Writing about World Music

Section F, Fall 2016

Author: lugarcia

Music and Images

Some of my favorite things to listen to are soundtracks. I really enjoy particularly the classical aspects of the soundtracks of movies and this tends to be what my study music is. However, I also like to just listen to the soundtracks and picture in my mind a particular scene from the movie where this melody is heard. Surprisingly to me, when I focus on the music and connect it to the scene, the scene tends to have the words muted as I focus on the background music and what the characters are doing. It has also happened to me, in two different forms, that after having heard the soundtrack by itself and then watching the movie I recall the differences between the recorded soundtrack by itself and how it sounds when combined with the movie. This is for movies I had watched before listening to the soundtrack by itself. There have also been movies, however, that I have watched based on having first listened to the soundtrack. In this case, I enjoy recognizing specific parts of the soundtrack within the movie and I am sometimes able to recall something I was doing while I listened to it without watching the movie.

Something related that I have experienced recently is listening to a classical song that does not come from a soundtrack and picturing in my mind scenes of imaginary movies to which the particular song would fit as a soundtrack. If I am listening to a sad melody, I tend to picture a sad scene in a movie and base it off of movie scenes I already know. I find this is a good way for me to relax as I listen to the music and give my mind a rest by creating scenes and inciting my creativity.

Deaf Perception of Music

Many hearing people have the notion that deaf people are unable to enjoy music. However, this notion is false. Deaf people experience music in a non conventional way–visually and physically. There is a physical aspect to all music as you can feel the rhythm and the vibration which allows deaf people to experience the music. There are several Deaf organizations that facilitate the music experiences. One such organization is the Chicago Deaf and Hard Of Hearing Cultural Center, which aims to network and connect the communities of the hearing, the hard of hearing, and the deaf. Music in general is felt physically–the booming of the bass, the drums. In places where the music is loud, one can feel the ground vibrating and the body pulsing with the music. For deaf people, these sensations are even more developed than for hearing people ans this is how they “tune in” to music and what comprises their musical experience. The Deaf community also expresses songs visually in order to enhance the experience of those who cannot hear the music.

This article delves deeper into music in the deaf community and discusses an interesting story of a particular musician.


Music Friendships

My orchestra teacher in high school, Mrs. Ida Steadman, emphasized the culture of small ensemble playing as part of our orchestra curriculum. Every spring we would have “T-Bird Festival” (the school mascot was the thunderbird) where everyone had to participate in an ensemble—trios or quartets all of the same instrument or different instruments. My first year I participated in a violin quartet and the year after that in a violin trio. Mrs. Steadman emphasized the importance of ensemble playing and how it was something fun to do with friends and something you could do even when you were old. I, however, did not get the sense of comradery and “fun thing to do” from the groups I was in. There was this one group, however, that seemed to embody what Mrs. Steadman meant. It was a quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—and, in contrast to my groups, they had played together three years in a row already, having met freshman year. This group had it all—the best players in the school, they were all friends, and watching them was fascinating just in how they fit together, how they flowed as one with the music. It was my junior year that I stopped admiring from outside and actually had the opportunity to be part of this experience. As the festival grew close, the second violin of the group became ill and was going to be unable to perform. As my ensemble had not qualified for the actual festival, Mrs. Steadman asked me to join the group as the second violin. I remember being very nervous and insecure about my playing level compared to those of the other players in the quartet and practicing extra to try to play at their level. With hard work, I am proud to say, I was able to learn the music well. However, this was not what I considered my most valuable gain. Attending all the practices that the quartet held gave me the opportunity to experience the sense of group and togetherness that Mrs. Steadman had talked about. I developed friendships in this group that felt different from other friendships I had and I could also see the kinds of friendships the other players in the group had with each other—grown over three years of practicing and playing together. In a cliché way you could say, they were people joined by music.

My senior year I did not participate in the orchestra and thus did not take part in the ensemble festival. This group, however, stayed together and performed “one last piece before parting ways”, in the words of the quartet’s violist. Although I was not part of the ensemble this time, I attended many of their practices and furthered my friendships and connections with them. The connections expanded beyond playing as I no longer played yet still somewhat formed part of the group.

Music and Religion

Over fall break I participated in an Interfaith trip to Washington D. C. where we visited different houses of worship. The majority of the services had some musical component to them but three in particular were largely musical–the service in a conservative Jewish synagogue, the mass in a Russian Orthodox Church, and the festival in a Hindu temple.

The service in the Jewish temple was one of my favourites as it was very peaceful and very beautiful. The service was given in Hebrew for the most part and involved the recitation of the Torah in a melodic manner; other parts of the service were also sung. Although I did not understand the words recited, the atmosphere created by the sounds surrounding me was soothing and matched the religious mood of the service. I the singing throughout the service very beautiful and experienced how it untied the people not only spiritually but physically as, looking around, I could see people swaying and matching the melodic recitation. Through this service, music provided further veneration of the texts and the meaning of the service.

The Russian Orthodox Church was similar in its serious deliverance of the mass and also in that it was predominantly musical. The service was delivered melodically in that the priest hardly spoke normally but rather intoned the words. The choir was constant in the background, occasionally playing more when actually performing a song.  As a result, the service was hard to follow, as we were unaccustomed to it, since the words were not clear. The architecture of the church also created echo and trapped in the sounds making it harder to understand. Despite this, the atmosphere created felt sacred and made you feel at peace. The music and the intonations of the priest combined into a single music to create a sensory experience that provided a perception of more than just the words of the service. In this service, the music also emphasized the veneration of the whole mass and of what it represents to the believers of that faith.

The experience in the Hindu temple was very different from both the synagogue and the Orthodox church. We visited for the celebration of the festival of Navratri and it was very lively. They had us sit down on the floor on thick rugs and a group of two or three men played music as the people filed in. The two performers I remember were two men, one playing an accordion-like instrument and the other keeping a beat with the drums–both instruments were traditional Indian instruments. The man playing the accordion was also singing as the people in the temple, sitting all around us, clapped along. This immersion that we experienced into this culture made me think of the contrast between cultures, Western and non-Western, as the music was drastically different from what we had listened to in the previous services. The services themselves seemed to differ on the role that music played although in reality all three served as veneration of the subject of the service and in all three music was present during the whole service. What I thought was really different was the atmosphere created in the different services as the Jewish and Orthodox services were serious and peaceful while the Hindu service/festival was lively and exciting. The music in the Hindu service was very upbeat–faster paced and lighter singing–while the music in the previous services was somber and slower.

Music in the different religious services served a similar purpose of veneration through more than words and was also essential in creating a fitting atmosphere that allowed the people to better connect to the service.

Music in Different Languages

A few days ago, my roommate was showing me the Korean shows she watches—specifically ones with a similar premise to American shows such as The Voice or American Idol. In particular I was interested in a show that had to do with one of the largest and most popular groups in Korea. She showed me a few of their performances and one was particularly interesting to me because they sang in Spanish. I had just asked her why this Korean band had so many songs in English (although really they were covers) and then she showed me this group’s performance in Mexico City where they performed popular Spanish songs singing in Spanish. I found this interesting in how this Korean musical group had made the effort to learn popular songs from the country and made me think of how this created a connection between the performers and the observers.

The adaptation of the Korean group to their audience in Mexico City led me to think of how there are many songs that have been sung by many different people and how this has occasionally resulted in the most popular version of the song not being the original and thus the original artist is somewhat obscured. It has happened to me before that I will think I know the original song and then later realize that that version I know is in fact one of many derived from a much older song. This has happened to me, in fact, between languages. Meaning that I will learn a song I knew in English is actually originally in French. An example of this is the song “La Vie en Rose” originally written in French by the French artist Edith Piaf. The first version of this song I knew was the Louis Armstrong version, with the prominent trumpet solo, sung in English and when I learned that it was actually a French song, I looked for the lyrics to understand the song. I found out that the English  translation does not follow the French words and also found versions of the song in English sang by Edith Piaf herself. This made me realize how within the music industry, different approaches—regarding language in particular—are taken to better connect with an audience or to expand the appeal of the music through increased understanding and relatability. I think this connects with two different aspects we have discussed in class—the Western influence evident in non-Western music (which is sometimes followed by the commercialization of that music) and the synthesized “world music” sounds we discussed regarding ads. In both of these examples, the foreign in incorporated with the purpose of providing something to the audience, seeking to satisfy their expectations.


Reading about how world music is synthesized to be used in certain ads reminded me of what I learned during one of my academic decathlon years when the topic was India. We looked at various traditional Indian music styles—from different areas, religions, and for different purposes—and also at music in the movie industry of Bollywood. I found it very interesting that the music created for movies was very unique not only in the world scene but also within India so as to be a genre in itself. This movie music, while containing many  traditional elements, also has many modern aspects that provide it the quality of Bollywood music. Much like some of the stories found in Bollywood movies, the music draws on Western influence and combines it with traditional Indian music to provide something that fits in with the film. The two examples we focused on mainly, told stories of love within the respective movies. And I remember in one of them in particular, there is a segment where a string orchestra is heard in the back. This represents the Western influence in the music as it is from an orchestra with a Western formation. This introduction of more Western aspects in the music, had to be done gradually and in small measures to ensure the acceptance of it by the Indian public as they sought to identify themselves and Indian life through the movies and thus traditional elements in the music were key to this identification.

In the case of Bollywood music, we see the opposite of the ads as discussed in class since these sought to bring to Western viewers the exotic experience of world music by synthesizing non-Western tunes. I find this interesting as the West has “brought” Western culture to multiple non-Western cultures around the world while these cultures have not “brought” themselves to Western culture but rather have been “brought” mainly by Westerners returning. This plays into Bohlman’s idea of power and how this has affected the perception and definition of what world music is.

More than Just Playing

I remember sitting on the grass surrounded by various instrumental sounds–a trumpet here, a violin there, a clarinet in the distance. Then there were the halls, where in complete silence you could hear the muffled pianos in the practice rooms, the melodic singing, the smooth sound of a cello. Every Tuesday and every Thursday, entire evenings—too much, perhaps, for a seven year old.

This constituted four years of my life at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City. Not that I produced any of the musical sounds—rather my sister had the classes and my brother and I just came along with my mother. For us this was “park time” out in the grass followed by quiet homework time in the silent halls. It was in this place that I was first introduced to the idea of actually learning to play an instrument, and my instrument of choice at the time was the string bass. However, I was unable to start at the conservatory until the fifth grade and by that time I had moved to the United States. Starting in the fifth grade in Texas public schools, orchestra classes were available and so my mother signed me up to play the violin, her favorite instrument. Although I wanted the bass, I conformed to the violin with the idea that I would eventually change instruments after starting my first year with the violin. The first day of class, however, led me to think that I had sealed my fate as I realized different instruments require different techniques and different clefs!  And thus, to my fifth grade mind, I could not possibly learn another way of reading music once I learned the violin way—that would become too confusing. And so fifth grade passed and come sixth grade, I remained in the orchestra playing the violin. I am proud to say, however, that by the end of fifth grade I had learned that different instruments may share the same clef and thus I had signed up for the middle school band to play the oboe.

My oboe experiences were filled with embarrassment and disillusion as many times I simply could not get a single note out and most of the time I just fingered along, pretending I could play. Disillusionment came even when I managed to get a sound out as it was untrained and, plainly put, ugly. This short paragraph thus parallels my experience with the oboe—ephemeral and leaving much wished for.

After sixth grade I quit the band but remained in the orchestra until high school. The All-Region competition gave my orchestra experience a new challenge that I pursued all four years of my high school career. Playing surrounded by the best players in the region was inspiration for improvement and each year I worked harder to make it higher up in the sittings. At the same time, I was introduced to a different manner of experiencing music—the Academic Decathlon.

Throughout my years in the Academic Decathlon, I favored the music section due to its expansive approach to the subject. The section provided not only an introduction to music theory but also specific pieces that were analyzed in terms of motifs, rhythm, instrumentation, style, among others. The part of the section I preferred, however, was the history behind the composer, the style and genre, and the piece itself that combined to provide a deeper understanding of the work and the context. It was then that I realized that what I liked most about music was not performing it or even listening to it but rather learning about it and its significance. My experiences, from fifth grade orchestra to short lived band to academic decathlon, have  taught me different aspects of music and a different appreciation for it.