Wednesday.

Money had quickly run out. Boston is by no means a cheap city. Think 4 dollars for a piece of toast expensive. I’m speaking from experience here (avoid the sports bars). I watched, hopelessly, as the savings in my bank account were cut clearly in half over the span of my stay. The wi-fi in the hotel was limited, so limited that many of us couldn’t complete or access our school assignments. And streaming Netflix during those long, boring days in the hotel? Don’t even think about it. Laundry was out of the question, for the hotel wasn’t providing laundry services, and there was no way we could make a 7-block trek to the nearest Laundromat in blizzard conditions. Perhaps Junior Bilal Ali, a student on the trip, best summed up not only the laundry, but the entire experience, when he said, to a reporter at the Boston Globe, that “it stinks.”

However, to say all of this perhaps makes us seem like entitled twerps. That’s how some Boston residents felt about our story, which they made clear in the Boston Globe article’s comments section. To be fair, our struggle was, in the grand scheme of things, a minimal affair. Boston residents have been suffering through relentless snow for over a month. We’re lucky here in Maryland that 3 inches of snow constitute a freak-out response. Yet, for those of us in Boston, our struggle was real enough. Nobody expects to be stuck in a hotel room past their expected date of departure. Nobody wants to deal with a lack of money, inability to access homework, distance from friends and family, smelly clothes, or the cabin fever (hotel fever?) that eventually settles in.

Of course, in some ways, being snowed in at Boston was a blessing in disguise. It gave us the opportunity to explore an incredible city, an opportunity we would have otherwise missed. It provided us the time to connect with students from all over the globe, to make foreign connections, and to learn a little bit more about the world in which we live. Most importantly to me, it gave us the chance to get closer with each other, to develop stronger friendships, and to laugh by blowing the significance of an inconvenient trip delay wildly out of proportion. Perhaps Bilal was right in that our being snowed in “stinks.” But, Bilal, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

Simon de Beauvoir on “the Other” and Women

The philosophical concept of the “Other” has served as a foundational basis for self-identity and social identity throughout the breadth of human thought and consciousness; “Otherness” refers to those and that which are separate and distinct from the “Real” or “Absolute.” Recognition and acknowledgment of another’s “Otherness” allows one to define themselves through a duality of qualities; for whatever qualities or characteristics they possess, the “Other” is set up to possess the distinct opposite. The subject can only posit itself through an opposition, asserting itself as an essential while setting up the “Other” as an inessential; an “object,” as Hegel puts it. In this introduction, Simon de Beauvoir explored the concept of the “Other,” extending it beyond conventional examples and applying it to the position and status of women in relation to their male counterparts.

To define the concept of the “Other,” Beauvoir utilizes a number of examples which demonstrate this duality of qualities. Alterity is a fundamental character of human thought, she says, as demonstrated by the conceptualization of Day-Night, Good-Evil, Sun-Moon, and God-Devil. Anti-Semites find an “Other” in the Jews, who likewise find an “Other” in the Gentiles. Poor whites can find solace in their otherwise destitute conditions by creating an “Other” out of, as Beauvoir puts it, “filthy niggers.” The bourgeoisie feel threatened by the rising status of the “Other” that is the proletariat. Then there is the case of women, who are made into an “Other” by men without reciprocity. The man, as conceptualized in philosophical thought tracing back to the foundations of the West, is “Absolute;” the man represents the positive and neutral of innate humanity, the man is right by virtue of being a man. The woman, however, is a negative, a “peculiarity” as Beauvoir describes it; a female is, like Aristotle argued, a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. Beauvoir points out this conceptual trend throughout works of Western thought: in the Genesis story, Eve the woman is not innately human, but rather created out of the bone of the man. Michelet writes of woman as the “relative being.” Saint Thomas decreed that woman was an “incomplete man, an ‘incidental’ being.”

What is particularly striking about this exploration of female “Otherness” is how it details its distinct nature from the “Otherness” of other groups. The Jew or the Black understand their groups to be “we,” and create an “Other” out of the Gentile or White; they are in position to, Beauvoir posits, turn all of Humanity Jewish or Black, thereby eliminating any “Otherness.” Women, however, do not think of themselves as “we;” rather, they think of themselves as “women.” From the biological necessity to cohabitate and cooperate with men in a world developed by men, women have not only been subjected to “Otherness,” they have been co-opted into believing they are indeed an “Other.” A man, Beauvoir points out, may think himself without woman, yet the woman does and cannot think herself without man. Such is, perhaps, why the woman, despite constituting half the human population, despite being intricately interconnected with the man, despite the man relying upon her for livelihood and reproduction, is still, as Beauvoir puts it, a “vassal,” who, in all things being equal, will still receive less pay, less respect, and less opportunities.